Ciao for Now
For a taste of vintage Conrad Black, visit the hollinger.com Web site and read his lordship’s most recent (2002) statement to shareholders. It’s great stuff. He lays the blame for “financial results that are apparently absurdly unsatisfactory” on everyone and everything but himself. Growth was stymied by the “bad faith of the authorities in Australia,” and the “internecine corporate maneuvering” in Canada, the “U.K. price war,” the “currency fluctuations in Russia, Latin America, and the Far East.” He takes time to lecture the wayward nation he’d expatriated himself from: “Until Canada develops a more promising national mission statement than to be more socialistic that the United States…and until the restoration of a fully functioning federal democratic system where there is a possibility of an electoral change, we will share the aversion of most of our investors to that country.”
And then he’s at his most endearing, insisting that old-fashioned newspapers are good business. “The terrible events of September 11, 2001, and their aftermath, demonstrated that newspapers retain the ability to collect, edit, and comment on events in a manageable and reliable way,” he writes. “After the immediate impact of dramatic events, television is reduced to linear filler and repetition. People will pay for the editorial function skillfully executed….We remain confident that the best and most authoritative newspaper franchises will continue to be valuable. The franchises, the writers, the subscribers, and the goodwill in the titles have value.”
Black found joy in words, and so did his newspapers. And Wall Street tells us he was right about the value in his franchises. Hollinger International stock jumped more than 16 percent in value Monday on the news that Black had been run off as CEO. Nothing had been holding down the value of that stock more than Black himself.
He didn’t go alone. His longtime number two, David Radler, resigned as president and COO of Hollinger and publisher of the Sun-Times, and lesser executives also tumbled. They all departed in what could be construed as disgrace.
At hollinger.com you can read the grim details from the company itself. The “special committee” of directors formed earlier in the year at the insistence of malcontent investors had determined that a total of $15.6 million in “non-competition payments” had been improperly made to Black, Radler, and two other execs in 2000 and 2001, and another $16.55 million in 1999 and 2000 to a holding company, Hollinger Inc., through which Black controlled Hollinger International. Those payments had been made when Hollinger International sold off some of its smaller newspapers, and the investors believed the money belonged in the corporate account, not the execs’ pockets.
Hollinger International allows that the payments hadn’t been “authorized or approved by either the audit committee or the full board of directors of Hollinger.” What’s more, the $16.55 million paid to the holding company was never disclosed to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Hollinger International had reported the payments to its executives, but the company had told the SEC “that the payments in question had been authorized by the independent directors of the board, which did not occur, and that the payments were made ‘to satisfy a closing condition,’ which was not accurate.” Now Black and Radler have agreed to repay Hollinger the full $7.2 million, plus interest, that each received in these “unauthorized payments.”
And in the end they may repay far more. This settlement doesn’t complete the special committee’s assignment. The investors have been questioning fees to Black, Radler, and the others that totaled more than $200 million.
Last June, Jeremy Mullman of Crain’s Chicago Business wrote about “disgruntled shareholders…trying to cut the financial lifeline that funnels money from Hollinger International’s newspapers to Mr. Black’s Canadian holding company.” This assault on its lifeline threatened a liquidity crisis at Hollinger Inc.–one that Black, with his usual panache, laid to “corporate governance terrorists in the United States”–and ultimately Black’s control of his domain. Last week Mullman wryly noted in Crain’s that de-spite the revelation that over the previous five years “more than $300 million had been drained from the public com-pany into entities controlled by Mr. Black and his lieutenants,” Hollinger International stock had climbed in value by more than 70 percent since April 1. The reason? “Wall Street’s belief,” wrote Mullman, “that each fresh disappointment hastens what many believe is the CEO’s inevitable abdication.”
Gordon Paris, a New York investment banker who chaired the special committee, is replacing Black as CEO and Radler as president, while Daniel Colson, publisher of Hollinger’s British paper, the Daily Telegraph, is the new COO. John Cruickshank, the Sun-Times’s vice president of editorial, was moved up Tuesday to publisher of that paper and COO of the entire Chicago Group.
Between the brief, haunting Rupert Murdoch era of industrial-grade tabloidism, which ended in 1986, and the Hollinger era, which began in 1994, the Sun-Times was controlled by a New York investment banker. It wasn’t a good time. The stream of blue-collar editors from England and its dominions dried up, the understaffed newsroom got top-heavy with managers, and there wasn’t a pot to piss in. Hollinger didn’t restore the pot–Black and Radler weren’t going to get rich by running a welfare state–but the skeleton staff was told to write up a storm. In recent years the Sun-Times has been the HMS Surprise to the Tribune’s mighty Acheron–in every physical way inferior to the enemy but competitive through wit and bravado.
News reports this week spoke of the Hollinger empire, but it isn’t much of one anymore. It mostly consists of three large newspapers: the Sun-Times, the Daily Telegraph, and the Jerusalem Post. With all the company’s assets now on the block, it seems the Sun-Times is considered the least desirable, because, as the New York Times put it,”it runs a distant second to its larger, more profitable rival.” Even so, Hollinger International’s Chicago Group, fleshed out by the hundred or so smaller papers that Hollinger has bought up in and around Chicago, made the company more than $35 million last year.
I’ll remember Black and Radler as two guys who liked power and mixing with the powerful and who refused to display an ounce of the piety that afflicts some newspaper people. The Trump tower, should it ever be built–and the real estate market’s a bigger threat to that fifty-fifty deal with Hollinger than the shake-up–will make a fitting monument. Radler kept the Sun-Times on the good side of City Hall; Black worked the rest of the world. He concocted a board studded with luminaries like James Thompson, Henry Kissinger, and Richard Perle who left him alone–at least until the mutinous shareholders put the board members’ own good names into play.
On a slow week at Hot Type, Black was always good for a column, like the one about how he wangled his way into Britain’s House of Lords, deking the hostile Canadian prime minister who stood in his way by renouncing his Canadian citizenship. But he and Radler saw an opportunity in the second paper in a fierce market. Who will see one now? The Tribune raised the possibility of Murdoch coming back to town if the media cross-ownership rules that drove him out when he bought Channel 32 are relaxed. We can hope that was just the Tribune being impish. Another Tribune scenario had Black and Radler and some new investors buying Hollinger’s Chicago Group for themselves. That’s a weird prospect, but it beats Murdoch.
What’s With the Face-Lift?
“There was a perception by some readers that we were still a tabloid rag,” says Eric White, design director of the Sun-Times. “One of the things the editors wanted to do was to point to the more upscale, serious news we had in the paper. We’ve gotten a lot of calls saying they liked the new nameplate more than the old one. It has a more dignified air.”
Does this mean the Sun-Times is still trying to recover from Rupert Murdoch, who took over the paper in 1984 and sold it in ’86?
“I think it is, a little bit,” says White. “I think we may always be recovering from Rupert Murdoch.”
The new nameplate was worked up by an outside designer named Jim Parkinson from a typeface called Big Caslon. It’s a dramatic change from the lumpish old Gothic, and it’s the only piece of the Sun-Times redesign that wasn’t created in-house. The new front page is dramatically different, and the day before its November 5 debut, editor in chief Michael Cooke and then vice president of editorial John Cruickshank alerted their staff by e-mail of the “next crucial step in our stealthy remake of the look and the character of our newspaper….Why the stealth? Unlike the Tribune, that loudly trumpeted very little innovation, we, with far fewer resources, have sought to make substantial changes for a skittish readership cautiously.”
White explains, “Most of the time redesigns tend to piss readers off. We wanted to make some changes to the paper, but we didn’t want to call too much attention to it. We wanted to change perceptions subtly. I’ve gotten more positive reaction to the front page than negative, but there hasn’t been much reaction at all. People aren’t angry enough to want to call in.”
In March 2001 the Tribune sliced an inch off the width of its pages–an economy that mandated a change in the way those pages were put together. The Tribune had no past to exorcise, and it had a tradition to maintain. Design consultant Lucie Lacava, who worked on the project, told me at the time, “They didn’t want to change who they were. They didn’t want to look like any other paper but themselves.” Because there was no way to slip the changes by the public, the Tribune devoted a Perspective section to the new design. And it wasn’t even all that new; it was the same old Tribune, only less vivacious. Even so, it took some getting used to.
The Sun-Times has turned its front page into a menu. “It’s a whole different editing concept,” White says. “Right now we’re doing eight, nine, ten different elements [on the front page]. We needed to develop a new style of doing things. We needed a page that has the same impact in the box but works at a lot of different levels and lets us prioritize stories more for the reader up-front.”
The changing face of the Sun-Times is a saga that began back in 1998, when former editor Nigel Wade brought in design consultant Ron Reason to revamp the paper. Reason’s first thought on arriving, he told me later, was, “This is chaos.” There were “too many fonts, too many weird logos,” and “not one focused point in the paper’s history where it knew what its design was.” When he called the Sun-Times “one of the most challenged papers in the country,” he wasn’t speaking merely of the look of it. As I wrote three years ago, “He concluded that he’d joined a paper beaten down by a succession of owners and editors and that a woebegone appearance was visual evidence of that beating.”
At the time the paper was building a new south-side printing plant stocked with new offset presses that would allow the paper to be subtler and more elegant in its visual effects. Reason, who’d been named an assistant managing editor, created a prototype.
Then stuff happened. The new presses turned out to be so unreliable that the Sun-Times stopped paying for them, and it became clear that Reason’s new design couldn’t be introduced as planned in September 2000, or for months afterward. And in May of that year, Wade was replaced as editor by the tandem from Vancouver, Cooke and Cruickshank. Reason wasn’t their guy, and he soon left the paper.
White joined the Sun-Times in 1999 on Reason’s recommendation and was named design director in August 2001. Last October Cooke and Cruickshank set him loose on the long-overdue redesign. He shared a lot of the work with his deputy, Craig Newman, who was hired early this year from the Boston Globe, and news design director Robb Montgomery. There were no focus groups. “We sell 350,000 copies at boxes every day,” says Cruickshank. “We find out about stuff every day. We have a lot of feedback.”
Last November the business section introduced the paper’s new look. There were new typefaces for the headlines and the section header. But though White had suggested a new body type that would allow a few more characters per line, Cooke and Cruickshank told him readers would complain–whenever there’s a new design readers suspect the type’s been shrunk. Sure enough, that’s what some Business readers objected to, even though the body type hadn’t been touched.
“This is routine work,” says Cruickshank. “This is what newspapers do. We need to be in a state of constant reinvention. One of the big issues we have is to be able to do that without driving readers nuts.” Ideally, he says, readers would never know. “They’d just feel a general improvement in the paper and not know why.”
Journalists of good faith can disagree about whether it was right or wrong to identify Steven Bartman by name the day after he reached for a foul ball and perhaps changed the destiny of the Cubs-Marlins series.
But why would any paper respect the anonymity of the profiteer who wound up with the ball and intends to put it up for Internet auction on December 1? The Sun-Times had outed Bartman, but it kept this guy’s secret in its November 12 story announcing the auction. “The attorney who walked off with the ball does not want to reveal his name,” wrote Annie Sweeney. The Tribune, which hid Bartman’s identity for a day, went into a little more detail. Reporter Jon Yates wrote, “The attorney, whose first name is Jim, said he did not want his last name published because of what happened to Bartman. ‘That poor kid went through hell for nothing.'”
Well, that’s too bad for Jim. There was only one good reason for the papers not to tell us who Jim was–they didn’t know themselves. And in fact they didn’t, though neither story explained this. MastroNet Inc., the Internet auction house handling the sale, wasn’t saying; it offered the papers an interview on the condition that the ball owner’s identity stay hidden.
Curiously, it was the Tribune that accepted these shabby terms. The Sun-Times didn’t, and Sweeney wrote her story without talking to “Jim,” though without identifying him either.
“It’s not like it would take a detective,” says Brian Marren, MastroNet’s vice president. “He was on TV, about three channels. They used his first name, not his last.”
With a little more effort, Jim’s full name probably would have come out. The story wasn’t worth that effort. Bartman must be wondering how journalism makes its rules.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Richard A Chapman/Chicago Sun-Times, Andre J. Jackson.