Since the Field family gave up control of the Sun-Times in 1978 so young Teddy Field could take his share of the family fortune to Hollywood, the paper’s had an assortment of owners. The first was Rupert Murdoch. Another, much more recent, was Michael Ferro, the entrepreneurial mastermind (ask him) who tried out various new strategies that he’d eventually take to a much bigger fish, Tribune Publishing, which he renamed TRONC.
In between these two regimes was the era of Conrad Black and David Radler. That interesting time ended when rebellious shareholders accused the two Canadian business partners of self-dealing at investors’ expense. Black and Radler (who turned state’s evidence) wound up in prison, the paper now in the hands of a man who a year or two earlier had been CEO of Chiquita bananas. Afterward, the paper was kept alive by shifting groups of local business and financial leaders until, 15 months ago, it was taken over (and snatched out of the hands of Ferro, who wanted to buy it back) by an alliance primarily between Edwin Eisendrath, who’s a former alderman, and the Chicago Federation of Labor.
And so when the Sun-Times editorial page says—as it did Monday—that
“we can’t remember the last time the Sun-Times has endorsed only Democrats for Congress,” and then, “but to our thinking a kind of perfect storm works in favor of Democrats and against Republicans this time around,” what’s changed isn’t merely the political weather. It’s “our thinking.” Black and Radler in particular despised unions. The present Sun-Times is beholden to them. The editorial we at the Sun-Times (as at other papers) becomes more of a royal we at election time, reflecting the interests of the monarch. But at the Tribune those interests have included—for both better and worse—fidelity to that paper’s Republican roots and sense of self. May the Sun-Times walk its present path for decades to come. But the we speaking in its name dates back just to last July.
A PS: The Reader became the Sun-Times‘s corporate kid brother in 2012, and soon felt like a waif consigned by a heartless master to a cold room in the cellar. To put it another way, the Sun-Times had too many problems of its own for management to deal with the Reader‘s. But that’s changed. Certain that the Reader needed a new owner and it was time to think outside the box, Eisendrath found himself dealing this year with competitive bids by black real estate magnate Elzie Higginbottom (a Sun-Times investor) and black publisher Ken Smikle. I liked Smikle, who told me he’d called on Bob Roth and Tom Yoder, two of the Reader‘s original owners, and come away with their blessing. “We hit it off,” said Smikle. “We were three old heads talking about the good old days.”
Smikle and I spent a long time on the phone one afternoon, and he seemed to appreciate that the Reader‘s institutional we—articulate, highly inquisitive, insolently independent—was stubbornly being maintained by the dwindling staff and was not to be trifled with.
I thought Smikle got it.
But Higginbottom already had a foot in the door, and he could round up more money. It’s his, and now we’ll see. He’s put together an interesting team—such as Dorothy R. Leavell, publisher of the Chicago Crusader and now the chairman of the Reader‘s board of directors, and Tracy Baim, founder and publisher of Windy City Times, now publisher of the Reader as well. The sale was impetuously announced by Eisendrath at the Rainbow PUSH convention in June, when supposedly it was Leavell buying it. (None of that was true, Smikle told me, accurately.) In fact, Leavell had little to ante up besides her name; and months of bargaining still lay ahead. Much of it was in response to Reader employees who told Higginbottom face to face that the Reader was in a worse mess than he had any idea.
In mid-September Smikle died of heart disease. A few days later the sale went through. The staff seemed generally pleased, They were out from under. There was actually talk of money for a few new hires. Few knew of Smikle’s interest in their paper, much less knew him personally. Unlike me, they didn’t wonder if they should be mourning a lost opportunity.
But finally I got through to Higginbottom’s number two, Eileen Rhodes, president of Higginbottom’s East Lake Management Group. She’d done most of the talking when Higginbottom met with the Reader staffers, and she’s now treasurer of the new Reader board of directors. Higginbottom hadn’t called me back, and I was surprised when finally she did. For whatever reason, I braced for truculence.
We have someone in common, Eileen Rhodes began. My mother, She taught kindergarten at LaSalle school. I think your daughter was in her class.
Mary Kay Rhodes was one of the most wonderful teachers I’ve ever known. She taught her kids wonder and joy.
And on a different footing from what I’d expected, Eileen Rhodes and I talked about the Reader. I’m hopeful.