Posted: August 11, 2013
By: Clay Cerny

[“Sabbath” is this blog’s Sunday feature that looks beyond jobs and careers.]

Three Local News Heroes

Everyone I know picks on the Chicago Sun-Times.  “It’s so thin.”  “It’s all ads.”  “All they cover is sports.”  The paper is not as thick as it used to be. Some features have gone away or – as the paper will eventually – gone online.  That said, The Chicago Sun-Times provides reporting and commentary that the people of Chicago desperately need.

Today’s paper is a case in point.  Editorials by Carol Marin, Andy Shaw, and Rich Miller explore three stories that citizens and taxpayers should care about more than the results of the Bears’ first exhibition game.  Marin delves into the case of a young prosecutor who was hounded out of her job for not pursuing a high profile, “heater,” case.  The evidence would not support a conviction.  Marin notes that 75% of juvenile cases were not prosecuted because a similar lack of evidence.  When we hear scary stories about street crime and “thugs,” we need to think about how such crimes happen and what could be done to prevent them.  If three-quarters of investigations lead to nothing, a lot of time, money, and law enforcement resources are being wasted.

Andy Shaw’s editorial focuses on shady dealings practiced by high-paid doctors employed by Cook County.  Shaw, a long-time reporter, now heads The Better Government Association, which conducted an investigation that found county doctors at their private practices when they were supposed to be working for the county.  Where other employees are required to swipe in/out of their work place as a way to track time, doctors do not follow that protocol.  Shaw notes that the county is investigating this matter and has taken some action, including the termination of one doctor.  He concludes by challenging Toni Preckwinkle, President of the Cook County Board, to institute better oversight of doctors.

My favorite piece of today’s editorial troika is Rich Miller’s.  Author of the Capital Fax blog, Miller know Illinois politics.  He unveils a hidden aspect of the recent lowering of the state’s bond rating.  Ty Fahner, a prominent member of the Commercial Club of Chicago, gave a speech at the Union League Club in which he challenged ratings agencies to lower the state’s rating rather than being an “enabler” of its financial problems.  Miller documents ties between Fahner’s law firm and management of the state’s bonds, which would give Fahner an incentive to call for big cuts to state pension programs.  This story is important because there have been similar rating cuts for Chicago and Chicago Public Schools.  As in Detroit, it would seem that the banking and investment community will not be happy until it sees every public sector worker getting pennies on the dollar for their retirement income.

In addition to these three editorials, the paper had several articles on issues that impact the city, county, and state.  Nothing online covers these issues as well (nor does the Sun-Times’ competitor, despite offering more “content”).  Good newspapers provide an important public service.  Our democracy will be poorer if they cannot survive.

Posted: March 25, 2012
By: Clay Cerny

[“Sabbath” is this blog’s Sunday feature on life and the work of living.]

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about my struggle to read books in the online age.  Today I got a similar feeling reading the Sunday paper.  I've always enjoyed the Sunday paper because – most Sundays – I have no or limited work responsibilities.

I read the Chicago Sun-Times.  Once upon a time I read the city’s other daily newspaper, but it seemed to get worse year by year.  Then it was bought by a truly ugly man who insulted his writers and readers.  That drove me to the Sun-Times, and I am better for it. 

Today’s paper is a wonderful example of why we need good newspapers.  The first article reports on Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s support of public schools.  Is the mayor serious or blowing smoke?  Time will tell.  The paper’s great columnists – Mark Brown, Mary Mitchell, Neil Steinberg, and Carol Marin – cover topics that range from safety in schools to the Encyclopedia Brittanica.  Marin’s editorial on our recent election is to the point and very funny, beginning and ending with a visit to the Wiener’s Circle.

Investigative reporting is a hallmark of the paper.  Over the past months, it has covered a case in which the nephew of former Mayor Daley was allegedly involved in a crime, which seems to have been covered up (or very poorly investigated).  Today, three pages of the paper are devoted to investigating connections between government officials and a company that sells milk to Chicago public schools.  A list of school prices in city and suburban schools gives the reader a way to compare how the biggest buyer of milk in the state pays the highest price, which makes no sense.  There is also a side bar that names and profiles the individuals involved in the story.  Connections mean everything in Chicago, and the Sun-Times reveals who is making money off the public’s dime.

The paper’s two best writers have nothing to do with politics or related scandals.  Roger Ebert writes about movies, and Rick Telander covers sports.  In today’s column, Telander ponders the death of his co-worker and friend, Lacy J. Banks, who covered basketball for the paper.  Here is how he describes Banks, who was called the Reverend because he was an ordained minister, at a press conference: “The Reverend elbowed to the front of media crowds and stared directly at his subjects with purpose, and he asked his questions in a booming, from-the-pulpit vocal splendor that sometimes left interviewees mute, staring at him slack-jawed.”

This week’s Sunday paper was unusually good.  However, week in, week out, day in, day out,  the Sun-Times helps me understand and appreciate the city.  It introduces me to new people and places.  Most of the time, it’s very well written and interesting.  Smart people say the newspaper is dead.  It’s just a matter of time until it disappears.  We’ve heard that line about jazz for decades.  Ask Wynton Marsalis or Kurt Elling (or their fans) if jazz is dead.  Viva newspapers!  Viva the Chicago Sun-Times.

Posted: November 6, 2011
By: Clay Cerny

[On Sundays, this blog explores intersections of life and work.]

Newspapers, Politicians, and Money

On Friday, November 4, the Chicago Sun-Times devoted its editorial page to the Illinois State Senate and House’s vote to override Governor Quinn’s veto of “smart grid” legislation, which would also result in higher utility bills for consumers.  The paper listed each member of the legislature, how they voted, and how much each received in campaign contribution from the electric industry (Commonwealth Edison and Ameren). 

Were votes bought and sold?  The editors tell readers to look at the facts and “make of that what you will.”  The paper’s cartoonist Jack Higgins was less subtle.  His cartoon depicts hungry dogs surrounding a Com Ed figure who is throwing money in the air.  What do I make of it?  Democracy is for sale in Illinois. 

There is another valuable message in this story: Newspapers still play a vital role in our society.  I like news blogs like Daily Kos and Common Dreams.  But they tend to be a collection of opinions.  They also tend to break down along the left-right ideological lines that dominate our politics.  Newspaper editorials offer more balanced views.  The Chicago Tribune tends to favor a conservative, Republican point of view.  Even so, its editorial board will sometimes push against that ideology.  The Sun-Times editorial board is more of a mixed bag, sometimes left, sometimes right, which forces readers to consider different points of view, a rare thing in our society.

We need newspapers to be the watchdogs on power.  Sadly, the business model hasn't work so far in an online world where free is the norm.  The New York Time is trying to charge for content, and they have tried in the past.  But the question remains if this important medium will survive technological changes and a public that reads less and less.

When newspapers are gone, and TV news is busy covering fires and Kardashian weddings, big companies will be able to buy votes with even more impunity than they do now.  Politicians will hire even more friends and family.  Those who still read will move to blogs that reinforce their points of view, which will make the current divisions in our political culture even more rigid.  What else will we lose?  Newspapers are a resource that supports our democracy, something that money (especially corporate money) cannot buy. Hopefully, they will find a way to survive.  We need them.