Taking the Tribune's Temperature | Media | Chicago Reader

Taking the Tribune's Temperature 

What workers inside the office and out are saying about their corners of the kingdom.

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The RedEye Guy

From six to ten each weekday morning he hands out RedEye at a north-side el stop. The Tribune pays him $200 a week. It's mindless work, but his iPod helps pass the time.

When he took this job back in 2006, he had to be aggressive. Now, as bundled commuters funnel into the station each cold, gray morning, some take a step his way and put an arm out; others accept the RedEye he offers without breaking stride. Every so often someone waves him off. Hardly a word is said, but then, he's got his iPod and a lot of them have theirs.

How many do you give out each morning? I wondered. "A few hundred," he said. Once upon a time, I said (on the off chance he'd care), a lot of those commuters would have bought a Sun-Times at the kiosk in the station. When I worked at that paper years ago, I paid close attention to passengers reading it on the train. They'd thumb past some pages, pause at others, and whenever they came to the page carrying the story I wrote I'd hold my breath.

The kiosk has long since closed. Nobody reads the Sun-Times anymore, I muttered aloud. (This week, Sun-Times management began talks with the Newspaper Guild over the desperate paper's plan to cut 35 guild jobs.) The RedEye man disagreed. "A few people read it," he said. "Every day I see seven or eight come in." Sure enough, just then someone entered the station carrying the Bright One. "That's one of the eight," he said.

The Driver

By six o'clock each morning three newspapers are lying on my front porch. They don't get there by themselves. Last week two guys who were hired years ago to deliver the Tribune dropped by my house to talk. One eventually quit because, he said, he found himself getting less pay for more work.

The other one found himself doing the same thing, but being an illegal immigrant he decided he'd better hang on to his job. Speaking in Spanish, the only language he knows, he said he gets paid about $400 a week for delivering roughly 900 papers a day: the Tribune, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, some other titles, and, since last August, the Sun-Times. But there was a time—even before the Tribune took over home delivery of the Sun-Times—that he was getting $460 a week.

Why the drop? He doesn't know. When he asked the agent he worked for, he was told that if he had a problem with the money he was getting, the agency would find somebody else who didn't.

"The Tribune pays very well," said the English-speaking driver, "but they have a lot of stops in the middle between the Tribune and its drivers." (He said Tribune division managers deal with the independent agencies, whose agents in turn hire the drivers.) When he started, he said, he was paid 17 cents for each Tribune he delivered, and when he quit it was down to 11 cents. He said the drivers like to think the Tribune has no idea this is going on. (Perhaps a bit like the serfs who said the czar would never permit this if he only knew.)

The driver who speaks only Spanish said he gets up seven days a week at about 1:40 AM and arrives at the agency by 2. When the papers arrive—sometime between 2 and 5 AM—he bags them, loads his car, and hits the road. His delivery area is about a half mile by a quarter mile on the north side of Chicago. He's expected to have his papers delivered by 6:30 (8 on Sunday), and if anyone calls to complain about a missing paper, he's docked its full cover price. (That's $1.79 on Sunday.)

A few years ago, he said, some drivers talked about organizing, but the idea went nowhere. The problem, he went on, is that on the north side, 80 to 90 percent of the drivers are in the United States illegally. I have no idea if that number's accurate, but I believed him when he said he's one of them. "When you are illegal in this country you have to be patient," the English-speaking driver explained. "So I think that is one of the reasons—they need the money, they have no papers to work, that's why they keep quiet. They know if they complain they will get fired. We think the main Tribune, they don't know nothing about this."

Apparently they don't. Tribune spokesman Michael Dizon e-mailed me that "it is against Chicago Tribune policy to publicly discuss how fees for delivery services are negotiated." But he added, "Our company does not hire undocumented workers to deliver our newspapers. Tribune Company contracts with independent businesses to deliver products. In turn each independent contractor enters into his or her own contracts with sub-contractors to perform delivery results."

Do the drivers get medical benefits? I asked my English-speaking visitor.

"Nothing," he said.

No benefits?

"Nothing."

Vacation?

"No holidays. No nothing."

Such is the life of the contract worker throughout the industry. The Tribune just raised the price of the daily paper from 50 cents to 75 cents. The other driver wasn't expecting to see any of that 50 percent increase. In fact, he wasn't aware there'd been a hike.

The Foreign Correspondent

On December 3, the Tribune published a 3,000-word article by David Greising with the dateline "Kwamalasamutu, Suriname." Greising was reporting from the most remote, impenetrable, and pristine portion of the Amazon rain forest, the Guiana Shield. "Despite its remoteness, the same forces that have slashed and burned some 20 percent of the Amazonian rain forest are closing in on Kwamala," Greising wrote, observing that its destiny might be determined by the clash of business and environmental interests that were just then gathering in Bali to negotiate the fate of the earth.

When I read Greising's story my thoughts weren't about the rain forest. I took my hat off to the Tribune, which for all its troubles still believed in spending money to get such a piece. And a few weeks later, the day after Sam Zell took control of the Tribune Company, I called Greising and asked if he was concerned that the paper's sense of itself might now be in jeopardy.

"Nobody really knows what the fundamental economics are going to look like going forward," Greising said, "and those of us who have the privilege of going out and doing stories like that will go on trying to do them. Before, if I went on a trip like that I'd just go. Now there's a little more vetting. But if you can make the argument for the story, and if the economics aren't going to kill the newspaper, they'll go for it. We don't know if it will last forever."

Greising said that in his meetings with the staff Zell talked a lot about relevance. "To me," Greising said, relevance is "the Congo"—a reference to Paul Salopek's report last month on that abbatoir of a country. "It's the rain forest," Greising went on. "It's finding out what happens when cops shoot somebody"—a reference to an investigation Steve Mills and David Heinzmann worked on for six months and broke in December. "My guess is Zell would consider all those stories relevant. He's a guy with businesses all over the world. And who can resist finding out more about the cops? That's a universal story.

"In his remarks [Zell] made it clear this is a business, and he has to see value accrue to the business for pretty much everything we do. But I have to believe he's savvy enough about the business to see that the rain forest story is brand building.

"One thing Zell said in one of our earlier interviews we had with him is that he's going to put a big emphasis 'on things I can read only in our newspapers.' And it strikes me that if print journalism is going to survive, it has to produce unique content. Is the Congo ever going to be relevant to our readers? I don't know. That's a higher-level question. The Amazon stuff didn't get a lot of e-mail response. But if that becomes the yardstick, you'll see a lot of stories about traffic accidents and fires on the front page.

"So far, this is still the kind of place that will send me and send Paul, and I hope it remains that kind of place. But right now, when you look at what Sam Zell has laid out ahead of him, when you look at the 10 percent industrywide declines in advertising revenue, it's like—jeez! But on the other hand, my trip wasn't that expensive. It was $8,000. We blow more than that on a lot of other stuff that has a lot less impact. I hope they find their economies in other things. When you talk about reporting as expensive, it's compared to what? A piece of real estate you own or a TV station you buy? Or you give somebody—like former Tribune Company CEO Dennis FitzSimons—a $38 million severance package."v

For more see Michael Miner's blog, News Bites, at chicagoreader.com.

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