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Overpriced Sports Star Joins Local Team; Light Reading; A Match Made in Heaven; A Suggestion for Rearranging the Deck Chairs at Salon.com

Overpriced Sports Star Joins Local Team

Skip Bayless' farewell sports column for the Chicago Tribune began with three paragraphs about his fourth-grade crush on a student teacher (to illustrate how much he hates goodbyes), segued through his greatest journalistic hits, thanked readers for reading him, and ended with a wistful return to his opening theme of unrequited student-teacher love and regretful leave-taking: "It's as if I can still feel her kiss on my forehead."

Two months later, Bayless is locking lips with the San Jose Mercury News, which has hired him to write four sports columns a week about whatever he wants, beginning in mid-September. Known for his relentless sniping at those he considers the villains of sport, Bayless gives the Merca nationally known mug shot. The picture isn't entirely free of flaws.

Bayless didn't expect to be job-hunting this summer. He arrived at the Tribune in early 1998, after stops at the Miami Herald, the Los Angeles Times, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Dallas Morning News, along with contributing work for Sports Illustrated, the New York Times, and ESPN. He has also written four books. But after what he calls the two best years of his career at the Tribune, Bayless says the paper's new top editor, Ann Marie Lipinski, changed the rules.

Her decree: The sports front page would have only one column, always running down the left side. Columns spilling over that length would be trimmed -- they would no longer jump inside. The Tribune also stopped sending the sports final to the suburbs, to save about $1 million in circulation costs. Bayless sent Lipinski a letter pleading for more flexibility. He says she didn't respond; she says she was merely asking sports columnists to contain themselves.

"It was tugging at my soul," Bayless says by phone from Chicago, his earnest twang a contrast to his vitriolic writing style. "I really enjoy this stuff. I live it, probably to a fault. So I just flat-footed quit."

Two days later, Bayless says, Mercury News Deputy Managing Editor Dave Tepps, an old friend from the Miami Herald, sent the jobless Bayless an e-mail: "Ever thought about working in San Jose?"

Bayless doesn't work cheap. He made $225,000 a year at the Tribune, according to Brill's Content, and Tepps acknowledges that throwing a six-figure salary at one writer might cause grumbling in some newsroom quarters, especially in light of the paper's recent economic woes. "Certainly he'll be well-paid," says Tepps, who wouldn't say how well. "But we're not the Chicago Tribune. We're not as big."

New Publisher Joe Natoli also declines to make Bayless' salary public, but says the sports columnist's hiring sends a message: Ignore the recent round of buyouts, the resignation of former Publisher Jay Harris in protest of cost-cutting demanded by the Merc's parent company, Knight Ridder, and the death of the paper's Sunday magazine.

"We've cut some expenses, but our real goal is to grow," Natoli says. "We'll spend money where we think it's appropriate."

Even Luther Jackson, executive director of the San Jose Newspaper Guild, says he welcomes Bayless' hiring -- although he would also welcome more advertising executives and local news reporters. "We hope this is the start of a very positive trend," Jackson says.

It remains to be seen whether the hiring is part of a trend, or is even particularly positive. Bayless was never as popular in the Tribune newsroom or in Chicago as his predecessor, Bob Verdi, or his one-time colleague, Bernie Lincicome. He distinguished himself with clubhouse scoops and accurate draft predictions, but his columns overflowed with shopworn puns and took on a self-involved quality that left many readers thinking he had a tin ear for Chicago sports.

"He took a lot of cheap shots in personal ways in his column," says a former Tribune colleague who asked not to be identified. "It's probably what everyone else in town was saying, but he crossed the line a couple of times. I wasn't surprised when I heard he was leaving the Tribune -- if anything, I was surprised he lasted as long as he did."

The colleague cited above says good advice for dealing with Bayless sports columns came a few years ago in a letter to the Chicago Tribuneeditor. "Skip Bayless?" the letter read in its entirety, "I think I will."
-- Matt Palmquist

Light Reading

In last week’s San Francisco magazine sweepstakes, the winner was ... Sports Illustrated, which included Rick Reilly’s surgical disemboweling of Barry Bonds. Alas, the noise about Reilly’s piece overshadowed the news that the long-awaited new city magazine, 7x7, finally hit local newsstands. It’s not that we were exactly excited about the magazine’s arrival, but we do think some competition is a good thing, especially when our only option thus far has been the moribund San Francisco. To be fair, though, San Francisco does have the KQED viewing guide (click here to view guide), so we can know in advance when Suze Orman is going to dry-hump the concept of the no-load mutual fund. Thanks, guys! As a service to busy readers who don’t have time to scrutinize the two city glossies, here’s a tale of the tape.
-- Mark Athitakis

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