Jay Mariotti tells the editor in chief of the Sun-Times, Michael Cooke, Tuesday evening that he’s quitting. As of immediately. But on Wednesday he shows up back at the paper to tape his ESPN show, Around the Horn, in what Cooke calls “the nice little TV studio we built for him.”

“It’s for the last time,” Cooke tells me.

But why didn’t you throw him out? I wondered.

“This may escape Jay, but it’s the question of dignity,” says Cooke.

Cooke doesn’t want  to get into the details, but he notes that Mariotti, in his 17-year career at the Sun-Times, threatened to quit many times before. The paper always found a way to change his mind, and Cooke supposes it might have been able to find a way once again. “He gave us an opportunity to pull the trigger, which we’ve never done in the past,” says Cooke. “This time we pulled the trigger.”

A couple months ago, the Sun-Times spilled a lot of its own ink publicizing Mariotti’s latest contract, which was supposed to keep him at the paper through May 2011. “It’s interesting that a guy walks out on a contract after spending a lifetime criticizing other people for not observing their their contracts,” says Cooke. “I’m sure that irony won’t escape our readers.”

Cooke adds, “We’re not hearing from grief-stricken fans. The truth is quite the opposite. Quite the opposite. We’ve gotten hundreds of e-mails, including ones that say ‘Now we’ll buy the paper.’ By all indications our circulation will go up.”

Anyway, he’s got other things to worry about. Bad times have been followed by worse times at the Sun-Times, and Cooke had to meet Tuesday afternoon with leaders of the Chicago Newspaper Guild, giving them the bad news that the paper needed to cut salaries to the tune of three columnists, a reporter, a photographer, and five editorial assistants. Going by guild scale, the combined yearly salaries of those positions comes to about $580,000.

So when Cooke received Mariotti’s memo that afternoon that said “I quit,” he had every reason to think, well, that’s convenient. With more on his mind than Mariotti, Cook wrote and emailed the following staff memo:

The Sun-Times continues to manage through the unprecedented newspaper economic downturn. While our circulation, in context, continues to be acceptable, advertising revenues are awful. So again we are left with no choice but to cut our costs to try to match the reduced income.

Today, we met with newsroom union representatives and presented a package of proposed staff cuts.  The number has been reduced through recent attrition. We’ll be talking — and negotiating — over the next few days and I expect the picture to be clearer by the end of next week.
To state the obvious: this is awful. We are all anxious. However: 
* We have cash which we can use to operate.
* We will be in much better shape, even good shape, when the slump ends.
I take my hat off to our newsroom. Every day, in tough circumstances and with diminished resources, we continue to publish a terrific newspaper with the kind of journalism that keeps people reading us.
Meanwhile, the next few weeks are going to be hard as we say goodbye to valued colleagues and good friends.
— Michael

Says CNG’s executive director, Gerald Minkkinen, after the guild-management meeting “things happened that could change the picture.”


“Jay Mariotti resigned.”

Mariotti’s salary is between him and the paper, but it undoubtedly represents a huge chunk of that $580,000. And so it was that Mariotti, instead of hearing back from Cooke, heard instead from a Sun-Times lawyer that his resignation had been accepted.