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The Nation

Tribune hits one out of the park

The Chicago paper secretly wins its rival's Wrigley Field contest.

March 21, 2008|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — In a city of notoriously fierce newspaper wars -- where rivals once hijacked the competition's delivery trucks -- the Chicago Sun-Times has spent the last few weeks gleefully taunting the Chicago Tribune.

At issue were the words of Sam Zell -- chairman of Tribune Co., which owns the Chicago Cubs and the Cubs' Wrigley Field -- who said on a cable news program that he would consider selling the naming rights to the storied ballpark.

The news sparked an emotional firestorm among local residents and Cubs fans, and it inspired the Sun-Times to hold a contest: The paper offered $1,000 to the person who could write the best song about selling the ballpark name, turn it into a music video and post it on YouTube.

When the Sun-Times hit porches and newsstands Wednesday, the front page announced that the contest winner was Katie Hamilton, a 22-year-old college student.

What the Sun-Times didn't realize was that Hamilton is also an intern at the Chicago Tribune and that the project was actually a group effort by several Tribune reporters, editors and multimedia staff.

When a Sun-Times reporter called Hamilton on Tuesday afternoon to tell her she had won the contest, other Tribune journalists were in the room, quietly prompting Hamilton with answers to the reporter's questions: names of the people in the video, and why she'd chosen to base her song on Twisted Sister's 1984 hit, "We're Not Gonna Take It."

The primary reason Hamilton submitted the song and was filmed in the video?

"No one at the Sun-Times knew her name or would recognize her face," said Kevin Pang, 26, a features writer and one of the people who spearheaded the prank. "And she's cute."

Late last month, Pang was in a meeting with his boss, features editor Tim Bannon, and Bill Adee, the Tribune's associate managing editor for innovation, when the subject of the Sun-Times' contest came up.

"We had been trying to figure out ways to do some viral video projects at the paper in a funny way, and we said, 'How about we try to win that contest?' " Adee said.

Pang and fellow Tribune staff brainstormed about lyrics and tune selection, settling on the Twisted Sister hit because it's a familiar song "about a person who's rebelling against change."

"We were worried about it leaking out," Bannon said. "We knew we had to work fast."

Pang persuaded a musician friend to let him and some other reporters record the song in his basement, and borrowed a digital video camera from the paper's multimedia team. Last week, Hamilton was asked if she could help out.

"I didn't really know what was going on until we were in the car, driving to Wrigley," said Hamilton, a graduate student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The result is a song and video that skewers Zell (whose Tribune Co. also owns the Los Angeles Times), takes a swipe at the Chicago Cubs' long history of losing, and suggests that the field could be named after Nicorette Gum, Old Spice or Viagra.

After the video was submitted, Hamilton edited her Facebook page to remove any mention of her internship. Then, while sitting at work in the Tribune's editorial board offices on Tuesday, she got the call from the Sun-Times.

The Tribune pranksters say they followed the contest rules, weighed the ethical concerns and cleared the project with the paper's upper management. Still, as they listened to the Sun-Times reporter interview Hamilton, Bannon said he felt a twinge of unease about not volunteering the name of the intern's employer.

"The way I see it, the features section has the comics, horoscopes, even the occasional satire. This is just that, except in Technicolor, video form," said Pang, who noted that the $1,000 prize will be donated to charity.

"We can't underscore enough that we told the truth at every stop. If they asked if we were reporters at the Tribune, we would have admitted it then and there."

Sun-Times Editor Michael Cooke did not return calls for comment Thursday afternoon, but Pang said Cooke had called and good-naturedly congratulated the team.

The Sun-Times also updated its website with a story about the video contest and a sardonic headline: "The Tribune has a sense of humor: Who knew?"

--

p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

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