Interview: Sun-Times Columnist Neil Steinberg

By Karl Klockars in Miscellaneous on Mar 27, 2007 7:00PM

Despite the fact that all of us here at Chicagoist like to think of ourselves as little columnists, we also like to keep abreast of what’s going on in the world through the opinionated women and men of the MSM. For better or worse, we usually check in on Kass, Zorn, Roeper, Marin, Schmich, Telander, Savage, Derogatis and Kot (and tigers and bears, oh my).

steinberg6.jpgAnd almost every time we check the Chicago Sun-Times, we like to see what’s going on in the Ambrose Bierce-esque world of Neil Steinberg. Out of all the people whose opinion graces the pages of our local rags, he goes from bitter to blissful, from sour to sweet, and from rage to … well, sometimes more rage.

He’s also made his own set of headlines — in September of 2005 he was arrested for striking his wife and subsequently did a stint in rehab for his alcoholism. Since then he’s written a book on the subject called Drunkard, which press pieces describe as “the story of tackling a personal challenge, confronting demons and forging change” and call him “perhaps the last hard-drinking newspaperman in America.” Well, hopefully not any more.

Chicagoist checked in with Steinberg recently to talk newspapers, radio, media, Mariotti, rehab and Royko.

Chicagoist: Your title is Columnist, and yet they give you an entire page. The hell?

Neil Steinberg: Yeah, I’m a page-ist. That was [Sun-Times and NY Daily News editor] Michael Cook. When I was at the Daily News I had a page on Sunday, I had a Sunday page in the Daily News in New York, and they used that kind of layout, and he wanted to do it here as well — and it catches people’s attention. Which is why I do it. The downside is I can't rev up and spend 900 words getting into a topic. The good thing is that I don’t have to do that. A lot of times as a columnist you’ve got 900 words, a thousand words or whatever, and you have one idea. Then you puff the idea to some space. Now, if I have an idea that’s only a hundred words — guess what, that’s all it gets. And that’s the good part — the bad part is you need four or five ideas. That can be sort of draining.

C: It seems like your column is laid out a little like a talk radio format. Quick hits on topics, and throwing a lot of ideas out there in rapid-fire succession.

NS: Well, I do have things like, I have the jokes, which were a complete accident. But everyone loves the joke. I would say 80% of my mail is people sending jokes. They all say they love the jokes. It’s funny, because people sometimes accuse me of using them to pad out the column. But the truth is, I can’t get rid of it. Some days I drop it, and people complain.

I will occasionally drop it because it doesn’t fit the tone or something is so important I’m taking all 1100 words — you know, I didn’t have one on Sunday [March 18] because I had these ten ledes I was printing, and I wanted to get every inch to put these ledes in. So I didn’t want to give up the space for it. Some days you’re thankful for it — some days I lead with a joke. I have nothing to say, so I call up a joke, and I format that, and then I’m on my way.

So this is sort of an easy way to begin.

C: The daily joke is kind of a callback to something that Chicago papers used to do, isn’t it?

NS: Yeah, the “Today’s Chuckle” we ran in the Daily News. There’s “Opening Shot,” there was “Closing Shot,” and then we made it “Closing Joke.” And then Bob Sirott said, “Make it ‘Today’s Chuckle.’” So, I, if nothing else, take suggestions from people, so I did it.

C: In recent columns, you've brought up your 20 years at the Chicago Sun-Times and the one-year anniversary of your sobriety, and also it's been ten years since the last Royko column went to print. How would you rank those in order of personal preference?

NS: Well, obviously not drinking is the most important thing. Twenty years at the paper is maybe a sign of a failure of imagination on my part — I quit once, but they convinced me to stay. As far as the Royko anniversary … I was just filling space.

C: Did you know Royko?

NS: Yeah, I did. He was an asshole.

C: So you knew him more on a professional level, not personally?

NS: Yeah, professionally. I knew him from the bars. He was good to his friends, and his friends love him, so you’ll meet two types of people — people who were close friends and people who just knew him and thought he was just a bastard.

C: Greg Kot [rock critic for the Tribune] was Royko’s copy editor for a period of time, and had a lot of nice things to say about him.

NS: Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. I think if you knew him personally he was a kind man, and I think — you know, he was very competitive. He said some nasty things about Roeper when Roeper was starting out, and every experience I had with him was a bad one. And that’s unfortunate because I would have given a lot to have had a nice encounter with him, but it never happened.

C: A nice encounter with Royko — are you talking about like something where he’d take a young reporter/writer like yourself under his wing and show you the ropes or something like that?

NS: Or just have him say a kind word to me. We’re not talking about being my mentor, we’re talking about saying something civil.

C: Out of all your twenty years of columns, what one has gotten you the most heat, the most hate mail, or reader response?

NS: John Stroger. No question about it.

[On March 14, 2006] John Stroger had his stroke, you know, first thing in the morning Stroger is rushed to the hospital the week before the election. I thought "Mel Reynolds and his mysterious bandage," you know, a sympathy ploy. And so I wrote the column and I tried to write it in the morning like that. And as the day progressed it turned out that the man really was sick and had a stroke.

So I changed the column to reflect the developments, but I didn’t change the tone. The tone was like “oh, well, hm, he seems to be sick, but don’t vote for him anyways because he’s a jerk.” And then I went on WVON and tried to defend that. And that caused a big stink.

That’s the one that sticks out the most, and that was … that was in fact a year ago now. A year ago today, two days ago. Another anniversary.

C: The last time you were on the Steve Dahl show in September, you really broke bad on Jay Mariotti. How did that play out in the newsroom the next day?

NS: Well ... Mariotti wasn’t happy. You know what — I’ve gotten to know Mariotti better since then. I don’t think people understand the true Jay Mariotti. And as much as they dislike him, I don’t think they really grasp his depth. Nor understand what kind of person he is.

Let’s put it this way — after I talked to Steve [about Jay] I became familiar with the quality of person that he is. And it inspired me to not want to … make him unhappy. [laughs] I know that’s oblique.

C: So based on all that, I don’t suppose you take any credit for the Jay the Joke website, which coincidentally enough is run by one of Dahl’s kids?

NS: No, I think that was an accident — I had nothing to do with it. But it seems to be very well done. But as I said, I was very, very sorry to inject myself into Jay’s world about that.

C: With all the blogs and personal websites and opinion everywhere you turn on the internet, do you ever stop and ask yourself if we even really need newspaper columns any more? I mean, aren’t they really the same thing?

NS: No. I mean, I worry people will feel that way, but I’ve never found a blogger that I feel the need to go check what they have to say everyday. Half the time that I’m reading [Chicago Tribune columnist Eric] Zorn’s blog, and I get bored and it’s about me. Same with the Beachwood Reporter. I love to have valid criticism, but someone says "Hey, you suck" every day — there’s nothing really that much there. Again — I get bored when it’s about me.

C: Maybe a better question is how has the role of a newspaper columnist changed as technology changes how we think about publishing opinion pieces?

NS: Well, I think it’s even more important, and I’ll tell you why — news is fungible, you get news everywhere. You get it in the elevator, you get it on your cell phone, you don’t need to pick up a paper to get your news. What you need a paper for is to get some kind of depth, some sort of reliability, and skilled people to wax poetic on it.

I might think Newsweek sucks and is trivial, but they’ve got George Will, and George Will doesn’t suck. He’s not trivial, you see what I’m saying?

C: You’re saying people are always going to be looking for that filter.

NS: Right — and you know Royko, when he was at his best it was like having a chip stuck in your head. That he had some sort of take on something, some sort of thought, and then you read it, and it's your take and your thought. And that's a great feeling. And I like to try to provide that.

It's not that the president or mayor is whispering in my ear, and I'm connected [and] saying to you secrets, but what I'm doing hopefully is putting something in a context that makes sense to you, that helps you understand it. I wrote about Conrad Black today: it's not the tax trial, it's that "is this guy Raskolnikov, is he some Superman that can get away with anything he wants?"

And sometimes that's not profound, but it's true. Getting back to your question about why we need newspapers, first of all, maybe we don't. Maybe the whole thing has gone over the cliff, that's a possibility. And I'm trying to enjoy every single day until that happens.

Let's put it this way — when I see the trouble that the Tribune is having it really scares me. I'm used to us having trouble, but not to see them quaking. When you're reading an article in the Tribune basically saying that the Trib is such an attractive property because it has CareerBuilder.com, that's very unsettling for an old newspaper guy.

Look, ever since the Berghoff went out of business and Marshall Field's disappeared, anything is possible in the worst sense of the word. And as a guy who wrote his last book about the collapse of the men's hat industry, I realized that something which people just assume has to be there — because how can you have a funeral if you don't have hats? — people suddenly realize that they don't need it at all.

And so they can all wake up and realize they don't need newspapers at all, they don't need to be informed. They don't need to have the depth of stories, they can just hear it everyday on the radio on the way to work.

And that might be fine. Maybe you don't need all this stuff. You can buy your coffee tables on craigslist, you can sell your car on eBay, but I don't see that as happening too much. At least, not yet. You know, people don't have to go to college, they can sit at home and watch the classes on TV. It'd be cheaper, it'd be easier, you wouldn't have to go to campus, you wouldn't have to live in the housing. ...

... But people don't do that because they want the experience. There's somehow enough experience of being there, sitting in a room, talking to classmates, that they pay an enormous amount of money to do it. And I'm hoping that there's somehow enough of a tactile experience in having a newspaper to carry under your arm, that I think we can at least get me to retirement.

C: Certainly the success of the RedEye means that people at least need or want something to hold on and to read.

NS: RedEye is good for newspapers, but maybe not good for us. People will take anything for free if you thrust it into their hands, but as I say, I'm not an expert. I've always been on the writing end of things.

C: What do you think you've learned about life in the media since you've had your arrest and been through treatment/rehab — and how has that affected how you approach your work?

NS: It's ... I don't know that it has. People accuse me of being a better writer now, but I'm not going to say that. I'd like to think I was kind of sympathetic and all that.

In AA people are always saying, "Oh, the leaves are changing, we never noticed that when we were drunks." I always noticed the changes, I wasn't someone who ... who ... that's a tough question.

C: Well, let's put it this way — what was it like being on the inside looking out rather than on the outside looking in?

NS: It was nauseating.

I remember when the Tribune ran me across five columns of type in this 48-point headline like it was a school fire — it was very disconcerting for me. Not that I felt they shouldn't be printing it. And this is the really strange thing, and I don't know if it can be said in print, is that in a way it helped me professionally.

At least the paper here, I'm the third stringer. So to see what a big deal it was, in the Tribune, that the local TV stations led with it, I think I kind of caught their attention in a weird way. It's like Bill Mauldin — you always felt bad he benefitted from World War II — I'm not saying it helped my career, but that's why I went to four columns a week.

C: Well, certainly you can take your experience and use that to write about someone with addiction problems — say, Britney Spears — with a viewpoint and personal outlook that someone without those experiences couldn't.

NS: Well, I've written about it — I don't want to be Stuart Smalley, writing about it all the time. I've brought it up — when they closed the Metra bar car, I felt like I should say it. But I'm not in the spotlight, I'm not Britney Spears. Most people have forgotten about it. You know, I get people emailing me and I have the words "wife" and the word "drunk" in my email filter.

I have people every day, they disagree with anything, they say "were you drunk when you wrote that? Why don't you have a drink, go home and slap your wife?" You read that five hundred times it might toughen you up a little bit. I guess maybe in answer to your question I think that's the effect it's had on me. It made me a little more adult, and a little less dewy-eyed. If I was dewy-eyed before. Thicker skin.

I don't sit and write long angry emails — I used to take a red marker and write "fuck you" across the letters and send them back, and write long angry emails that end up on the publishers desk, and I don't do that any more. It's made me a more mellower person.

You tell me — you've been asking the questions, how does it seem from the outside? Do you feel like you're interviewing some old dinosaur in the tar pits, slowly bellowing as he sinks in?

C: Well, if I had to parse the way I read the Sun-Times, is I check Feder, then I read you, and...that's about it.

NS: Well, that's good — that's why they keep me around. You know, I used to do the BobWatch thing in the Reader, and the thing I mocked Greene for — a lot of people felt I deserved whatever I get because I did that — but what I hated was, that you people don't remember, is that he would write a hundred columns about Baby Richard.

And so whatever I'm trying to do, is I just try to be different. I want to be different. And ideally not that much of the news, and I try to do different stuff, because that to me is the role of a columnist, is that when everyone is yelling "Iraq Iraq Iraq" you can do something else. That's why I have Dante in the column. And people adore that.

People feel that they know my kids, and all that sort of stuff, and I really just put them in because I needed to fill the space, and because I thought they were interesting. The slice-of-life things, some people love that.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that I view my role as "it's a wonderful world, and an interesting place, and someone should draw your attention to it." I don't break news — I haven't broken a story in my life! [laughs] I would, but nothing comes my way, I don't know how to find it.

Neil Steinberg's column appears in the Chicago Sun-Times on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. His upcoming book Drunkard is due out this summer.