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Lerner Mixing Business With Pleasure / No Bowles, Two Strikes

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By Michael Miner

Lerner Mixing Business With Pleasure

If you want to assure readers of your newspaper's good intentions the obvious person to send the message is the editor.

If you don't care what conclusions readers draw, or if you're simply insensitive to appearances, then you might give your editor the same order Lerner Communications gave Leigh Hanlon: Keep your mouth shut.

Someone at the Lerner chain of community papers didn't do that last week, and management wasn't happy. A day before Lerner could formally announce that it was moving its editorial offices out of rented space in Lakeview into the corporate headquarters in Lincolnwood, a rival north-side neighborhood paper broke the story. "It'll make it harder for us to do our jobs," an anonymous employee grumbled to Inside. "Many of us do not have cars and travel to and from our coverage area will be a problem. Many of us feel it is important to have a presence and be involved in the communities we serve."

Word then came down via executive editor Hanlon that talking to the press could get you fired. Hanlon wasn't exempted. "I'm not prepared to speak for publication," he told me.

Inside's self-serving account painted Lerner's move as a dereliction of community responsibility, but why should an office at 1115 W. Belmont give a reporter covering Rogers Park a presence in that community while an office at 7331 N. Lincoln doesn't? "It's not tragic," says Bill Santamour, Hanlon's predecessor as executive editor. Santamour could have reason to scold his old bosses: before he quit late last year they had him scouring Chicago for new spaces, and nothing he found in months of looking quite satisfied them.

But Santamour sees the logic in consolidation. It'll save Lerner money--$100,000 a year according to designated spokesman Melody Saputo--and make it possible for Lerner to buy computerized pagination equipment. Then Lerner editors will be able to lay out their own pages at the office, rather than rely on a shop editor miles away at the Southtown Economist printing plant. Too many errors creep into the Lerner papers the way they're laid out now, Santamour told me.

Furthermore, he understands that Lerner will try to accommodate reporters and editors who live in the areas they're covering by making it easier for them to work from home.

What's troubling about Lerner's announcement is suggested by Hanlon's muzzling--which connotes a regard for hierarchy and corporate discipline that doesn't square with first journalistic principles. The Lerner papers are owned by Lake Forest businessman Clyde Engle, and their publisher is Engle's business associate Lee Mortenson. Such editorial freedom as 1115 W. Belmont has enjoyed owes less to an ethos set on high than to its distance from headquarters. In March that distance will be reduced to nothing. It's a time to worry.

"It has been very difficult for us to serve the community--the north side of Chicago--in the way we want to, in terms of the total marketing, advertising, editorial togetherness," Saputo told me. "This move will facilitate better communications between departments when we are all under one roof. Part of my job is to bring all of the departments together in unified efforts towards marketing our product and also towards working with advertising and editorial in helping some of the chambers of commerce in the areas we serve market themselves through the newspaper."

I couldn't quite follow the words, but I got the tune. Saputo is Lerner's director of promotion and marketing. If she doesn't sound much like a journalist, nevertheless she's been one, and in her personal experience advertising and editorial coexisted not merely under one roof but under one hat. Before she took time off to raise a family she and her husband ran a weekly newspaper in southern Illinois. "I did just a little bit of everything," she said.

Even the biggest papers--such as the Sun-Times, whose new managing editor used to create "special" sections for the sole reason of attracting advertising--have blurred the line between editorial and advertising. For the sake of argument I pretended they hadn't, as I reminded Saputo of the sacred division of church and state.

"Right," she said. "We have kind of a new concept. The concept is, we should work together. Advertising does not influence editorial in any way. The opposite is true. Editorial does not influence advertising. But there is a way through a marketing director such as myself that we can work together."

How?

"For example, we have the Democratic convention coming up. I just got back from an Uptown Chamber of Commerce meeting. We had four chambers involved, and the speaker was the chairman of Chicago '96, the organization through the city responsible for putting together special events for the delegates. Basically we had one of our reporters there, Pat Butler; myself; and Cindy Amadio--she's with advertising, the account executive for that area. And within the meeting it got us thinking of ways the paper, using all our departments, might facilitate joining into this convention on a local basis, getting the delegates into the local communities and the newspaper serving as a catalyst for it. We're brainstorming right now, but that's what I mean in terms of the departments working together.

"And I know historically editorial and advertising usually are on completely different ends of the spectrum, but my job is to try to bring them together. And I really believe this move is going to go a long way to helping that."

Pat Butler is probably the best-known, most experienced and talented reporter working for Lerner. When I heard about the editorial move he was the first person I called. He said he couldn't talk to me.

No Bowles, Two Strikes

Chicago awoke last week next to an empty pillow. Linda Bowles was missing from the Tribune. If the paper's electronic bulletin board was any measure of the general consternation, Chicago had become a city divided against itself.

A fax that greeted me at work on Tuesday morning sounded the alarm. "You wrote a column about Linda Bowles and the pressure she was getting to conform. Her column did not appear in the Tribune today as they promised it would," reported Michelle of Gurnee. "I called and the telephone operators are reading from a memo explaining that Linda's column this week did not make sense as it was a continuation of a previous column. I do not believe this....Why don't you print her columns in the Reader? She's dynamite!"

I passed Michelle's sentiments on to Bowles in California. She quickly faxed me back. "I don't know why the Tribune did not print the column....It was very funny and very hard hitting. I have no doubt whatsoever that the people of Chicago would have gotten a great hoot out of it."

Bowles writes one column a week and apparently spends the rest of the week monitoring the reaction. Two hours later she faxed me an exchange from the Tribune's on-line Editors' Forum.

"This is getting weird!" she'd scribbled on the paper.

"Where is she?" Omaurice wondered. "Is there any truth to the rumor that the columns censored by the Tribune will be published in the Chicago Reader? Is there any truth to the rumor that the Chicago Sun-Times is making her an offer to switch over? Is there any truth to the rumor that Linda Bowles is the illegitimate daughter of Conrad Black? Inquiring minds want to know."

"Editors do not censor," put in Yelbam (it might be helpful to read that name backward). "They edit."

ChiEd (the on-line moniker of Tribune editor Howard Tyner) responded, "I've heard those rumors, too, and will advise when I find out if they're true."

Tribune columnist Eric Zorn, the paper's leading in-house Bowles watcher, then stepped in. "My sources on the editorial board tell me that Linda B's submission for Tuesday was, in fact, part two in or the conclusion of a series of which we did not run part one because it ran before we started picking up her column. That she did not appear Tuesday was of no significance. It did not indicate:

1. That we decided to kill her column because it was harming the delicate sensibilities of too many oversensitive, mewling, commie-symp, bedwetting, tissue-twisting liberals, as some callers thought. 2. That we decided to kill her column because it was shrill, nasty and contributed little to the vigorous, healthy exchange of ideas, as some other callers thought. or 3. That she was out sick, suffering from a bout of food poisoning caused by the prodigious amounts of raw meat she evidently consumes daily, as was my guess."

The smart-alecky Zorn received a swift ruler to the knuckles. "Eric--You are better than this," chided InfoBabe7. "You sound unnecessarily mean here. Now, where are my ivory earrings and alligator shoes? I think I'll call Linda and see if she's in the mood for some porpoise steaks."

When I last wrote of Linda Bowles I was favored with a box of candy for my efforts; nevertheless, I do not intend to let this space become a repository for each and every Bowles column the Tribune won't print. Still, the measure of a sparkling new intellect can't be taken unless it's sampled in all its amplitude. The column Chicago didn't see presented results of the "first Bowles Scientific Poll of previously unpolled people," which she'd written last December. Taking into account the hundreds of thousands of new Tribune readers she's added since, Bowles crafted last week's follow-up to be self-explanatory.

"1. Who would you support for president: (a) a conservative Republican or (b) a Democrat with a history of draft dodging, pro-homosexual activism, lying and adultery who is currently under investigation for fraud, embezzlement, drug running, obstruction of justice and tax evasion and who faces charges of gross sexual harassment of a state employee with credible witnesses to support her case.

"Results: (a) 100 percent, (b) 0 percent

"Analysis: If the president is not in jail at the time of the next election, he will lose in a landslide.

"2. Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Clinton made the right decision to risk American lives and spend $2 billion to restore an anti-American communist to power in Haiti rather than spend the money to feed starving children in America.

"Results: (Agree) 0 percent, (Disagree) 100 percent

"Analysis: Americans believe the downfall of communism broke Clinton's heart, but he could care less about starving babies."

There were seven other questions just as rollicking.

The reason this column didn't run is less complicated than Zorn made it out to be. "It was unacceptable," Don Wycliff, editor of the editorial page, told me. Which is what Bowles had assumed the Tribune decided. How many strikes does she get? I asked Wycliff. "I don't know," he said. (She was back in the paper this week.)

Wycliff may have a hard spot in his heart for right-wing calumniation, but someone in his position must be ruled by his head. If Clinton is hopelessly vulnerable on the specific issue of starving babies, Bowles has put her finger on a political undercurrent of tsunamic proportions. The Tribune had no excuse for keeping this revelation from its readers.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo / Armando Villa.

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