Dennis Britton Succumbs to Poor Circulation

My desire,” Dennis Britton was saying, “would have been to see circulation grow and grow and grow. I take zero comfort from the fact that no major metropolitan paper has growing circulation.”

At the end of October the biannual report of circulation at the country’s leading dailies revealed that Britton’s Sun-Times had finally plummeted through the 500,000 barrier. Sunday circulation, anomalously, was even lower than circulation during the week. Britton, who as the paper’s editor was privvy to the charts and trends long before the Sun-Times made them public, also knew in advance that his paper’s diminishing appeal wasn’t a problem he’d have to solve. He was leaving.

Four weeks ago Britton attended a dinner party where he ran into a supporter such as we should all find in our corner when the going gets rough. Adele Simmons is president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which manages $3.1 billion in assets and last year gave away about $140 million. A chunk of MacArthur largesse helped finance a special Sun-Times supplement, “School Reform’s Heroes,” that the paper put together earlier this year with Designs for Change. Simmons admired Britton’s paper’s focus on urban issues, especially its bravado willingness to print good news.

“I’d asked him to call me if he ever felt there was a time when he needed to make a change,” Simmons said. Now that time had come. At the party she and Britton went into a corner, and last Thursday he announced to a less than flabbergasted staff that he was quitting effective the next day. He’d be moving into the MacArthur Foundation as a “distinguished visitor.”

Britton ran the Sun-Times for six years. In the previous six years there’d been five editors and acting editors, and the paper’s research when Britton arrived showed that plenty of Chicagoans thought Rupert Murdoch was still the owner. (He was long gone.) Britton brought stability. He also brought heavy doses of propriety and the steadying hand of hierarchy. He brought some things that a lot of his staff believe the paper already had or didn’t need, and before long I began hearing from reporters who complained that he was insulting their professionalism and burying them under layers of useless editors.

“There was a time when we were more top-heavy than we needed to be,” Britton conceded after leaving the Sun-Times. “I think that’s a fair criticism. In the last year and a half we certainly weren’t. I think it’s a criticism of somebody who’s not working hard enough. A newspaper wouldn’t be a newspaper if it only had reporters.”

Looking back, Britton told me, “We gave it every effort. Were we successful? Not entirely. We made it possible for the paper to find a legitimate buyer it was on a path not to find [Conrad Black’s Hollinger, Inc.]. But there were lots of failings. The Sunday paper is very readable, but it isn’t compelling enough to be changing circulation growth patterns.

“Long before these new owners I had been championing a concept no one wanted to buy. I think it would be in the Sun-Times’s interests to have a weekend paper. Not a Saturday paper and a Sunday paper. It would be almost a 36-hour paper–it would come out in waves. We’ll never know if I was right or wrong. It’s my thesis people take more time on Saturday morning to read newspapers than any other day of the week. That’s what all the focus groups we have done showed me.

“There is a way to do it. British newspapers and Canadian newspapers do it. There’s probably a good reason not to do it, probably sound business reasons. But being told ‘just because’ isn’t very satisfying.

“Other than that, I was given a free hand.”

Soon after Hollinger bought the Sun-Times in early 1994, publisher Sam McKeel showed what he thought of the new crowd by handing them his resignation. He was never replaced. Around the paper it’s believed that a new publisher finally will be brought in by the end of the year, possibly from Edmonton. Publishers like to choose their own editors, but they don’t necessarily relish as one of their first official acts firing the ones they inherited. That’s one reason Sun-Times staffers doubted Britton would stay around much longer. Another reason was his unconcealed disregard for David Radler, president of Hollinger and chairman of the American Publishing Company subsidiary that owns the Sun-Times. Then there was the dwindling circulation. To his staff Britton seemed marginalized, not really in charge.

“It was like grandma who was ailing who was 102,” said one reporter as Britton left. “It’s best for everybody.”

The MacArthur Foundation offers its distinguished visitors a scholarly respite from whatever it was they were doing. Sometimes what they were doing isn’t theirs to do any longer; in that case, said Adele Simmons, the foundation provides “a transition base for people moving from one place to another.” They stay up to a year, contributing to the foundation’s projects while pursuing work of their own.

Britton told me about his personal program. He said he’s concerned that journalism is no longer acting out of civic obligation and he wants to see if that sense of duty can be restored. “TV only does it during sweeps,” he said. “Newspapers do it sporadically. And I’m finding on the new electronic platforms it’s not done at all.

“What I’m looking for are ways to do hard-nosed journalism, the journalism that makes changes in communities possible, in the new media platforms, including the World Wide Web, niche publications–all of the new media. There’s nothing on these other platforms, absolutely nothing. If you look at the Web sites it’s all fluff. It’s all selling cars and houses instead of selling peoples’ hearts and minds. We’re in danger of coming up with an electorate that has no emotion about anything, that doesn’t respond to anything happening in our society. Frankly, I think the Republican Party is doing a great deal to get people engaged because it’s scaring the hell out of people.”

This cast of mind attracted Simmons. She praised his “civic paper” and told me, “I think Dennis has an extraordinary commitment to the city and the region. He’s really worked hard to make sure that stories about things that were working in the city were covered and to do a responsible job of bringing to our attention things that weren’t. His editorial policy has consistently been one with the best interests of the city very much in mind.”

“He was very clear on the limits of the reporter–where are you crossing the line?” said a reporter who was hired by Britton and respects him enormously. But to some other reporters who’ve been around longer that clarity was sanctimony. They considered him critical, remote, and uninspiring.

“We have our flashes of brilliance,” said a reporter who advanced at the paper under Britton but wasn’t unhappy to see him go. “They break the usual monotony of mediocrity. When we’re brilliant we’re as good as it gets nationally and we’re better than the Tribune.”

Yet this reporter called Britton’s six years “a reign of hypocrisy,” explaining, “He openly disparaged American Publishing Company people. He didn’t practice what he preached about discretion and loyalty to the institution. He made more damaging public comments about the paper with his name on them than I ever made to you off the record.”

“The newspaper,” Britton said in reaction, “is an institution that transcends its ownership. That’s why I loved the Chicago Sun-Times. If a newspaper only reflects its ownership it will not last in any community. It’s absolutely clear that the ownership and what a newspaper is have to be different things.”

Therefore one can properly be disparaged and the other can’t. “I see no inconsistency at all,” said Britton. “I do not see that as a criticism even though some misguided soul thinks it is. I see it as quite a compliment. Some of my internal critics are mired in the distant past. Until they get out of that they will not be able to have the personal growth to see what the paper is doing or has done.”

The same reporter also said, “He’s like somebody who walked in the sand and left no footprint. Very few people felt passionately about him.” Over the years members of Britton’s staff gave me the idea that what they wanted in their editor was Henry V at Agincourt waving them forward. Instead Britton managed by bureaucracy. Impressive as the results could sometimes be in print, he wasn’t a leader. He denied them the exhilaration of battle.

A Modest Proposal

My fellow Americans, the torch is passed. The mantle of thoughtful, principled leadership so reluctantly laid down by General Colin Powell once again rests comfortably on strong, confident shoulders. These shoulders happen to be my own.

Although ignored in recent weeks by media obsessed with a certain dubious and phantom candidacy, you may remember me as the bona fide, nay prototypical Republican running with plain old country wisdom for his party’s nomination for president. Like so many of my countrymen and countrywomen, I deeply regret the general’s decision to bag it. He was an internationalist Rockefeller Republican–and we all know what that means. But he was a distinguished patriot nonetheless, and I had looked forward to debating with him the great issues of our day, such as capital-gains reforms and the constitutional right of children to work in coal mines. What a pity that a high level of discourse is no longer possible in this campaign, as all the other candidates are nincompoops.

Like Colin Powell, I believe that the Republican Party must return to its roots. Once again we must be the party of–well, the name escapes me, but he was a tall, bearded fellow, kind of a sourpuss, got our great republic into a highly unpopular war, a lot like the Democrats do constantly today. But like that fellow, and presumably Colin Powell as well, I abhor slavery. I think it has no place in America, and hasn’t for more than a hundred years. If on this subject my fellow Americans agree, and private polls tell me that you do, surely the reconciliation of the races is not so wild a dream as those who’d profit by postponing it pretend. On that you can quote me.

America admired Colin Powell because it perceived the general, rightly or wrongly, as a moral man and a Christian patriot. I submit that if the media would cease the irrelevant and irresponsible raking over of ancient history, America would soon perceive me the same way. I share Colin Powell’s every concern, only more so. As one example among many, the general and I are both deeply troubled on a personal level by abortion. Like the general, I support a woman’s right to choose. And as no sensible choice is ever made in a vacuum, I believe a woman’s choice is even likelier to be the right one if taken after consultation with the local priest, patrolman, and magistrate. Many of you hoped that General Powell would bring some closure to America on this terribly divisive issue. My position is carefully crafted to do the same.

As you know, General Powell was married just once, to a somewhat troubled woman whom he frequently abandoned as he traveled the world pursuing his chosen occupation of trained killer. I do not begrudge him his reputation as a family man. It was clear from his withdrawal that his wife has him wrapped around her little finger. I merely wish to observe that the sanctity of marriage is no empty phrase to me; it has been, if you please, a lifelong obsession. With my third wife I have achieved a level of holy matrimony that makes the other candidates green with envy.

And so I ask my fellow Americans, think of me as you do General Colin Powell–as a good man, a quiet man, a natural man. A man at ease in London, Tokyo, or Paris, or any of the other great world capitals I wouldn’t take in trade for a single acre of God’s green Kansas corn. Think of me as a man of peace who stands tall. A man who understands that as the world’s greatest military power we have global obligations, none of which are worth one drop of American blood. I have learned the lessons of Munich, and I have learned the lessons of Vietnam. Then I said to myself, “Why stop there?” and I went on and learned the lessons of the Congress of Vienna, not to mention the Council of Trent. I am prepared!

It’s little known that during the Vietnam war I quietly declared myself a conscientious objector. Not that you ever saw me in the streets, smashing car windows and fornicating with doped-up flower children. No, I simply declined to take up arms. About the time, in fact, that General Powell was whitewashing the My Lai massacre, I and other Young Republicans–and our first wives–were dedicating our lives to the day when we would restore America’s tattered honor.

That day has come. I would not sully Colin Powell’s vaunted reputation for independence by seeking his endorsement for the office he lacked the grit to pursue. But surely it is unimaginable that he could mark his ballot for any other man. I know the other candidates are all promising to run in his image, but they are lying scum playing the public for idiots. I alone can bind the wounds.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rich Hein-Chicago Sun-Times.