Chicagoland Writers Spread the Illini Word

The Illinois football team is getting some quality coverage in the Chicago media this year. It may never be enough to suit fans, but the top three Chicago area newspapers have assigned reporters to the Illini and are doing a good job reporting on what has been an exciting and productive season.

Terry Bannon of the Chicago Tribune, Herb Gould of the Chicago Sun-Times and Lindsey Willhite of the Arlington Heights Daily Herald can be found at every Illini football game, home and away. Bannon and Willhite attend at least one practice a week as well, and all three make a special effort to conduct interviews, investigate important story lines, and report on all aspects of Illini football.

Bannon is a Marquette graduate who has worked for the Chicago Tribune for 18 years. While he has been involved with Illinois off and on previously, this is his first year covering Illinois full time. He describes his weekly work load.

"I try to get down here once a week to do face-to-face interviews because that's always better than something over the phone. It varies week to week. On a slow week, sometimes depending on the opponent, it might be 3-4 stories a week. Sometimes it is 7-8 stories a week, such as during the Ron Zook contract week. You had that story plus the followup on what the trustees had to say, and sometimes recruiting adds to that load."

Gould has a degree from Wisconsin and a Master's degree in journalism from Northwestern. He has worked at the Chicago Sun-Times for 30 years and has covered Illinois since 1994. His weekly commitment to Illinois football is similar to Bannon's.

"I do a lot of phone work, and then I do some of my feature stuff after games. Occasionally I'll come down on off days, but mostly on game day. It depends on what you count as a story. We'll do a game story and two advances, and then I do notes three days. So there's something six days a week."

Willhite grew up in Champaign and graduated from Illinois State University. He has worked for the Arlington Heights Daily Herald since shortly after his graduation in 1989. His paper has a circulation of 150,000, making it the third largest Illinois daily newspaper. There are numerous Illinois graduates in a territory that extends from Libertyville and Gurnee in the North and Naperville and a sliver of Plainfield in the South, so his work reaches many interested readers.

"I write between 7-10 Illinois articles a week on various things. I get information from the Tuesday teleconferences, extra interviews I do on Saturdays, just little things you pick up or phone calls you make. My Monday or Wednesday fact-finding trips to Champaign allow me to talk to people one-on-one. I don't usually have to request special interviews, but they are aware of the problems and are cooperative when needed."

All three reporters agree a team's record is a major factor in the number of articles they write. More stories are written and published when Illinois is doing well than when it is doing poorly.

"I definitely am assigned more column inches when Illinois is going well," states Willhite. "I am writing more this year than in times past. Three years ago with basketball, it was a madhouse from New Year's when they went to Vegas until they finished up the Final Four. I wrote something on Illinois every day except maybe one or two."

"I don't root for teams, I root for stories, and it's always a better story when the team is competitive," says Gould. "It's easier to do more articles when they're doing well than it is to do fewer articles when they're struggling. Those last few years of football when they were really battling, we were trying to come up with a feature angle or an analysis of what's going to happen in a game. What are you going to say when they're getting pounded every week?"

Bannon offers an interesting take on what makes for a good story line. "Teams that are surprises tend to get more coverage. In some people's eyes, Illinois may be a year ahead of schedule. So that's one reason they're getting more, and because they're winning. When I say surprises, Notre Dame is still getting a lot of ink because they're surprisingly bad. But winning teams always get more coverage."

None of these writers has been ordered by their editors to slant stories to create controversy. Of course, some readers will take offense no matter what is written.

"I've never been told to write a positive article or negative article," Willhite says. "I don't think anyone is ever told to write a positive or negative article. You kind of go with what you see. I've written positive articles and negative articles. In fact, for the Iowa game I wrote three stories. I wrote game story, then I wrote a column criticizing Zook for taking the two penalties."

Bannon concurs. "There's no plan to create controversy. But there's always differences of opinion. If you're a fan of a team, you're going to have a different perspective than a newspaper will. Some fans are even harsher on a team than the news media. Sometimes from a further distance away is sometimes better, like a forest or tree story. If you get too close to a story, you may not see something or may take something for granted that the reader doesn't take for granted."

Gould's view is concise and to the point. "We don't have time for all the conspiracy theories people invent about the media. We just report it, and we interpret it a little bit, but we don't try and create it by any means."

Not all reporters have the same perspective on the teams they cover, but there's room for variety in reporting. As Willhite summarizes, there is a place for all types of personalities and ideas.

"There are people who won't be negative no matter what the situation. On the other side, there are people probably seeking a hard edge or more controversy because that's sometimes what gets people to click on your column or pick up the paper. In general, people have to be true to themselves. There's room for all blends. It's personal preference for the writer, and it's personal preference for the reader."

Chicago is a melting pot filled with graduates of every university in the country, so not all residents are interested in Illinois. But at least three talented and dedicated writers are working hard to report as accurately as they can about Illinois sports in Chicago and its suburbs. That's about as good as it can get.

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