News Hostage

Workin' Overtime
During his stint as the Chronicle's main baseball writer, Alan Truex never seemed to be one of those many Chron sportswriters who automatically take the owners' side in any pay dispute, knee-jerkedly slamming athletes for not being happy with what they were getting.

Now we know why. Truex filed a federal suit March 3 against the Chronicle, saying that the paper refuses to pay him for large amounts of overtime he has racked up for the last four years.

He also claims the Chronicle yanked him from the baseball beat in November 1997 because of his overtime complaints, a move he says cost him $16,000 a year in outside income that the paper's beat writer makes by freelancing articles for national sports publications.

The dispute centers on whether Truex is considered "nonexempt" under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.

Nonexempt employees -- in essence, the grunt workers -- are required to be paid time and a half for overtime; exempt employees -- managers, or those who have some discretion in their duties -- are paid a straight salary no matter how many hours they work.

Newspapers have struggled with how to classify reporters and columnists. The Gannett chain, after taking a financial hit on the issue, pays reporters overtime and requires editors to juggle assignments to keep OT under control. Things are more informal at the Chronicle, with OT or comp time typically coming for specific assignments such as working Election Day or a breaking disaster, but generally not for staying one or two hours late on a standard day.

The Chronicle refused all comment on the suit; Truex's lawyer would say only: "We hope to show that the Houston Chronicle is subject to the same wage-and-hour laws as any other employer."

The attorney, Scott Fiddler, refused to say how much Truex, a 13-year Chronicle veteran who now writes the horse-racing column for the paper, was making in salary.

One labor-law expert here in Houston says that Truex's chances of winning may depend on the jury's view of "how creative and original" the writer is allowed to be in his work.

The more creative and original a writer is allowed to be, the more likely he or she would be considered exempt. Since we're talking about the Chronicle, a slam-dunk decision for nonexempt status seems obvious. ("Your Honor, as proof that writers are not allowed to be creative and original, we offer into evidence the Houston Chronicle archives.")

Even without arguing quality, the expert, Fulbright & Jaworski attorney Leonard Clore, says Truex's chances of winning are good.

A columnist like George Will would be exempt because he can write basically whatever he wants, he says, but a regular reporter would be more closely supervised and therefore be considered nonexempt.

"It can be a terribly expensive issue for an employer if you get it wrong," he says.

United States District Judge Lee Rosenthal will hear the suit, news of which did not make Houston's Leading Information Source.

They Have Really Flaming Crosses
A slip of the lip that -- unfortunately, for our viewing pleasure -- occurred off-camera: Channel 13's Shara Fryer was narrating a report on racial symbols in Jasper last week when she intoned that the local principal had banned all "confederate fags -- errr, ummm, I mean confederate flags."

Speaking of 13, we realize that Marvin Zindler is an icon whose unique career is winding to its close, so we should cut him some slack. But the other week viewers were subjected to a long, looooong Zindler action investigation that resulted in ... a not-poverty-stricken woman getting a $100 deposit back. That's $100, as in only two zeros.

Zindler was shown commiserating with the woman, who had paid to have her kitchen chairs reupholstered. He was shown in the office of the putative reupholsterer, who promptly handed over a check.

Hey, Marvin -- the Coke machine here ate my quarter yesterday. Call me before you send your crew by.

What Light Through Yonder Window Fast-Breaks?
Few things can induce eye-rolling faster than a sports columnist alluding to the fine arts. You know the routine: Michael Jordan was like a Mozart symphony, some college forward has a leap that would make Nureyev jealous, watching Dan Marino trying to establish a running game was like listening to Pavarotti do rap, etc.

Chronicle sports columnist John Lopez dipped a toe in these dangerous waters March 10, in a column on how a win by the struggling Rockets did not tell the whole story of the team's problems.

The win was nice, he wrote, "but it might have been scripted as much by William Faulkner as Rudy Tomjanovich. It was so much a flowing story, yet awkward, so much a classic Rockets exhibition and yet unpolished."

Having dispensed with the awkward, unpolished Faulkner, Lopez held on tenaciously, if inanely, to his literary theme. The Rockets defense left the Denver Nuggets "dangling there, exposed and hopeless, like participles."

And then there was this, which we can't make sense of no matter how many times we read it: "The Rockets' 19-7 deficit on offensive rebounds can only partially be blamed on the brick-throwing Nuggets getting more shots. The flat feet while watching Olajuwon and Barkley work the post was like a bad novel."

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