End of Page?

In the summer of 1986, soon after a management group led by Robert Page bought the Sun-Times from Rupert Murdoch with $145 million borrowed from New York lenders, Page brought in a couple of Canadian newspaper consultants to help chart the paper’s course. This was a business-school sort of move, no doubt characteristic of Leonard Shaykin, president of the new board of directors, and perhaps Donald Piazza, the paper’s chief operating officer. But it typified Robert Page, the seat-of-the-pants publisher and CEO, only inasmuch as Page is apt to do whatever seems like a good idea at the time, and who now with his own paper to spend money on found an innocent joy in spending it.

The consultants–Kristin Shannon and Rob McConnell–weren’t around long enough to do much. They made one tangible change: abolishing “yesterday” from the leads of articles. Another suggestion was to create psychographic profiles of target readers, then display large photographs of archetypes around the newsroom, to remind reporters of the public for whom they toiled. An intriguing idea–any reporter would thank God it wasn’t carried out.

But one observation of Shannon and McConnell resonates today. During their months inside the Sun-Times they reached the conclusion–and shared it quietly with Piazza–that one of the paper’s problems was a publisher who allocated too much responsibility to himself and often didn’t bother to tell others what was going on.

Soon Page sent Shannon and McConnell packing. But the seeds of the case against Bob Page had been planted. Piazza suffered particularly from Page’s unwillingness to communicate. The balance sheet was Piazza’s responsibility, yet Page hired away two expensive Tribune talents, Mike Sneed and Steve Neal, and Piazza knew nothing about it. He knew only after the fact that Page was letting editor Matt Storin resign and firing the special projects editor, Bernie Judge. In different moods, Page had hired both men.

Did Page dislike Piazza at this point? Not necessarily. “Piazza was the voice of reality and Bob doesn’t always deal with the world of reality,” explained a colleague. “The whole ethos of the place was upbeat and even kind of rich–until May, when reality hit.”

In May of 1987, six weeks before the new owners’ first fiscal year ended, everyone sat down to go over the books. It had been a pretty good year, really; the paper had earned a good deal more than it had spent. But the profits were not sufficient to meet the payments that Page owed to the lenders who had put the paper in his hands. Expenses had to be cut immediately, otherwise the new owners would fall behind schedule for repaying their exorbitant debt. And the prospects for the coming year were highly disquieting. The Sun-Times was in the middle of a major TV promotion at the time, and the last two weeks of it were abruptly canceled.

When Page and Piazza found themselves buying the Sun-Times with that borrowed $145 million, Page was ecstatic and Piazza apprehensive. Piazza, a brilliant bean counter, understood the financial brinksmanship they were in for in trying to repay the loan out of the paper’s revenues. Page, with no head for money, was off on the adventure of a lifetime.

A friend of Page’s calls him “charismatic, a great leader”; but great leadership has been disastrously absent from the Sun-Times since Page and Piazza took it over. The same friend acknowledges that Page’s “free-spending habits make Louis XIV look like a street person,” and that this profligacy–and the partisan manner in which it was expressed–appalled Piazza and embittered Page’s staff. As an example, there was Page’s habit of taking along on business trips two loyal aides of many years’ standing (both of whom resigned under fire this past spring as Page’s power waned). They accompanied Page to one convention at the same time the sports desk could not afford to send a reporter to cover the NBA playoffs.

When the Sun-Times’s finances began to tailspin during the second fiscal year, Piazza went to board president Shaykin, an investment banker put in place by the paper’s New York lenders so that someone they knew and trusted would be watching their money. Shaykin was dismayed by Piazza’s figures. I can straighten this out, said Piazza. Do it, said Shaykin.

And so for a time, Piazza got his way. But Shaykin recognized his inadequacies–Piazza was a tough manager, hard on people, harder on himself, but not a leader; he was a tenacious guardian of businesses with little empathy for the crapshooters who build them. And he was not a newspaperman. Shaykin, a former Chicagoan with a master’s in literature and another in business from the University of Chicago, had begun to think that he might do better himself. Increasingly, Shaykin, flying in Mondays to meet with the paper’s executives, issued the marching orders. The executive-search firm of Heidrick and Struggles began a quiet search for a new chief operating officer to take Piazza’s place.

Which is not to say that things inside the Sun-Times were again going Page’s way. Shaykin was another nuisance to the publisher, another meddler who wouldn’t leave Page alone to run the paper his own way. Relationships were falling apart all around, and it became apparent that Page’s personal stock had hit bottom when the Heidrick and Struggles headhunter stopped reporting to Page and started reporting to Shaykin. The search was now on for a new publisher as well.

A newspaper is brimming with people who have the inclination to put two and two together and then tell someone on the phone what they’ve added up. Furthermore, so we’re told, Heidrick and Struggles became unusually indiscreet about its assignment. So it was no secret–no secret to the staff, no secret in the industry, no secret to the advertisers whom Page had so passionately courted and the Sun-Times so desperately needed–that Page was in big trouble and some sort of low, humorless comedy was playing itself out. The second fiscal year ended a few weeks ago and we’re told the Sun-Times found itself about $8 million short of meeting its obligation to its lenders. Newspaper boxes and delivery trucks were here and there blue, here and there still yellow, because the repainting had been called off to save money. Negotiations with the Newspaper Guild were proceeding at the slowest pace in memory; terrified of a strike and at its wits’ end about how to proceed, management was apparently reluctant to schedule negotiating sessions.

The new year began dismally. The traditional summer slump, the price increase to 35 cents, and the chaotic distribution system (which we discussed at some length a week ago) have combined to ravage the Sun-Times’s circulation: we’ve been told that an in-house audit of daily circulation over the first two weeks of July found it averaging 527,000. By contrast, the Audit Bureau of Circulation reported that daily circulation for the six months that ended March 31 was slightly above 625,000. (We sent word to both John Cimaroli, vice-president for circulation, and Piazza, who we’re told decided to force the issue with the paper’s distributors, that we wished to discuss circulation with them. We heard from neither.)

In time, Page decided that the job he had wasn’t worth having under the conditions that now came with it. It was too late to leave gracefully, but he did not intend to leave a poor man. Even in the halcyon early months as publisher he’d talked of selling in five years or so and walking away from the Sun-Times a man of means for the first time in his life. Shaykin, for his part, was trying to control the damage. Obviously, he has prayed that when Page goes he’ll go quietly. But forbearance is uncharacteristic of Page, and not likely to come cheap.

As of Tuesday, when we write this account, Page hangs in as publisher. By the time you read this, he may have left. A carefully reported article by Charles Storch in last Sunday’s Tribune informed Chicago that Page had been through what he told friends was “a bloodbath” or “a fight to the finish,” and that he’d tried to round up new investors to buy out the present crop and had failed. Storch wrote that his departure “may be imminent.”

This week we were told that Page and Shaykin had come to terms and Page was staying on only long enough for the heir apparent to cut his own deal, so one press conference can tie a ribbon around the whole mess. The successor was believed to be Art Wible, publisher of the Dallas Times Herald until that paper was sold two months ago. (The man who sold it, the flamboyant media trafficker William Dean Singleton, had coffee in Chicago with Page a while back. Page wanted him to put up money to buy the Sun-Times, but Singleton, who’d lost big in Dallas, took a pass.)

That’s what we were told. But Page’s capacity to dig in his heels and behave as it suits him can’t be overstated. Monday, in the wake of Storch’s article, the directors of the Chicago Sun-Times Inc. held an unscheduled meeting. Page is the only one of them who might not have minded the Tribune’s embarrassing evidence that the deal is not going down quietly. Is Page’s settlement now in peril? We hear the directors spent the session shouting at each other.

Writers in the Sky

The arrival of the Canadian Snowbirds for the recent Air and Water Show fetched the usual spate of our-man-in-the-cockpit stories. These are tricky to write, the challenge being to sound the appropriate note of Apprehensive Everyman without striking the reader as either an arrogant show-off or a big sissy.

These stories have not impressed us much since we visited Toronto some 15 years ago at the time of the annual Canadian National Exposition. A paper there handed one of its women the assignment. She responded by going up in a biplane, which buzzed the balcony of her editor’s high rise as she stood strapped to the wing and flew by upside down.

Her account, as we recall it, betrayed no trace of fear.

Arts Smarts

The embarrassing resignation of the executive director of the Illinois Arts Council leaves us wondering just how much the Arts Council’s board knows about the arts. The most egregious misrepresentation on John Riley’s resume was that from 1972 to 1976 he was a “principal dancer” with the Joffrey Ballet.

We wouldn’t expect Riley to know any better, he being the impostor; but surely there should have been someone on the board knowing enough to spot the red flag: the Joffrey is an egalitarian company that does not even have “principal dancers.”

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