Dave McKinney has left the building.
  • Dave McKinney has left the building.

Talking to various people earlier this week about the Sun-Times, I heard the situation described exquisitely by one person with knowledge of the company:

“One ought not be more alarmed than one was yesterday, which was alarmed.”

This precisely calibrated judgment, alas, is obsolete. It was said in reference to reports of the pending sale of Sun-Times Media’s suburban properties to Tribune Publishing, which suggests the flinging of cargo off a foundering ship to keep it afloat a while longer. And what it meant is that there’s plenty of reason to worry about what’s going on at Sun-Times Media, but no more reason to worry than there was before Rob Feder broke the story of the sale. The suburban collection dates back to the 1990s, when the then owners of the Sun-Times, Conrad Black and David Radler, were buying up everything on the assumption that the synergies could be worked out later.

Unfortunately, there is now reason to be more alarmed. Yesterday morning, after I’d had that conversation, Sun-Times political reporter Dave McKinney resigned in an open letter to Michael Ferro, CEO of Wrapports (which owns the Sun-Times and the Reader). “This newspaper no longer has the backs of reporters like me,” he told Ferro and the world (by posting his letter on his blog). Prior to his resignation, McKinney was unwittingly at the center of an episode that had made the Sun-Times look bad. The episode concluded in a way that made the Sun-Times look worse.

Scorning last Sunday’s Sun-Times endorsement of former Wrapports investor Bruce Rauner for governor, McKinney told Ferro in his resignation letter that the paper had “reversed its three-year, no-endorsement policy and unequivocally embraced the very campaign that had unleashed what Sun-Times management had declared a defamatory attack on me.” McKinney not only was taken off his beat on October 8—two days after cowriting a story that cast Rauner in a negative light, and after the Rauner camp challenged his honor (alleging that his wife’s work for a Democratic consulting firm amounted to a conflict of interest)—he was taken off the beat in midstream, so to speak. As he was covering a legislative hearing into Governor Quinn’s misbegotten Neighborhood Recovery Initiative, McKinney got word to pack it in. He disappeared from the hearing room in the Bilandic Building, and the Sun-Times took down his story covering the hearing and replaced it online with a wire service report. Newspapers act that way when reporters are in sudden disgrace.

In a statement responding to McKinney’s resignation, Sun-Times publisher and editor in chief Jim Kirk wrote: “The pause we took last week was to ensure there were no conflicts of interest and was taken simply to protect Dave McKinney, the Sun Times and its readers as we were under attack in a heated political campaign. We came to the right result, found the political attacks against us to be false and we stand by our reporting, our journalists and this great newspaper.”

But as McKinney described it to Ferro, “I was told to go on leave, a kind of house arrest that lasted almost a week. It was pure hell.”

Kirk has used strong words when referencing the allegations Rauner’s campaign made against McKinney: “inaccurate and spurious,” he told Crain’s—later upping the ante to “inaccurate and defamatory” in an op-ed. Be that as it may, McKinney hired attorney Patrick Collins, the former assistant U.S. attorney who’d sent George Ryan to prison for corruption, to defend himself and his wife against both Rauner and his own bosses. Collins, McKinney wrote in his letter to Ferro, “is synonymous with ethics in Illinois,” going on to note that “his involvement brought about an abrupt shift in the company’s tone from penalizing me to reinstating me. Ultimately, the company pledged I could return to the job with ‘no restrictions.'”

But though McKinney was reinstated, he wasn’t assuaged. And the Sun-Times endorsement of Rauner for governor distressed him (and other Sun-Times staffers).

The endorsement, followed by Feder’s story about the sale of the suburban publications, had made Sun-Times Media look shaky enough. And then McKinney quit.

At least Ferro can tell himself this: if the sale goes through, it’ll be up to Tribune Publishing to find the synergies that he couldn’t find, and that Black and Radler couldn’t either. Tribune’s been down this perilous road before. Back in 2000, the then Tribune Company bought up the Times Mirror Company, giving it a total of 11 daily newspapers, 22 TV stations, and four radio stations in markets that included New York, LA, and Chicago. National advertisers who were supposed to beat a path to the door didn’t, and in 2007 the owners bailed out, selling the company to Sam Zell. Bankruptcy followed.

Sometimes fewer is better, and if the deal goes through Sun-Times Media would consist of only the Sun-Times and the Reader—and would be able to focus on the city. On the other hand, it could no longer claim the print and online readership of its so-called branded publications. In May of 2012, Sun-Times Media CEO Timothy Knight boasted of this total circulation:

This week was a historic one for the Chicago Sun-Times. Last Tuesday, the Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC), which is the independent newspaper industry auditor, issued its circulation numbers, ranking the Chicago Sun-Times, including our branded publications, #9 largest daily in the nation. I am thrilled to report that the Chicago Sun-Times is also now the #1 daily newspaper in Chicago.

These results have special significance for all of us at the Chicago Sun-Times, because they validate our core customer strategies. The results illustrate the power of the audience we engage daily across our Chicago Region Wide Network (CRWN). We are proud to be the sole provider of news and content that reaches the entire Chicago region in a localized manner. We do this by focusing on the people and places in our region’s vibrant communities in Chicago Sun-Times and our 39 unique publications.

That was then. Circulation news since then hasn’t been good, and the Tribune’s Phil Rosenthal reckons that without the suburban pubs, Sun-Times Media’s daily circulation will now be cut roughly in half. But as alarming as a report of dwindling readership can be, an accusation from inside of dwindling integrity is a lot worse. That’s what McKinney has leveled.

“Readers of the Sun-Times need to be able to trust the paper,” McKinney told Ferro and the world. “They need to know a wall exists between owners and the newsroom to preserve the integrity of what is published. A breach in that wall exists at the Sun-Times. It’s had a chilling effect in the newsroom. While I don’t speak for my colleagues, I’m aware that many share my concern. I’m convinced this newspaper no longer has the backs of reporters like me.”

Kirk is “an honorable man with solid news judgment,” wrote McKinney to Ferro. “But, ultimately, I don’t believe he called the shots here.”

Kirk says that’s not so. “I disagree with Dave’s questioning the integrity of this newspaper and my role as editor and publisher,” he said in his response to McKinney’s resignation. “I call the shots. While I’ve been here, our ownership and management have never quashed a story and they have always respected the journalistic integrity of this paper.”