ABC News hires ‘hugely talented’ Sun-Times reporter

It won’t be easy, but readers of the Sun-Times will have to muddle through from now on without Stephanie Zimmermann to fight their battles, solve their problems, right their wrongs and collect their refunds.

After more than seven years as the consumer-help columnist and investigative dynamo known as The Fixer — and 17 years as a reporter for the Sun-Times — Zimmermann, 47, resigned Tuesday to become a reporter/producer with the investigative unit of ABC News, led by chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross.

Her duties will include contributing to ABC’s Nightline, which will expand to a full 30 minutes next month and add a weekly hour during prime time in March. She also will be writing a regular consumer-help column for Zimmermann will continue to live in Chicago, where she and her husband are raising their two children.

“Stephanie is a hugely talented consumer reporter, and we look forward to seeing her exceptional work on behalf of our viewers on-air and online in the coming months,” James Goldston, ABC News senior vice president, said in a statement. “Her trademark investigations will be a great addition to ABC News.”

Sun-Times bosses haven’t decided whether to continue The Fixer without Zimmermann. “We’ll determine that over the next few days,” said editor-in-chief Jim Kirk. Although the paper long ago lost count of the tens of thousands of letters the column has received, Zimmermann kept a running tally of the money she has saved readers since 2005. As of this week, it stands at $1,425,904.

Through her dogged, compassionate reporting, Zimmermann exposed scams, revealed safety hazards and, at times, restored faith in humanity. But the greatest satisfaction for her came from standing up for those to whom no one else would listen. “It makes me optimistic about journalism that people still look to a journalist when a little guy needs help,” she said in an interview Tuesday. “I like that. That’s why we all got into journalism, right?”

Not every problem she dealt with had a solution. But sometimes that wasn’t the point. “There are times when people tell you a really sad story, and some of them are just unfixable. When there’s a full-out scam, what am I going to do? Go to the scam artist and say: ‘Please give them their money back?’ With something like that, I think most people understand that it’s a lost cause. But on the other hand, sometimes just telling those stories will prevent the next person from falling into that same trap,” she said.

Others might find dealing with so much misery depressing. But for Zimmermann, every day was immensely rewarding: “As a reporter, I never had as much intimate interaction with readers as I did doing The Fixer. They’re confessing things to you out of desperation or frustration that really matter to them. Many times, it wasn’t even about the money. It was just the principle of it. They didn’t like being ripped off or feeling like they got screwed. That connection with the readers was really great.”

Here are a few of the more unusual cases Zimmermann handled:

  • AT&T bills sports fan $27,000 for watching three-hour Bears game on his laptop while sitting at Port of Miami (wrongly accruing international roaming charges).

  • Suburban family comes home to find wrong $3,700 swimming pool installed in their backyard, filled two-thirds with water. The pool company’s offer to them was a $200 store credit.

  • Skycap fills traveler’s suitcase with garbage after he thought her tip was too low.

  • Bugs in furniture: Powderpost beetles inhabiting imported furniture, emerging months after purchase when conditions are ripe.

  • Bank repossesses the wrong person’s car (someone who never had a loan with the bank and had clear title).

  • Exploding flat-screen television sets.

  • Bank employees dipping into people’s accounts.

  • Gas station sells gas diluted with water, wrecks car, refuses to pay.

  • Unclaimed cash: Finding an old bank check from 1991 worth $102,000 that was still good.

  • Unfixable romance scams, including one ending in suicide.

A Pennsylvania native who grew up in Wisconsin and received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, Zimmermann worked for the Daily Herald and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel before joining the Sun-Times in 1996. In 2009, The Fixer won a Peter Lisagor Award from the Chicago Headline Club.

“The Sun-Times has been a wonderful home for many years, but I am thrilled for this new opportunity,” she said. “I look forward to working with the investigative team at ABC News and the talented producers at Nightline to report on stories that impact consumers across the country. Being able to join the Brian Ross investigative brand is very exciting.”

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)