Dennis Britton’s Worst Decision?

The head of the Sun-Times sports department was asked to resign the other day. His downfall was caused by a sight gag that his boss didn’t think was funny.

Profiling the moody southpaw Danny Jackson, who’d just been signed by the Cubs, Brian Hewitt reported, “His Reds teammates nicknamed him ‘Jason’ after the protagonist in the ‘Friday the 13th’ horror movies. And they learned to steer clear of him the day before and the day of his starts.

“The generic sports term is ‘game face.’ In Cincinnati, the Reds referred to Jackson’s countenance as his ‘Jason mask.'”

When Hewitt’s copy came in on November 28, the sports desk had the bright idea of showing Jackson in a Jason mask. Alan Henry, the deputy managing editor for sports, said OK, and the next morning’s Sun-Times carried what the art department worked up, a doctored photo of Jackson on the mound, his face hidden in white.

The caption below said: “Danny Jackson’s real game face? The new Cubs pitcher was tagged with the nickname ‘Jason’ from the protagonist in the ‘Friday the 13th’ horror movies, by Cincinnati teammates wary of his mood swings.”

Just a dumb joke? Night-shift reporters spotted “Jason” in the first edition and winced. Jackson was brand-new to Chicago. He didn’t need this. What’s more, the picture didn’t work. The joke was a mumbled aside, buried inside Sports. It should have been plastered across the back page, with a headline that made it clear this was all in fun.

The next morning the editor of the Sun-Times didn’t come close to laughing. “It’s not fair to our readers,” Dennis Britton told us later. “There are too many people who believe what they see–they are not sophisticated processors of information. And there are newspaper conventions we ask our readers to accept. One is that we present things in as detached a manner as possible. That’s why we label ‘news analysis.’ And unless we tell them otherwise, we owe it to them to present a photograph as the shutter clicks.”

Sun-Times readers were not told otherwise, although we think anyone smarter than a cantaloupe couldn’t have been fooled for a second. Don’t you irritate smart readers when you spell out the obvious for the dumb ones? we wondered to Britton. But the dailies learned to live with that problem long ago.

Britton called in Henry, and their conversation, we understand, was a noisy one. Then Britton posted a memorandum. It said, “Our readers expect and deserve photographic images that exactly reflect the scene depicted. There may be times when a gag photo or a distorted image might be considered to illustrate a feature, but never will we publish such a photograph without the explicit approval of the managing editor, executive editor, or editor. We owe far more to our readers than what we delivered this week. I am disappointed.”

When he talked to us, Britton noted that he’d said “disappointed,” not “deeply distressed” or anything hinting at apoplexy. “I don’t want you to be misled,” he said. “I don’t think this is the worst journalistic sin I have ever experienced in my life.”

On November 30 the Sun-Times fessed up publicly in an “editor’s note.” The Sun-Times “deeply regrets this lapse from standard practice, which will not be repeated.”

Surely, this handwringing more than atoned for so venial a sin. But no . . . A note went up on the bulletin board announcing that Henry had left the paper, and the staff was astonished.

“The worst decision Dennis has made,” says a friend of Henry’s who’s a fan of Britton’s. Neil Steinberg, who was one of the night-shift reporters who’d winced at “Jason,” went into Britton’s office and told him he was wrong. A problem with this paper, Steinberg said, is too many errors of omission. Editors who don’t want to do anything. Alan Henry made errors of commission. He wasn’t always right, but he acted.

Britton thanked Steinberg for his thoughts.

Obviously, there is more to this than “Jason.” We can’t say exactly what, for Britton refused to talk specifically about Henry’s dismissal and Henry wouldn’t say anything at all. But everyone describes Henry as blunt, aggressive, and free with his opinions, and it was no secret that he made Britton uncomfortable.

“The thing that Britton values most,” says Steinberg, who’s spent more time with the boss than most reporters, “is the image of the journalist as upstanding and morally correct. He wouldn’t let us accept cookies at Christmas. He wants journalists to be Caesar’s wife. He’s probably the most morally upright journalist I’ve ever encountered.”

Steinberg describes Henry’s editing style as “offbeat and quirky,” meaning simply that Henry believes in showing the reader a good time while informing him. But the slightest hint of the old regime puts Britton on edge–Rupert Murdoch continues to be the ghost that haunts Britton’s paper.

“I think Dennis Britton made a mistake,” Steinberg tells us. “But it’s a mistake in keeping with who he is. He takes risks, but he doesn’t want to take risks of taste. It wasn’t that Alan Henry printed the picture–he didn’t see that the picture could be trouble. If you’re going to go out on a limb, it should be for journalistic excellence. Don’t have it be for an obscure pitcher who just came to the Cubs.”

But if Henry was on thin ice, why did Britton give him the sports department just two weeks before? Now we know what he thinks of Sports, some sportswriters are grousing. Don Snider was the incumbent executive sports editor who’d kept his title but lost his authority and office to Henry. Now Snider’s back in charge, even though Britton obviously isn’t happy with him. No, it’s not a comfortable situation.

Before Sports, Henry had been the Sunday editor. He valued “readers”–light yarns given good display–more than Britton did. But give him credit for one of the paper’s major public services of recent years. For a year and a half the Sun-Times has carried occasional articles arguing that the state of Illinois was so eager to locate a new radioactive-waste dump in downstate Martinsville–the only place in the state willing to accept it–that it closed its eyes to grave environmental hazards. For example, the aquifer under the dump site connects with the aquifer that gives Martinsville its drinking water.

Henry “recognized the story and consistently gave it prominence when it was difficult to get space or display in the regular daily city-side operation,” investigative reporter Charles Nicodemus told us. “And the story had a profound impact on what had been the state’s determined effort to railroad through approval of the Martinsville site.” Eventually the General Assembly stepped in, creating an independent commission chaired by former supreme court justice Seymour Simon to hold new hearings.

Alan Henry was a good journalist. A few days after he was fired, there was a party at the Billy Goat, and his friends packed the place in order to say good-bye.

Departure of ‘Commerce’

We tried to call Kelly O’Rourke, the editor of Commerce magazine, a week ago and got a recorded message. “Unfortunately, the staff of Commerce magazine is no longer here,” said O’Rourke’s bemused voice. “Commerce magazine has folded as of today, on, uh, on, uh the promise that it may be renewed at some point in time in the future . . .”

We reached Sam Mitchell, the president of the Chicago Association of Commerce and Industry, who’d just lowered the boom.

“Very simply, we didn’t want to run it at a loss,” said Mitchell. “We looked at the assets we had and decided we’d rather spend that money on services for members. It was a very painful decision for the board. It was debated long and hard. And the decision ultimately was that we’re in business to provide a lot of services for our members and not to publish Commerce magazine. You don’t want a tail-wagging-the-dog effect.

“We just didn’t see the advertising revenues for the new year,” Mitchell said.

Why do these things always happen at Christmas? we asked him.

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s the real Christmas spirit,” he said gloomily. “I’m being facetious.”

We knew that.

“I don’t know,” he went on. “Maybe because of how Christmas comes up in the budget cycles. Most of the advertisers set their budgets at the end of October or November.”

Mitchell said, “We will revisit the whole issue of Commerce when the advertising market gets a little better.”

Up until 1990, said Mitchell, Commerce had paid its way for 85 years. Merit had nothing to do with this admirable record. Puffery was the editorial mission, and the average issue stuck to the ribs like a Twinkie. But with circulation and advertising skidding, and serious publications such as Crain’s Chicago Business and Chicago Enterprise setting an example, the association decided to take a flier and try quality.

A new publisher was hired; O’Rourke, an experienced free-lancer who’d been developing scripts in LA, signed on as editor; and press releases trumpeted the July issue as Commerce reborn.

“We were looking to become a regional business publication geared toward the CEOs and managers of businesses in the area, something basically designed to be a Chicago Forbes, something to reflect newsworthy events and be more cutting edge,” O’Rourke told us when we finally caught up with her.

“I think when we came aboard it was in a last-ditch effort to keep it afloat. To turn around most existing publications takes three years. We knew we’d have to do it more quickly.”

The one sign of progress O’Rourke could point to was an uptick in letters to the editor. Circulation held at 8,000, and ad revenues continued south. The end came as no surprise.

“It’s just a beautiful time to be looking for work,” said O’Rourke, one of eight staffers laid off. “But I think we’re going to be OK.” Everyone received severance.

“We went out as a class act,” said Sam Mitchell.

So did Scrooge. It’s never too late.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Sun-Times–Bob Black.