Thursday, March 13, 2008

Former Sun-Times Writer Will Use Buy-Out to Fund Business

By Hal Conick

March 13, 2008

It’s been over a month since Howard Wolinsky took his buy-out from the Chicago Sun-Times. In the weeks since he left the paper, Wolinsky has only traveled to Chicago twice after being there most days for 27 years.

“I’m no longer a commuter” says Wolinsky, 60, who was taking a train back to his home in Flossmoor, Ill with his son David Wolinsky, who works in the same business his father does as the Chicago City Editor of the Onion’s AV Club.

The buy-out, which was worth nearly a years pay for Wolinsky, was handed down by the Sun-Times Media Group Inc. on January 25. Wolinsky had worked at the Sun-Times for the last 27 years as a reporter covering everything from the shooting of President Ronald Reagan to corporation scandals, health technology, and the internet.

Even though Wolinsky no longer travels to the Sun-Times building for a job, he is now working harder than ever before.

“I need two of me now,” says Wolinsky. “I didn’t know I was in such demand. I think that I’m working harder now than when I worked for the Sun-Times.

I’m turning work away- I’m getting so much work now that I’m giving some of it to others.”

Wolinsky now does his all of his writing through freelance work at places like the Chicago Tribune, Business Week, and internet ventures such as Skype’s webpage as their US blogger. He talks with great pride about his current writing ventures. “Right now I’m writing on genetic genealogy, and I have more coming on this.” says Wolinsky.

His decision on taking the buy-out was one that Wolinsky says has been considering for a while, as he also thought about it the last time the Sun-Times were buying out employees about a year and a half ago. But this time, something changed.

“I went to the Union meeting and went through a mental transformation,” says Wolinsky. “It felt like it was a good deal for me.”

“I took the buy-out and put it in the bank,” says Wolinsky. “Like I said in the piece I wrote for Gapers Block, the Sun-Times is my ‘angel investor’ in giving me the seed money to launch my own business.” Wolinsky says he will be starting his own writing business using, a domain he now owns.

The farewell piece that Wolinsky wrote for Gapers Block has put him in the spotlight. Since the article, titled “So Long Sun-Times”, came out, Wolinsky said that he has been invited to speak at Columbia University in Chicago and has even gotten reacquainted with some old friends via phone calls.

Dan Miller, former editor for Wolinsky at the Business section of the Sun-Times, said that he’s not surprised at all at Wolinsky’s plan to start his own business.

“He has a willingness to take risks and a large amount of self confidence in his own skill,” says Miller. “Put those together and you have a recipe for success.”

Miller, while optimistic about Wolinsky’s future, can’t say the same about the Sun-Times and his former section.

“[The cuts] will certainly hurt the quality [of the Business section] in the long run and the short run,” says Miller. “I don’t believe it could have been handled a different way due to the way we were losing money. There was no way to avoid it.”

Other than Wolinsky, the Sun-Times gave buy-outs to 12 employees age 55 and older, and laid off 17 other news room jobs in an effort for the newspaper to save money according to the Chicago Newspaper Guild.

The buy-out was only offered to employees 55 years and older, and gives two weeks of full payment for every year of work up two 50 weeks. Some health benefits were also offered with the package.

Wolinsky said that taking the buy-out made him feel like a burden had been lifted off of his chest after the period of time where the Sun-Times newsroom was unsure where and when the next series of cuts were going to come. He said while he felt good about taking it, others that work at the Sun-Times were a bit more conflicted about it.

“One woman I knew from the paper was apologetic for not taking the buy-out. Other people told me that they regretted not taking it,” says Wolinsky. “People do what they have to do” in regards to personal decisions made about taking a buy-out. “I did what I thought was right for me.”

Many have placed part of the blame for the cuts on the moving of news from print to the web. In his “So Long” entry on Gapers Block, Wolinsky laments the Sun-Times slow movement on the internet. He writes that the paper started off well, but never “completely understood or bought into what was coming, and so didn't follow through.”

Robert Reed, a business writer whose “Reedbiz” blog is featured on the Sun-Times website, joins in the opinion that the Sun-Times fell a few steps behind on the web.

“If the gang who were running the Sun-Times a few years ago [Referring to Conrad Black and David Radler] had properly invested in new technology and online staff, the Sun-Times would now have more than a fighting chance to make the necessary transition from print to online,” says Reed. “Now, it is playing catch-up - having to cut costs while reinventing itself all at once.”

Reinvention isn’t something that is lost on Howard Wolinsky, as he has done so himself many times over in his career at the Chicago Sun-Times. He now faces his greatest challenge as he tries to go from employed reporter to professional freelancer and self-made businessman.

“I got a years pay to go away,” says Wolinsky. “At this point, there’s nothing to lose.”

Dismantling of the old Sun-Times building

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Haunted Chicago Bar Closes Down to Revamp

By Hal Conick

Februray 27, 2008

A couple stepped into Chicago’s Red Lion Pub on Lincoln Avenue mid day on a Wednesday afternoon. A portly fellow sitting at the bar reading a book told them to grab a seat anywhere they please.

“Do you work here? Sometimes it’s really hard to tell,” says the woman. He did not; instead, he was just there as a regular who was friendly with not only the customers, but bartenders and co-owners Joseph Heinin and Colin Cordwell.

The couple was not there for the beer, scotch, or the shepherd’s pie, but to take one last look before they had to say goodbye to the pub.

Unfortunately for fans of the English style bar, the owners have shut the Red Lion’s doors for about six months, starting February 24, in order for it to be torn down and built back up.

“I have such good memories of this place. There were definitely some good nights I don’t remember here.” The couple took one last look around before they stepped back outside.

But up until recently, no one knew when the bar would be closing its doors. Not even Heinin and Cordwell.

“That’s the question I’d like to have answered,” Heinin said in a late January interview. “I guess it’s all up to when City Hall gives us the word that we can start construction. It depends on when we get the permits. No one knows yet.”

The co-owners finally found out that they’d be able to start construction, and quickly closed their doors starting late February. In place of the sign outside that said they would soon be closing, it now says “Closed as of 2/24- see you in six months”.

In closing the Red Lion, Chicago loses what is considered its scariest bar. It’s known for being one of the more haunted places in Illinois, with stories of the ladies room door being held shut for 20 minutes at a time when occupied, or the scent of lavender surfacing from a ghost who didn’t know how much perfume to put on.

Many patrons have wondered what the need is to close down this historical bar, but it’s painfully obvious on a quick walk around the Red Lion. The floors are in awful shape, sinking in at various locations. They badly need to be redone, but the announcement still came as a shock to the regulars. Heinin doesn’t speak pleasantly about the current state of the pub, describing the building, built in 1880, as “decrepit”.

Heinin is extremely open in talking about the state of the bar’s construction. Red Lion’s friendly atmosphere is one thing that sets it apart from any bar on Lincoln Avenue. The usual 21-24 year old frat-like crowd is replaced by a crowd of older men and women watching anything from the History Channel to the Three Stooges on the television above the bar.

Ryan Connery, a senior at DePaul University and regular customer at the Red Lion, is worried the Red Lion might lose something in the renovation.

“What I’m afraid of is it’s going to lose its charm,” says Connery. “It had a different feel from any other bar I’ve been to in the city- it was really comfortable. Plus the place had history behind it, and in my opinion it was one of the only good bars in the area.”

“We’re going to try to reproduce the interior as much as possible,” says Heinin. “But a lot of the crooked angles of the current set up are going to be gone, which we can’t help.”

As for the Red Lion’s ghosts, Heinin says “I’ve heard from people that in these situations, half the time the ghosts stay. The other half, they choose to leave. It remains to be seen if they’ll stay or go here.”

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Marc Smith Keeps Slam Alive in Chicago

By Hal Conick

February 20, 2008

“Where the hell have you guys been? We’ve been here for the last 21 years you know!”

Marc Kelly Smith looks across the sea of people who have filled the Green Mill for his weekly Uptown Poetry Slam. There are more new faces than usual this week, but Smith doesn’t seem to miss a beat. Right from the start, he has the crowd laughing and yelling along with him, much like he has been doing for over 20 years.

“If you happen to like something, cheer loudly,” says Smith as the crowd lets out a roar. “You cheer like Elvis is here. You cheer like Elvis is really dead!”

Smith then continued to explain the rest of the usual crowd noises to the younger than usual crowd; if you don’t like something, he says to snap your fingers. If you really don’t like something, you stomp your feet. And for the ladies, there’s the “feminist hiss” as Smith called it. The experienced members of the audience demonstrated each action as Smith explained.

Amazingly, Smith kept the same level of high energy the entire night, whether he be performing one of his original poems or stage or moving through the crowd. Throughout the night, he perused the entire length of one of the world’s oldest jazz clubs only to make sure everyone was having a good time.

It’s no mistake this many people have come to see the show that Smith puts on every Sunday. The word of Smith’s Slam poetry gospel has spread since he first created it in 1985, and Slam has gone everywhere in pop culture from hip-hop to comedy to the movies.

Smith’s art has also spanned across the world, as it did Sunday; from Chicago to Ohio to Scotland. Smith called upon his Scottish friend Simon throughout the night, who divulged during his first poem that he recently started his own Slam poetry night in Scotland.

One by one, open mic performers came to the stage, each bringing a different breed of poem. Vijay Pendakur, Assistant Director of the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs at DePaul University, has been writing his own Slam poetry for over 10 years.

“Marc started something beautiful that spread like wildfire across this country,” says Pendakur. “Slam is so popular because of what we have become as a country- there’s a lot of competition in both. That might make some people shy away, but it’s a fun competition.”

Fawzia Mirza, a local Chicago actor, has visited the Uptown Poetry Slam six times in the 10 years she has lived in the city, but she has yet to get up on stage.

“I haven’t yet, but I’d like to,” says Mirza. “As an actor, performance is what you do. In slam, there’s still a formula, but there’s a lot of room for whatever happens to come out. It’s the heart of expression.”

The expression Mirza speaks shines through in nearly every performer who jumps on the stage of the Green Mill Sunday night, but Smith doesn’t seem to get big headed about his creation. Marc Smith leads a final call and response with the crowd reminding them that he’s no big deal.

“Thank you for coming out, I’m Marc Smith…”, to which the crowd responds loudly with “So what!”