A Leaner Meaner Sun-Times?

We don’t know whose job is safe at the Sun-Times. “There are rumors all over the joint,” says one of the cooler heads about. “It’s evident Britton’s not happy. But he’s taking a more active day-to-day role in the paper.”

While executive editor Mark Nadler was negotiating a new labor contract and managing editor Julia Wallace was on maternity leave, editor Dennis Britton stepped in and modified the front page to put more news on it. This is worth mentioning because of what some see as the political implications: Britton repealed a design philosophy identified with those other editors. “I thought we’d gone too far to the other side,” Britton told us. “I liked a lot of what Mark and Julia were trying to do, but in the end I think it’s important to get back to a more user-friendly format. Maybe I’m too stodgy and traditional, but now I find the page easier to read.”

We’re often told that the Sun-Times needs fewer editors and more reporters. To be honest, reporters are the ones who often tell us. But what if they’re right? And what if the American Publishing Company reaches the same conclusion? APC’s sliced away everywhere else since buying the Sun-Times last March; now’s the time, if a time will ever come, for senior editors to feel its blade.

Last month Nigel Wade, deputy editor of the Telegraph of London, came to Chicago to study the Sun-Times operation. The Telegraph is owned by Hollinger, Inc., parent company of American Publishing, and Wade submitted his report to David Radler, president of Hollinger and chairman of APC. Wade focused on the editorial product; he’s due back in Chicago this week, and this time he’ll presumably focus on the people who create the product. Changes of some sort are probably inevitable.

Because Wade impressed so many people as a personable and canny newspaperman, and because his wife checked out Chicago while he checked out the Sun-Times, rumors bred like bacilli in a petri dish. Reporters are never more spellbinding than when they ponder the mysteries within their own walls, even if they are never less accurate. So Britton would be out. Nadler–the one top editor who got into it with Wade instead of getting along–would be out; Nadler, it was being said this week, would soon leave to join his old Wall Street Journal buddy Norman Pearlstine, the new editor in chief at Time Warner. (Nadler denies this.) Wallace would be out. (Yet Wallace was house hunting.) Radler was coming to town to clean house, and Wade would take over as editor.

We reached Radler at his place in Palm Desert, California. What about it? we said.

“There’s absolutely no truth to that stuff!” said Radler. Besides, he went on, driving the point home, “I don’t have to come into town to shake up management.

“I don’t know where this stuff starts,” Radler said. “If someone at the Sun-Times feels for some reason threatened, let them phone me.”

But are there too many editors? we asked.

“There may be,” he said. “But I’ve never sat there and counted them. I know you don’t believe that, but I honestly have never done that. If you took the top seven positions, never have we ever discussed eliminating those people. If I was going to do something horrid to any one of those people–if we, collectively–don’t you think those people would know it?”

But by various accounts they do know–or at least know enough to know they’re right to worry. Last July Britton candidly told Crain’s Chicago Business, “My future here? I feel uneasy about it.”

“I don’t think that was too smart on his part,” said Radler.

But he says he’s not so worried anymore, we added.

“Well, OK,” said Radler.

“Nigel is not going to be the next editor,” Radler insisted. “I don’t understand this whole nonsense. First of all, I’m not looking for an editor. Let’s get that straight. And if the current editor decided to leave tonight Nigel Wade would not be the editor.”

But you haven’t renewed Britton’s contract–

“We don’t have contracts in American Publishing. That’s just a corporate policy.”

Before talking to Radler we talked to Britton, and we reminded him of what he’d told Crain’s. “I feel a little more confident than I did then,” Britton said. “And frankly, I hope I am around for a long time. But I have no control over what David Radler and Larry Perrotto [president of American Publishing] are going to do. Nor have they informed me.”

What did Wade do while he was here?

“Actually very little,” Britton said. “He looked at operations a couple of weeks and made some suggestions, mostly directly to Radler.”

If American Publishing has won a reputation in the building, it’s for exuberant opportunism. In late December the company paid $31.9 million cash and bought the Daily Southtown and the shopper News Marketer from the Pulitzer Publishing Company. The Southtown’s south-side plant is too small to print the Sun-Times, but there’s room to expand, and its location near the Stevenson could mean that one day the Sun-Times will be distributed from there instead of from Wabash and the river.

We asked Britton about the future.

“I’ve seen no battle plan, if that’s what you’re asking,” he said. “Look, if they’re going to replace me with Nigel Wade, are they going to show me their battle plan?”

But you’re more confident they won’t?

“I’ve developed a better relationship with Larry Perrotto,” Britton allowed, “who I’ve found to be a very solid guy. He’s clearly directed to strengthening the franchise. Perrotto may not have a blueprint, but he has a plan. Perrotto’s running the show here. Larry is really terrific at recognizing operational synergies.”

No one’s as fond of David Radler. He’s described (not by Britton) as a loud, approachable but arrogant free-market ideologue who’d be nobody’s first choice to meet for lunch. Realizing this, he doesn’t come around much. But he has installed on the premises an efficiency expert named Bonnie Fine. She’s a charming woman one writer says you can’t help but like, even as she’s aligning your neck for Radler’s ax.

News Bites

As USA Today noted, Connie Chung wasn’t hitting new swamp bottom when she urged Newt Gingrich’s mom to reveal on the qt what her boy had called the First Lady. Mike Wallace did the same in 1978, while visiting Chicago for a 60 Minutes piece on the Sun-Times‘s now fabled Mirage tavern. Executive producer Don Hewitt recalled that Wallace sat down on camera with a crooked accountant and prefaced one prying question with the preposterous, “Just between you and me.” The moment became part of 60 Minutes lore.

Wallace was celebrated, but Connie Chung is cursed. The reason for this, argued the Tribune’s Mary Schmich, is that Chung “was tricking a little old lady.”

It’s not just that. Someone’s dear old mother was deceived by a scheming career woman. Two cherished female stereotypes banged into each other, blessing the profession with an ethics debate that’s made no one any wiser.

See it yourself and count the locals:

From Roger Ebert’s review of Nobody’s Fool: “It is the middle of the winter in the small town, which seems almost uninhabited (director Robert Benton wisely focuses on the foreground characters in his story, and mostly avoids extras).”

From Michael Wilmington’s: “Most of all, it has people. North Bath is stocked with a believable and unsentimentalized gallery of denizens who react to each other in charmingly offbeat comic turns.”

In violation of the natural harmony of the spheres, an article by M.W. Newman on Studs Terkel ran the other day in the Tribune. Newman was an essayist of special distinction who achieved glory at Marshall Field’s Daily News and kept it when he shifted to Field’s Sun-Times. Now retirement allows him to choose his markets for the features he continues to write. “Publishing Bill Newman free-lance was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done,” said Rick Kogan, editor of Tempo.

An even more ironic example of the Sun-Times’s failure to hang on to its own was a more recent Tempo feature, this about Jack McPhaul, the Chicago reporter of yesteryear whose exploits were the basis of the 1947 movie Call Northside 777. The author, Gary Houston, used to write for the Sun-Times. He sold the piece to Kogan, who also once wrote for the Sun-Times and whose father, the late Herman Kogan, was that paper’s arts editor. Worst of all, McPhaul himself had been a Sun-Times reporter.

Houston says he took the story to the Tribune because he likes Kogan and also figured he’d get more money there. Actually, he doubted he’d get any money at all from the Sun-Times. While the Tribune’s been saving money by buying heavily from free-lancers, the Sun-Times for a time cut costs by not buying from outside at all. Besides, the Sun-Times doesn’t offer a full-service features section. There’s no place in its daily paper for Houston and Newman’s kinds of stories.

Richard Ciccone, the Tribune’s managing editor under three editors, has been taken down a peg. Last week editor Howard Tyner posted a memo naming Ciccone an associate editor who’ll “focus his energies on overall suburban coverage.” Given the Tribune’s predilections, that might not be such a demotion.

“He’s the last boss trained in the Chicago school of journalism,” an admiring reporter told us. “When he gets removed we basically have a bunch of little yuppies running the place. There’s no one to replace him in that part of the business that once was fun and adventuresome and combative. We’re just falling apart. We didn’t even know the Mel Reynolds case was up last week. We didn’t have anyone in court!” (It’s true. The Tribune didn’t.)

“He’ll be missed, believe me. He played an intelligent and human role, and he treated staffers like humans and never tried to take away their dignity.”