Two years ago the Chicago Tribune Media Group tweaked the chain of command at its monthly magazine, Chicago. Editor Elizabeth Fenner wasn’t getting along with the magazine’s publisher, Richard Gamble, so it was determined that she would report instead to Gerry Kern, editor of the Tribune newspaper. But Kern didn’t make himself seen, one of the magazine’s writers says, and the change barely registered on the staff. 

But then other changes followed. The Tribune Company broke in two. Broadcast parent Tribune Media spun off Tribune Publishing in 2014. Last month technology entrepreneur Michael Ferro took control as chairman of Tribune Publishing. Kern then retired, and he was succeeded as editor by Bruce Dold, who’d been running the Trib‘s editorial pages. The change also made Dold Fenner’s boss. 

Last Friday, around lunchtime, Dold made an unexpected visit to Chicago magazine’s new offices in the Freedom Center printing plant and assembled the staff. He seemed ill at ease. As you know, Dold told them, it’s a time of structural change at our company. Beth Fenner is no longer your editor. She’s being replaced by Susanna Homan.  

Elizabeth Fenner

The Chicago staff “was beyond stunned,” says one of the magazine’s employees. “It was flabbergasted.” Dold had no answers to the obvious questions, such as why anyone thought a change was necessary and what Homan would bring to the table that Fenner hadn’t. Dold didn’t want to talk about Homan—he seemed miserable, and her appointment clearly hadn’t been his idea. “It was really uncomfortable,” says someone who was there. “He had the demeanor of a hostage.”

Homan’s appointment looks harmful in almost too many ways to count. It’s harmful to Dold, who rose to the Tribune‘s highest position and then was given this demeaning assignment. Ferro essentially handed him a bucket of water and told him to carry it. 

It’s harmful to Fenner, summarily dismissed after four years editing a magazine that was successful editorially. (Chicago is a finalist for 12 City and Regional Magazine Association awards, with senior writer Bryan Smith in the running for writer of the year.) It could turn out to be devastating for Chicago, and it could even be harmful to Homan, who will have to demonstrate to a skeptical staff that she’s not completely unfit for her new job. 

Susanna Homan

Homan’s last assignment had been running Splash, the inane celebrity-fixated insert that Ferro dreamed up in 2012 for the Sunday Sun-Times after he became chairman of the paper’s parent company, Wrapports. She’s an obvious favorite of Ferro’s. But what does Homan know about the kind of journalistic standards practiced by the writers and editors of Chicago?

She has “spent most of her career in the ethically murky intersection of advertising, public relations, news and publishing,” media blogger Robert Feder wrote of Homan (then Susanna Negovan) in a 2013 post titled “Susanna for sale?” Even by her standards, Feder went on, Homan’s freelance report for Fox 32 of a private party for high-rolling Tiffany customers was “over the top.” She shot video of herself “trying on a $750,000 diamond bracelet and other baubles,” gushed about the roses and champagne, and concluded, “Before the party what was so cool is they dropped off a box at my house, and they had gifts for me, including this vase—a crystal vase—and a Tiffany book. Which is so cool before a party to actually receive like a gift.” 

Now Homan must lead journalists who interpret a giddy delight at getting freebies as strong evidence of an ethical deficit. 

Fenner’s dismissal was even harmful to a couple of Tribune business writers, Robbert Channick and Becky Yerak. Their long profile of Ferro was published online on Thursday, and I heard from colleagues who expected me to rip them for sucking up. But Channick and Yerak are good reporters, and I thought their piece was informative—it gave Ferro a chance to speak his mind and dream his dreams. Besides, how critical can we expect any newspaper’s profile of its owner to be? When Ferro controlled the Sun-Times I didn’t see that paper drop the hammer. He controlled the Reader too, and I got snarky occasionally but I didn’t drop it either.

But Channick and Yerak’s story was still on the street when Fenner was fired. “Instead of playing golf and doing stuff, this is my project—journalism,” the story had Ferro saying. “We all want to do something great in life. Just because you made money, is that what your kids are going to remember you for? Journalism is important to save right now.” Axing Fenner turned Ferro’s fine words into sanctimonious hot air, and it made the reporters look like credulous patsies. 

Michael FerroCredit: John H. White/Sun-Times

Ferro even harmed himself. Tribune Publishing is a national chain of newspapers, among which “Chicago magazine is a mosquito on the arm of all these other properties,” as one of its writers put it. So why did Ferro bother when he’s got far bigger fish to fry?

Perhaps it has something to do with Bryan Smith’s October 2013 profile of Ferro, who’d been an elusive subject for Chicago journalists. Fenner edited it. And Ferro didn’t like it. If you’re thin-skinned, passages such as the following might not roll right off your back: 

Ferro strode into the room with his new right-hand man, Wrapports CEO Timothy Knight. (Knight says, “Michael was very enthusiastic about the business and cultural changes he planned to enact.”) What followed was pure Ferro. Upbeat, almost giddy, he unleashed a stream-of-consciousness torrent of dramatic ideas and projections, a mix of bombast, braggadocio, and bravado. “The only way to describe it is like when a kid gets a new toy,” recalls a reporter who left shortly after Ferro took over.

Or maybe what really got to Ferro were the readers’ comments that showed up online at the end of Smith’s article. 

“The author makes it sound like Ferro couldn’t pour out of boot if the instructions were printed on the heel,” one commenter wrote. “Ferro is one big gas bag,” another said. “I went to college with this loser.”

Readers of Smith’s profile responded with a good word for Ferro about as frequently as Republican senators volunteer testimonials for Ted Cruz.  

At any rate, Ferro was furious and let the magazine know it. Which means that by firing Fenner he’s made himself look hypersensitive and vengeful. He’s also harmed himself in a more subtle way. Unlike Fenner, Homan will report to Chicago‘s publisher, because she will, in fact, also be the magazine’s publisher. Ferro’s belief is that one person should hold both jobs (as Dold already does), and Homan’s appointment reminds us yet again of his indifference to this age-old barrier between church and state. (Attempts were made to reach Fenner, Homan, Dold, and Ferro for comment. I’ll update this post with responses.) 

The Chicago shake-up reinforces the impression some of us have that Ferro has a passion for monetizing content but a shaky idea of what makes that content valuable, in particular the integrity of the newsroom producing it. He’d cut a more impressive figure as Chicago’s leading newspaper baron if he figured that out.

Update: Tim Ryan, president of publishing for Tribune Publishing, offered the following statement that was relayed by a company spokesperson via e-mail: “The Publisher and Editor-in-Chief position is a natural progression for our brands and is a model you will continue to see across our publications. This structure provides a more streamlined and coordinated approach that will maximize our audiences and accelerate our digital growth. Susanna Homan is a well-known Editor and Publisher with an extensive background in launching and operating magazines. Susanna has the operational, editorial, sales and marketing skills that are required for this dual role and I am confident Chicago magazine will continue to flourish under her leadership.”