Bringing In Britton

Editing the Chicago Sun-Times was a job that Dennis Britton didn’t seek and couldn’t turn down for pretty much the same reason. The reason was the agony he went through in 1988, when Tom Johnson, then publisher of the Los Angeles Times, declared a nakedly open competition for editor of that paper. Britton, a deputy managing editor, was one of four candidates. And he lost.

So about three months ago when Johnson, just before moving up to chairman of the Times Mirror Corporation, told Sam McKeel, president of the Sun-Times Company, some wonderful things about Dennis Britton, then let Britton know McKeel was asking about him, Britton shrugged it off. And when Jim Shaffer, the LA Times’s chief financial officer whom McKeel had just hired away, told Britton on October 13, Shaffer’s last day in LA, that McKeel still wondered if Britton had an interest in the editing job, Britton said he hadn’t. At least talk to him, said Shaffer.

“To tell the truth,” Britton explained to us, “the prospect of talking to Sam and being rejected by him was too much to bear. The search for editor of the Los Angeles Times was so public–it was written about in every major newspaper in the country–I didn’t want my ego bruised again.”

McKeel called Britton twice the next week and missed him each time. On Friday, McKeel finally got through. He said he was going to be in Laguna Beach on business over the weekend, and he asked Britton to meet him there.

“I couldn’t think of any reason not to,” Britton told us. In that “terribly relaxed state” that comes with indifference, he and his wife Tere drove down from LA for brunch with Sam and Margaret McKeel. The women hit it off, and their husbands talked for three hours. “I just really became intrigued with him,” said Britton. “He’s such a straightforward, knowledgeable, firm, directed man.” At the end of the afternoon, McKeel asked if he wanted to pursue this further. Britton was mildly surprised to hear himself say yes. “My wife was more surprised–when I told her driving away I was considering a job in Chicago.”

At this point, Britton’s traumatic 1988 began cutting in McKeel’s favor. Britton had spent 23 shining years rising through the LA Times hierarchy; he now ran the Times’s national, foreign, business, and financial desks, controlling 300 reporters (more than the Sun-Times has); and at age 49 he had nowhere to go. “I could have sat here and been deputy managing editor in charge of all sorts of neat things, but I’m an ambitious person,” Britton told us. “It just didn’t have the same intellectual fulfillment it did before. And in five years, nobody might call me and ask if I wanted to take a new job.”

But was this a job he really wanted? The Sun-Times has been a paper in distress since Marshall and Teddy Field sold it to Rupert Murdoch in 1983. It’s the second paper in a two-paper city; its circulation is skidding (down nearly 45,000 daily and over 37,000 Sunday in just the past year); and aggressive new competition (the Daily Herald and Southtown Economist) snarls at the city gates. The Sun-Times is on a slippery slope from which, defunct papers in other cities have discovered, there is no easy escape.

Clearly, the most attractive thing about the Sun-Times was McKeel himself, who’d come to Chicago in June after several distinguished years as a Knight-Ridder publisher in Philadelphia. Britton (like everyone else McKeel talked to) immediately asked McKeel how long he intended to be around. For the long haul, said McKeel, who’s 63. When Britton went to New York on business, McKeel arranged for him to meet Leonard Shaykin, chairman of the Sun-Times Company and head of the financial syndicate that controls the paper. Britton came away doubly reassured. “It was clear he was dedicated as hell to the success of this venture. He convinced me the paper was profitable and Pioneer Press [which the Sun-Times Company owns] was very, very profitable.”

Jim Shaffer, now in Chicago, told Britton the same thing. “I was confident he wouldn’t be putting himself and his family at risk,” said Britton. “He’s a very prudent man. He looked at [the books] very carefully. He knows what he’s looking at. I don’t know what I’m looking at.”

Britton and his wife spent the last weekend of October in Chicago, and the balmy weather made it a lot easier for Tere Britton to decide it might be OK to leave LA and her own job there with NBC and come east. While she explored the city that Saturday he was meeting from 8:30 to 4 with McKeel and publisher Chuck Price. On Monday they offered him a contract.

The usual dickering would go on another ten days, and then Britton said yes. In a rush of uncertainty, he had asked his lawyer to tell him the truth–was he getting a good deal?

“He said, yeah,” Britton told us. “He said you can sit there in your golden handcuffs and velvet coffin and vegetate. Or you can take a chance. It really helped me. I hadn’t heard the expression ‘golden handcuffs.'”

He’d certainly heard the expression “velvet coffin,” a popular tag for the LA Times. He’s going to discover the Sun-Times is more of a pine box. He knows already that when he reports December 4, the first order of business will be to wake the dead. McKeel assumes, reasonably enough, that the staff that has survived the past six years “has got to be sort of battered.”

Britton will almost certainly want more to work with than he inherits, but first he’s got to show what that battered staff alone can produce when properly led. “When he comes to us,” said McKeel, “and says, ‘I’m now using my resources efficiently, effectively, and wisely,’ and we can see the results, and he says, ‘There are other things we need to do that are going to require these resources,’ we’ll give him the resources.”

Beyond a strongly reputed ability to inspire, what Britton brings to his new job that McKeel particularly values is “a total freshness . . . and no feelings about the past, no feelings about the people. Totally objective. Totally apolitical.”

A number of the other candidates carried Chicago baggage; one of them, Matthew Storin, had even edited the Sun-Times for nine months while Robert Page was publisher. Before McKeel got serious about Britton, he’d been “very interested”–McKeel’s words–in David Hall, an assistant managing editor of the Chicago Daily News in the months before that paper folded in 1978. It was Hall, now editor of the Bergen (New Jersey) Record, who broke off the talks; we gather he wasn’t able to look into the Sun-Times’s future with Britton’s optimism.

Last week Britton signed a four-year contract (McKeel has promised to be around all four years) with a little equity in it as a sweetener, held a press conference in Chicago, and met the staff. “I was asked at the staff meeting how to compete in the suburbs,” he told us. “I said something I’m afraid was misunderstood–‘We’ll all be suburban reporters.'” What he meant, he said, was that “we’ll find ways for everyone to do something about the suburbs. For example, if you’re an education writer it’s incumbent on you to have suburban sources. That’s something newspapers haven’t done so well. Papers treat the suburbs as a pain.”

We’d go Britton one better. We’d say papers also treat the neighborhoods as a pain. They treat the streets as a pain. What reporters like is how Chicago looks from the Loop.

“We have to find a way to almost literally cover neighborhoods,” Britton said. “If there’s a way to do a neighborhood feature, I’m going to do it.”

Britton’s grasp of Chicago journalism is a shade romantic–the city’s newspaper traditions helped sway him to come here–but we like his grasp of certain fundamentals. Investigative reporting? “I think on a paper like the Sun-Times, it’s bread and butter.” A news columnist? “I suspect we need to find somebody who can be the voice of Chicago.”

Do you know when Royko’s contract expires? we asked him.

“No,” said Britton. “That’s one of the first things I’m going to find out.”

Britton said the Sun-Times’s research tells it that there’s “a substantial reservoir of anti-Rupert Murdoch feeling” still crippling the paper in the marketplace, three and a half years after Murdoch sold the paper. “There’s a large body of opinion that thinks he still owns it,” Britton said, “a large body of opinion that still thinks it’s too sensational.

“Personally,” said Britton, “I found it rather gray.”

Our Man in Washington

We were moved and impressed at the many dimensions (well, two) of Chicago’s most powerful congressman, as revealed in the Sun-Times recently. Trouble is, the congressman popped up in three separate articles on different pages. It was hard to track.

A crack copy desk might have patched together this material taken verbatim from the three stories into one intimate account.

Clout-heavy Presidential Towers, beneficiary of the largest mortgage ever insured by the Federal Housing Administration, is seeking an additional $16 million to cover unexpected operating losses. Presidential Towers was developed by the politically connected team of Daniel Levin, James McHugh and Daniel Shannon. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski helped the developers push through Congress two pieces of special interest legislation that aided the project.

Meanwhile, in Washington, the House yesterday stripped from a Pentagon funding bill $8 million that had been quietly tacked on for a new Loyola University of Chicago business school building. An aide to Rep. Rostenkowski admitted that the northwest side congressman was behind the deal for Loyola.

Last night tears streamed down Rostenkowski’s face as he told a hushed dinner audience how Lech Walesa’s triumphal tour of Washington had made him nearly explode with pride. “Lech Walesa, my friends, is no Polish joke,” Rostenkowski said. “He’s freedom.”

And Rostenkowski’s pretty special himself.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Ted Soqui.