Friday, September 18, 2009

Would you subscribe to the Sun-Times?

I got my chuckle when I picked up a copy of the Chicago Sun-Times (and not just from that photograph of President Barack Obama looking like a dork while waving that toy “light saber” about) and saw the advertising sticker that had been pasted onto Page One.

It was an in-house advertisement, letting me know the telephone number and/or website I could use if I wanted to get home delivery of the Sun-Times. “Save big with home delivery!,” it told me.

YET READING IN recent days the various reports about the editorial staffs of the newspapers owned by the Sun-Times company that are represented by the Newspaper Guild, I can’t help but think the Sun-Times’ death date will come sometime on or about Oct. 1.

I’d like to be wrong. I’d really enjoy it if the Sun-Times were still alive on the Day of the Dead (that’s Nov. 1). But I can’t say I see any real reason for optimism. We could soon see the day when “Mother Tribune,” the behemoth that generations of Chicagoans have mocked for its arrogance, becomes the sole source of actual reporting on a daily basis for the Second City.

Keep in mind I’d be equally disgusted if it were the Chicago Tribune that were on the verge of disappearing, with the Sun-Times facing the possibility of being the remaining newspaper in Chicago. Over the years, I have developed the attitude that I can’t trust any one publication to let me know what is happening.

It usually is through a combination of sources that I can get some sense of what is happening in the world of public affairs, and how badly the politicians are performing at doing “the people’s business.”

FOR THOSE WHO are about to scream at their computer screens, “What about the Internet!,” I’d cite the Chi-Town Daily News, which nobly tried to cover some stories in certain North Side neighborhoods but recently had to lay off what little paid staff they had and is only remaining alive through the efforts of unpaid volunteers while they try to figure out how to raise the kind of money they need to cover the news.

But it is learning how overwhelmingly the editorial staffs of the guild-controlled newspapers (the Sun-Times, the Herald News of Joliet and the News Sun that used to be of Waukegan, along with the Post-Tribune that probably wishes it had never been the paper of Gary, Ind.) are voting to reject the concessions that are being demanded by the prospective buyer of the company that makes me think there isn’t much hope for survival.

I can remember when the Sun-Times management, throughout the years, acquired all those suburban newspaper properties out of the idea that they would help prop the company up and make the overall entity stronger.

Now, it appears the Sun-Times’ unique situation is going to drag them all down, because no one seems to want to think that perhaps some of them should have a life A.S. (after Sun-Times).

PERSONALLY, I DON’T blame the union-represented reporters who are voting against the desired changes, most of which basically want to do away with all the job protections that are the whole purpose of having a labor union to begin with.

Especially in this age when there always is the chance that these cutbacks could be followed up by more layoffs (not that there’s much staff to lay off), I can see why someone would want some sort of protection for whatever severance they might be entitled to.

A personal disclosure on my part. I have worked throughout the years for various news organizations, some of which were union represented and others weren’t. I can honestly say the one layoff I endured in the past decade that gave me anything resembling advance warning that my job was in danger and something close to severance that helped tide me over until I found new work was when I was laid off from an organization where reporters were union-represented.

The others were the ones that took the attitude I should be thankful to get that one week’s extra pay, even though they were asking me to leave the premises immediately – which means in their mindset they paid me for a week I didn’t work.

NOW READING THE commentary that often gets tagged onto stories published on websites, I know some people think it is unfair that the reporters at the union-organized papers have a say in this whereas reporters at the papers that don’t have the Newspaper Guild are being ignored.

All I can say is that I know in a few of those papers’ cases, the reporters themselves rejected attempts to organize. So I can’t say I feel all that sympathetic towards their predicament – at least no more than anyone else who is facing the prospect of having a company shot out from under their feet.

If it seems like I think the people who are just naively anti-labor union are trying to exploit the debate surrounding this particular predicament, you’d be correct.

What this ultimately comes down to is a vision of what this particular company ought to be about. Reading the comments coming from the prospective buyer (who claims he’s taking back his offer of $5 million, plus a willingness to take on $20 million in debt, if it’s not accepted as-is by Sept. 29), it seems like he envisions the future of the company as turning all those individual properties into one great big paper of sorts.

IT SEEMS LIKE he wants to kill off the identity of some publications that have a century of history to them and turn them into zoned editions of the Sun-Times. That’s now I interpret the rhetoric about “universal desks” for the papers.

The Post-Tribune as the Indiana edition of the Sun-Times? The Beacon News as the Kane County edition of the paper. The Sun-Times proper for the city, with the SouthtownStar (the latter portion of which I wrote for back when they tried unsuccessfully to organize some 22 years ago) and the Pioneer Press papers for the inner suburbs of Cook County?

Of course, it seems they want to use the lesser pay scales of the suburban press, rather than the Sun-Times pay scale where reporters there were once among the best paid in the U.S. newspaper business.

So if it sounds like I can understand why reporters/union members might choose the possibility of “death” by voting against the changes, it makes all too much sense.

IT MIGHT ALSO be appropriate that I stopped off at a bookstore and happened upon a copy of “My Kind of 'Toon, Chicago Is.” That’s a new book release featuring the cartoons drawn throughout the decades by Jack Higgins – the Sun-Times editorial cartoonist.

Because unless something breaks soon, this volume could wind up being the only place I can turn to see the work of the Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist whose work intrigues me, even on occasions when he takes an editorial stance that infuriates me.


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