As the Black Cloud Lifts . . .

In Canada, where Conrad Black watching has long been a national sport, the Toronto Star’s Lynda Hurst lamented what she called the “crash-bang of the House of Hollinger.” She fondly remembered Lord and Lady Black of Crossharbour in their element, entertaining in their London mansion, where “sundry Rothschilds, passles of politicians, including Margaret Thatcher and France’s Valery Giscard d’Estaing, pals from the Bilderberg group, corporate leaders, bankers, minor royals, major aristocrats, and the right sort of journalist were eager, or at least curious, to sweep past the giant painting of Napoleon in the stairwell and see what the Blacks had to offer besides the obvious.”

Quoting Nicholas Coleridge’s portrait of Black in Paper Tigers, Hurst described the price that Black exacted from his guests at these soirees: “‘He does not shun the opportunity to dominate the table’ with ponderous monologues on the awfulness of left-wing politics or military history. Black has been known to list for his guests every galleon in the Spanish armada and recall in minute detail the battles of his hero, Napoleon (including, presumably, Waterloo). No one, so far as is known, ever howled out for mercy, well, not to his face.

“‘Let us be completely frank,’ Black told Coleridge, ‘the deferences and preferments that this culture bestows upon the owners of great newspapers are satisfying.'”

Is it all gone with the wind?

I ask Gerald Minkkinen, executive director of the Chicago Newspaper Guild, if he anticipates any amelioration of the local relationship between the union and Hollinger International now that John Cruickshank has succeeded Black’s right-hand man, David Radler, as Sun-Times publisher and chief of all of Hollinger’s Chicago properties.

“I don’t think it could have gotten worse,” says Minkkinen. “The management style of Conrad Black and David Radler was probably as dictatorial as it could have been. There are two things in [Cruickshank’s] favor. One, he’s not David Radler. And two, he’s from the editorial side. Just in casual conversation with our members, I think they seem to respect his editorial background.”

I pass along Minkkinen’s respects to Cruickshank, mentioning as I do the loathing of unionism I’d encountered from predecessors.

From Radler, in 1999: “Because we come from a socialist country [Canada], we’re more used to dealing with [unionism]. We see the negatives–which would shock you. It creates barriers to progress. It creates elements of distrust.”

From former editor Nigel Wade, in 1997 (said on WTTW): “I’ve spent ten years in communist countries, and I don’t believe collectivism works.”

Does Cruickshank share this ideological abhorrence?

“I don’t think you would have heard [from me] what you heard,” he says, and laughs. “I’m not a hater.”

The Sun-Times is no stranger to turmoil, but by any standard the recent developments have been remarkable: Black and Radler humiliated and ousted, Cruickshank promoted from vice president of editorial to publisher, and everything Hollinger owns possibly going up for sale. A veteran Sun-Times writer is asked what his colleagues make of all this. “I think the positive feelings outweigh the negative ones,” he responds. “The sense of fear goes up or down in direct proportion to tenure here. Those of us who’ve been here through four or five changes of management take it in stride. Others don’t know what it means for them. But overall, despite the uncertainty, people are so thrilled that these bastards are finally out. And even if Cruickshank’s tenure is brief–and it probably is–there’s a guy on seven [the publisher] whose heart is in editorial and who’s never made a secret of his frustrations at Radler’s preventing him and [editor in chief Michael] Cooke from doing better things.”

What does this mean for you? I ask Cooke.

“I think I’ll have more reporters,” he says. “The new publisher says I will. My new boss. I’m delighted for him. He believes that good journalism is good business, and this is my view. The very best newspapers in America journalistically are the most profitable ones.”

Under Hollinger, the Sun-Times’s newsroom was slashed by about 30 percent. If quality pays, why didn’t the Sun-Times spend to become better? I ask Cooke.

“I wasn’t allowed to,” he says. “The future’s very hard to predict. We don’t know what’s going to happen in terms of a sale. For 99 percent of the staff, life will go on as before and will get better. The people here work hard. They work far harder than their brothers and sisters at the Tribune, and when they have to go across the street to the cathedral, they tell us–and I believe them–they feel genuine pain.”

John Dodge is the latest to go. The executive news editor and inventor of the famous page-one “weather word” left the paper last Thursday for the unlikely job of senior editor at Channel Two. Joe Ahern, the new general manager there, had so admired the front page of the October 21 Sun-Times that he found out who designed it, called Dodge, and invited him to lunch.

On October 21, Dodge had topped the banner headline with an extraordinary three-line kicker. It read: “At 5:20 p.m., a person trapped in the county administration building’s 21st floor stair well called 911. The caller reported the location and begged for help. The city says firefighters searched the area, but it still took an hour and a half to find the people. By then, six were dead. What happened during…”

Now came the banner Dodge plastered across the page:


And below the banner was a stack of smaller headlines directing the reader to three pages of fire coverage inside. Ahern thought this page brilliantly packaged a highly complicated story and perhaps Dodge could do the same for him. It made no difference to Ahern that Dodge had no experience in television and no position was open for him. Ahern invented one.

Why do so many people leave the Sun-Times? I asked Dodge, who’d been talking to the Tribune before Ahern stepped in.

“The people who work there are some of the hardest working and most talented people you’ll find,” he said. “But the institution under Hollinger made it a little too much for people to deal with. It’s no secret morale was getting pretty low, and people wanted to go someplace where there might be some more resources.

“I think now with John becoming publisher there’s a real opportunity to put something back into the editorial side of it. He and I used to run from time to time and he used to talk to me about how wonderful it would be to have the resources the Trib did. There are a lot of people who hope he can find some resources.”

Cruickshank says his first priority is to find the money to hire some more reporters. “I hate to see them wandering off to other jobs.”

He’s not being replaced as a vice president. You’ve got your old salary to work with, I point out.

“I do,” he replies. “But you know what Radler paid me. [Actually, I don’t.] You can maybe get two juniors out of that. I’m going to find some dough. But I don’t have a blank check from my new bosses.”

One new hire already in the pipeline when Black and Radler fell was Eric Herman from the New York Daily News who’ll cover business and focus on media. “With everything going on, we’d better have a media writer,” says Cruickshank. “We could do a better job of covering ourselves.”

But no paper covers itself well. “There’s better and worse,” says Cruickshank. “And that’s not a criticism of [business editor] Dan Miller at all, or Michael Cooke. We just haven’t given them the resources.”

The new CEO of Hollinger International is Gordon Paris, an investment banker who chaired the special committee of the board of directors that studied the books and concluded that Black, Radler, and Black’s holding company had received some $32 million in payments that were never authorized by the board and were either misrepresented to the Securities and Exchange Commission or not reported to the SEC at all. Even if Paris has secretly wished all his life to run a news empire, this isn’t his golden opportunity. Outside shareholders forced the present upheaval by challenging more than $200 million in management fees paid to Black, Radler, and some lesser Hollinger execs. These shareholders want fair value and it’s up to Paris to get it for them. Lazard LLC is now helping the board inventory the operation and figure out what to do next. Whether the board eventually decides–weeks from now–to sell everything, sell nothing, or auction assets piecemeal will turn entirely on what looks best for the shareholders.

The Daily Telegraph in London is expected to trigger a fierce bidding war. Certain properties of the Chicago Group that Cruickshank now runs, such as Pioneer Press and suburban papers in booming Will County and the Fox River Valley, could be hot. But as for the Sun-Times itself, the Daily Southtown, the Post-Tribune in Gary–these are bare-bones operations in intensely competitive markets and there may not be much interest in them.

“It’s tough to predict if the Chicago Group will remain whole,” says someone who watches Hollinger closely. “One scenario is if the board decides to refinance and run the company as a whole. That could happen if the board decides the bidding is not terribly lucrative and also if there are tax implications which make a sale not as lucrative to shareholders as operating the company without all the management fees. If that happens, John Cruickshank is one of the luckiest men in North America.”

A long, anguished letter was just e-mailed to me by a former Daily Southtown employee who was laid off in January 2001 (with dozens of others) by a publisher and editor soon to be axed themselves. “I think that I finally understand WHY my position was eliminated,” it says. “[Black] didn’t care about my dedication to the paper, my talents…my monthly bills, my self-esteem or anyone else’s either. He just wanted to amass more money for himself and his cronies. I had heard over the years from Sun-Times staffers who tried to talk to David Radler about the difficulties of working so short staffed, and Radler was known to tell them that if they didn’t like it, they should quit.”

Conrad Black’s wife is Barbara Amiel, a columnist occasionally published in the Sun-Times. Lynda Hurst called Amiel “a fervent devotee of the world of haute couture.” She recalled that “in words she may live to regret, Amiel told Vogue last summer, ‘I have an extravagance that knows no bounds.'”

The Weather Word Is “Good-bye”

A reader writes: “Why does the Sun-Times put its weather epithet in quotes now? It’s not quoting anyone, and it shouldn’t want to put an editorial distance between itself and its own forecast. Nothing’s unselfconscious anymore.”

Probing question. I e-mailed it to John Dodge, who wrestled with the matter in one of his last official acts as executive news editor and Sun-Times weather word guy.

“I always thought the old, literal weather words were kind of pointless,” he said. “To tell somebody when they pick up the paper that it’s going to be sunny when it’s already sunny seems silly. (Assuming that the forecast is correct.)

“So the weather word often really isn’t about the weather at all. It’s designed to capture a mood, or frankly just be a bit off-beat or even (gasp!) humorous. We decided the quotes would be a nice touch. I mean ‘shiver me timbers’ really isn’t a literal weather word, is it?

“Damn, do you think I think about this a little too much?”

Not at all. I followed up with a couple questions of my own. The weather word began running in October 2001. Did Dodge ever repeat himself? If so, how long was he able to go before he ran out of original weather words?

“I started routinely recycling several months ago,” Dodge allowed. “I think I went about 8 or 9 months without a repeat. I didn’t keep track of the words for a long time. Now a coworker keeps a weather word database so I can be sure that I don’t reuse words too often.”

Setting aside for another day an exploration of the “weather word database,” I told him of someone I know who’s certain he himself has the gift for weather words. Did Dodge receive many over-the-transom weather word suggestions?

“Not too many lately. They tend to come in waves (usually tied to some sort of minor weather word publicity stunt–like me appearing on a radio show).”

Weather hoopla is behind Dodge now. The day after he left the paper, the weather word, provided by news design director Robb Montgomery, was “Warm Farewell.”

Mourning Has Broken

There is no precise point where the public’s right to know expires and a public figure’s right of privacy begins. We often benefit from finding out what the famous don’t wish and have no obligation to tell us. Under the headline “Jackie Kennedy’s privacy violated,” the Sun-Times on November 17 ran a thoughtful editorial that in so many words asked the question–Yes, it was violated, but so what? “The needs of history exert a mighty pull,” observed the Sun-Times.

After her husband’s assassination, Jackie Kennedy was counseled by the Reverend Richard McSorley, usually at the home of her in-laws, Robert and Ethel Kennedy. McSorley kept a diary of their conversations, a diary he kept secret until Mrs. Kennedy died in 1994. Eventually he shared the material with Newsday reporter Thomas Maier, who recently published a book on the Kennedy family. McSorley died last year, leaving his papers to Georgetown University, where he’d taught, and Georgetown recently let the press see excerpts of the diary. They revealed that the president’s widow had discussed suicide with McSorley. She’d mourned what she saw as her failure to support her husband after their prematurely born son Patrick died in August 1963. “I could have made his life so much happier, especially for the last few weeks,” McSorley’s diary had her saying. “I could have tried harder to get over my melancholy.”

The press had no problem finding ethicists and Kennedys prepared to denounce McSorley. But the Sun-Times had to wonder. “Are we so tied to the principle of privacy that we would keep ourselves from reading a public figure’s privileged remarks from decades ago?”

We’re not, of course. As the past recedes it survives as history, which insists we understand it and doesn’t care how. As recent JFK commemorations have reminded us, the Kennedy marriage was long since reduced to shorthand: priapic husband, spendthrift wife, glamorous couple. Learning that in April 1964 Mrs. Kennedy asked a priest, “Do you think that God would separate me from my husband if I killed myself? I feel as though I am going out of my mind at times. Wouldn’t God understand that I just want to be with him?” restores the marriage’s complexity and mystery. This is something we deserve to know even if we shouldn’t have been told.

The Sun-Times wished that McSorley had turned his diary over to the Kennedy family and let them decide what to do with it. Presumably he thought of that and decided instead, “I’ll do the wrong thing and posterity will thank me.” That’s a tough call for a priest to make, but reporters will understand it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andre J. Jackson.