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Out of the Limelight

The performing arts have been feasting for years on the Tribune's peculiar incapacity. What the Tribune could not do (and cannot yet) was cover the arts in a timely way in the section of the paper where the arts belong. Tempo, the daily arts and features section, is printed days before you read it. If the review of last night's Lyric Opera world premiere doesn't run in the Tribune until it runs in Tempo, look for it next Wednesday.

The Tribune's solution to this predicament was Arts Plus, a handsome array of articles and color photos in one of the most accessible parts of the paper--the back page of section one. Sharing the page with Inc., but not with ads, Arts Plus offered up to four overnight reviews each morning. As a daily showcase it could hardly have been bettered. But its location appears to have been untenable.

The space was coveted by more powerful, more logical pretenders. Last July a three-person redesign team that's working its way through the paper took on section one. With the national and foreign editors sitting in and arguing their interests, the committee quickly decided where the problem lay.

"All our research through the years and readership studies elsewhere underscored the fact that jumps are hard on readers," said senior editor John Twohey, chairman of the committee. "People don't like the experience of hunting for the balance of the stories that start on the front page. The four or five stories on page one represent our very best work, the pieces we have the biggest investment in, the ones reported and edited by our best people.

"Yet turn inside the main sheet and all that energy and excitement disappears. We spent a lot of time talking about jumps. It's probably the central issue that drove the redesign. There's never been as much energy and imagination invested in the front page of the Tribune as is going into it now. And we wanted to replicate it in the jumps."

If jumps were the question, an answer was at hand. Jump the page-one stories to the back page, easy to get to and already full of color and energy. Move Arts Plus and Inc. inside and wish them luck.

The change is expected to take place in January. If it happens, Inc. will move to the top of page two; beneath it, alongside a standing four-column ad, two columns of overnight reviews will run down the page. The Reader's Guide, the page-long index that now dominates page two, will be shunted back to page four.

The arts would be less visible on page two, less elegantly displayed, and any photos would be in black and white. If four shows open in a single evening, expect just two of them to be reviewed the next morning. Less timely stories now carried in Arts Plus would wind up in Tempo.

Twohey presents all this as the consequence of hard choices, not evidence that the Tribune's commitment to the arts is wavering. He also insists the total space the Tribune gives the arts will not shrink. But we're skeptical, in part because the entire editorial hole will shrink in January in obeisance to the corporate mandate for higher profits, in part because of what others say.

"We're not overjoyed," said Richard Christiansen, the paper's chief theater critic. "It'll cut back on our space somewhat because it's less than a full page. It's a disappointment for us back here, and most of the reviewers are not happy about it."

Last week word flashed through Chicago's arts community that the Tribune was turning its back. Eileen LaCario, marketing director of the Candlelight theaters and a board member of the League of Chicago Theatres, drafted a letter of protest. It was handed out over the weekend at Candlelight and also at Victory Gardens, whose managing director, John Walker, is president of the league.

This Tuesday morning Twohey and Owen Youngman, the Tribune's deputy managing editor for features, came by the league offices and met for an hour with LaCario, Walker, and representatives of ten other theaters, including the Goodman, Steppenwolf, and the Shubert.

"Well, I think it was cordial," Walker said afterward, finding the bright side. "They are obviously serving a lot of different constituencies, and it doesn't appear to us that the changes that are planned are going to be in the best interests of the arts community.

"It'll be sort of a Where's Waldo? for the arts coverage. Maybe it'll be in page two, maybe in Tempo. If it's really big maybe it'll be on the front page of Tempo with spot color. Even if space isn't reduced, which seems impossible to us, it's a step backwards."

Walker said curtain speeches of protest will be given at Chicago theaters, and a revised version of LaCario's letter will be distributed to patrons to sign and hand back. The letter, addressed to Tribune editor Howard Tyner, protests "the cancellation of the Arts Plus page as it now exists" and warns that "I would seriously consider cancellation [of the Tribune] if this were to happen."

Tyner called us Tuesday afternoon. "Nothing is set in concrete," he said. "Arts Plus might well stay where it is. There's a strong constituency for that position inside the paper."

News Bites

For an idea of the penury that afflicts the Tribune these days, read Brenda Starr. Columnist Mary Schmich, who also writes the strip, has launched another story line that unintentionally, coincidentally, and by the sheerest happenstance lampoons what's going on at her paper. It's the third we've noticed so far.

The opening panels find Brenda and the rest of a fretting city staff antiphonally reading a proclamation from on high.

"Confidential memo from B. Babbitt Bottomline."

"The Flash will heretofore hire only reporters under 26."

"Maximum salary will be $24,000."

"This plan will increase profits and productivity."

"By reducing the number of older, costlier reporters, we will achieve our targeted 42 percent profit margin."

Anxiety is etched on every face. For "Bottomline" think "Charles Brumback" and it's another day at the Tribune.

The Tribune is looking for a new TV critic. Ken Parish Perkins was brought up from the Dallas Morning News last spring, was embarrassed almost immediately by a trivial mistake, and never got his footing. Now he's on a three-months' leave of absence, and if he comes back it'll be to do some other kind of writing for the paper.

What Perkins did wrong was misread his notes and misquote Bob Sirott--harmlessly--in a favorable review of Sirott's Fox Thing in the Morning. Because Sirott gleefully jumped on the mistake and lectured Perkins on the air, and the Tribune then dutifully ran a correction, Perkins had a credibility problem before he had any other reputation. "This was not the kind of splash I wanted to make," he told us at the time.

Coworkers found Perkins cordial but increasingly remote. The work didn't seem to come easily to him, and he questioned whether he should be doing it. Back in Dallas he'd been second-string and obscure, primarily a TV feature writer; in Chicago he'd been required to incessantly view and pass judgment. It was a high-profile job, and we understand that as Chicago's first black TV critic, a product of the Robert Taylor Homes, Perkins felt doubly self-conscious.

Perkins (who didn't return our calls) eventually decided he was the wrong man for the position. He preferred feature writing, and wondered if he'd rather be covering urban affairs. Finally he went to Owen Youngman and asked off his beat.

Perkins will be replaced from within the Tribune, where about a dozen writers have already applied. With Perkins still on the payroll, there's no opening for an outsider, Youngman explained. These are hard times.

Jay Mariotti and the Chicago Newspaper Guild are now grieving to get his job back as the Sun-Times's sports columnist. A grievance is a slow, adversarial way to go, and Mariotti would prefer to sit down with his editors--his former editors--and talk things over as reasonable men. "I think tempers flared out of control," he says. "We've had some time to think about it."

A little over a month ago Mariotti was dumped as a mike man on WMVP. Furious, and angry at the Sun-Times for setting restrictions that eventually made the radio job impossible, he called his office and announced he was taking the next several weeks off. Editor Dennis Britton called back and told Mariotti that when he returned he'd be returning as a general-assignment reporter.

Last week Mariotti showed up on Sirott's Fox Thing in the Morning. The appearance didn't sit well with Sun-Times sports editor Bill Adee. "I don't understand why Jay is still going on these shows saying how things are going to work out," said Adee. Assuming that perhaps they won't, the Sun-Times is looking for a new columnist.

And Mariotti, remarkably, claims to be helping. He told us that when sportswriters in other cities who've heard about the vacancy call him asking what's going on, "I've tried to paint as rosy a picture as possible." How can you bring yourself to do that? we asked. "For a couple of years here I had a blast," said Mariotti. "Until the radio show I was extremely happy."

That damned radio show! Mariotti's about ready to concede that it interfered with his column. "Remember, if I was to come back I wouldn't have a radio show anymore," he argued. "And I'd be concentrating on my column, and you'd see me at my best. It may have affected me--although not to the degree they'd have you think."

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

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