More than news, WJ has started a community conversation

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By KIM LENZ

I've been away from Oak Park for 11 years. But through the magic of my sole retirement benefit (a lifetime subscription to WEDNESDAY JOURNAL), I've been able to keep up with the conversation.

And that's what a little beer, a small inheritance and just enough experience to make a young journalist dangerous has produced for Oak Park?#34;a conversation. It's at once peculiar and precious, a thing to take for granted until they "pave paradise and put up a parking lot," as the song goes.

That's where I live now, community conversation-wise: the parking lot. The weekly newspaper is an effort on par with a middle-schooler's English project, a place where you can regularly read the phrase most likely to give a newspaper editor a sphincter moment: "pubic school." The daily newspaper here, a Tribune property, tries occasionally but usually doesn't arrive before the disaster. While heavy on task forces to improve cultural diversity and prop up ever-sagging readership (so typical in the reactive news world) there are few reporters willing to remove hind end from chair and get out in the world they cover unless it involves a meeting attended by "officials" and "staff members" who discuss "process" and call buildings "facilities." I know this. I was a reporter there for 10 years.

My community suffers from this want of investment.

Alternately invigorating and frustrating, and usually in parts equal to slightly more than I could take, the JOURNAL's readers were a demanding bunch. They loved Haley. They hated Linden. They hated Haley. They loved Linden. I see from my subscription they haven't changed much, except "Linden" has been replaced by "Trainor" (although those who really loved/hated Linden will not hesitate to point out that Trainor character is no Linden).

Readers expected the JOURNAL to engage, not just observe. Which is not to say they weren't critical or suspicious when it happened. I recall time spent in the elementary schools, which teachers and parents laid to the boss' kid being in elementary school. Questions about the way River Forest (known then in the newsroom as "River Fortress" for its impenetrable, "we're a civil society" front) spends its money were observed to be because Haley hated River Forest. Anything at all that suggested the Triton College board was anything but a collective of Truly Smart People with Totally Good Hearts was because Haley hated Republicans. Of course.

The truth, I've come to realize, is Haley, and all those who have worked for him for less than what they could make elsewhere in this wonderful world, have a romance with the community and journalism. Our experiences and prejudices took us into multi-hued classrooms, fancy-schmancy parlors in the village just west and a "high school with ashtrays" in River Grove.

When we succeeded, we left with more experience and less prejudice. When we didn't, our readers told us and we tried again.

This conversation the JOURNAL began is like a relationship you just can't shake, one that consistently connects the dots between you and others. This explains, at least for me, the propensity for Oak Park to be the font from which all notable or notorious things/events/people flow. Six degrees of separation, they say? Clearly they have never been to Oak Park, where four degrees would be the high end of normal.

I am glad to see WEDNESDAY JOURNAL celebrating its 25th. I'm sure the company's growth is affirming to the one guy who, bless his heart (this is the Southern way of polite dismissiveness, I've learned), considered the WJ investment his nest egg. (This is not Haley, folks. I remain convinced he is in this for love of the game.)

I don't discount that the early investors knew a good idea, but I'm guessing the best financial investment any Oak Parker ever made is in the 50-by-125-foot lot with an old?#34;I mean charming?#34;house parked on it. The early investor's fiduciary duty to self remains hilarious to me, seeing how I took a 15 percent pay cut to work at the JOURNAL and never in the five years I worked there caught up.

Yet I consider that financial step down the best work decision I ever made. Best investment?#34;and I owned one of those 50-by-125-foot lots with an old house?#34;that I ever made, too. Just keeping up with the conversation every week tells me so.

? Kim Lenz, who now lives in Yorktown, Va., was our news editor and ace reporter from 1989-1993.

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