The trials of covering Chicago's hi-tech hinterland

Chicago has long been known as a town of hard-nosed journalists.

Chicago has long been known as a town of hard-nosed journalists. It was the setting for Front Page, after all. And even in those bygone days, the Tribune was seen as trying to distance itself from the average Joe to be a bit more upscale. Today, it's the city paper with the higher profile in upscale Chicago suburbs. Its rival, Sun-Times, a tabloid, is seen more as the gritty city paper, and its smaller staff is known for hustling hard for stories and scoops. And some PR pros say Sun-Times business reporters are easier to reach and more receptive to covering local companies.

So don't - even for a second - think about calling John Lux to pitch a story for the Tribune's weekly Business/Technology section.

Lux, Trib's associate financial editor, makes no bones about the fact that he doesn't have time to speak with PR people. 'I cannot answer the phone anymore. I don't return 95% of my voice mail messages,' says Lux, a 30-year Trib veteran who also edits the Jobs section and handles special e-business sections for the paper.

Yet the phone-shy Lux is the target of scores of PR people representing hi-tech Midwest clients. That's because the region - Chicago in particular - is trying to raise its technology profile. PR firms are stepping up their Chicago tech PR practices - witness the recent purchase by Porter Novelli of EBS Public Relations, a Chicago tech shop.

As the major newspaper in the Midwest, not to mention one of the 10 largest in the country, the Trib is where tech clients want to be mentioned. 'For local clients, it's always tier one, period,' says Ronda Duncan, a Chicago account manager with the Porter Novelli Convergence Group.

That puts Lux in the eye of a PR hurricane and has made the Business/Technology section highly controversial among PR pros. Some say it's not supportive of the growing number of local tech start-up firms. They complain it doesn't do enough local company stories, focusing instead on national trends that often miss the local angle. One, who asked not to be named because he's still trying to pitch stories to Lux, calls Trib tech writers 'exceptionally difficult' and complains they 'won't have informational meetings' with clients.

Lux responds that such complaints miss the point of what his three-year-old section is trying to be. 'This is a section we aim at educated adults in our market who are not in technical jobs,' Lux says. He's not writing for tech-heads and he's not going to feature a new tech company just because it says it has a great idea. Rather, says Lux, he's writing for college-educated adults who 'need to be up to speed on technology.'

The section also has several standing features that focus on PC-related business and personal computing issues. 'A very important part of the section is the personal technology,' Lux says. 'I'm not here just to run a list of companies that people will forget.'

'A lot of PR people assume that anything that has a technology component is a technology story,' he adds. Another problem is 'a lot of PR people don't understand how a newspaper is organized.'

That definitely applies to the Business/Technology section, he says.

The section doesn't have a full-time staff, for example. Rob Kaiser is the Trib's local technology business reporter and regularly appears in the section, as does telecom and science writer John Van. But they report to other Trib editors who in effect share them with Lux. Lux maintains direct responsibility only for syndicated columnist Jim Coates, who answers consumer questions about PCs, software and other tech issues. Lux can borrow other Trib reporters as needed, and he sometimes recruits reporters from the paper's online staff.

He really rails at PR people who try to promise him exclusives only after The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times has turned them down. 'It's insulting,' he says. 'We are a major publication.'

He also is rankled by PR people who leave him voice mail messages stating only their name and number without any hint of why they're calling. He especially decries younger PR people who try to pitch ideas that show they have no idea what type of stories the section runs. ?They don't read the section, they don't bother to even look online,? he says. ?The pitch is automatically bad when they say, 'Wow this is a breakthrough.'?

So, what's the answer for PR pros?

They need to pitch the individual reporters who most often write for the section, he says. He adds that the section isn't interested in breaking news - those stories appear in the regular daily Trib business sections.

Lux tries to plan Business/ Technology stories six to eight weeks ahead of publication, so any ideas that come to him need to be in at least a month ahead of publication time.

Lux will look at pitches sent in via e-mail, by the way, but he won't consider anything without a local angle. Despite what others say, Lux says local business is important to him and Business/Technology. His audience is the six-county Chicago metro area - which the local media like to call 'Chicagoland.' He's turned off by PR people calling from distant cities like New York thinking he'd be interested in their pitches.

'I'm editing two sections, I don't have time' for such calls, he says.

Some PR people criticize Trib reporters for assuming Lux's attitude.

'Unless you build a personal relationship with someone there, nobody returns phone calls. It's voice mail hell,' says one PR veteran.

But others disagree. Porter Novelli's Duncan, for example, says, 'Every one of my local clients have met with someone at the Trib.' Brian Grabowski, a Porter Novelli SAE, says of Trib technology reporters, 'They definitely want to be kept up to speed on what's happening locally and also want to know who our clients are.'

Lux might appreciate such comments if he heard them, but his job isn't to curry favor with PR people. The old jumble of trash-strewn desks and clanking typewriters may be gone from the Trib newsroom, replaced by antiseptic cubicles and quieter computers, but the Front Page attitude still remains - don't waste a reporter's time.

Ben Hecht would be proud.

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