Exit Squires

“The decision’s mine,” Jim Squires told us. “The timing’s theirs.”

A note went up last Friday on Chicago Tribune bulletin boards. Jim Squires had resigned as editor effective December 31, and executive editor Jack Fuller was going to replace him. The PR mill quickly ground out the following comment from John Madigan, president of the Chicago Tribune.

“Under Jim Squires’s leadership the Chicago Tribune has flourished, winning seven Pulitzer Prizes and many other awards. This leadership has played a role in the overall success of the Chicago Tribune Company. We wish Jim well in his future endeavors.”

Icy! Well, what did anyone expect. Jim Squires couldn’t stand Madigan and he’d let Madigan and everybody else know it. Actually, in his eight and a half years as editor, Squires hardly got along with anybody in the Tower hierarchy, save for Stanton Cook, CEO of the parent Tribune Company and nominal publisher of the Tribune, and Charles Brumback, who preceded Madigan as president of the Tribune. Of course, those were the two that counted. They gave Squires a generous leash, and Squires as editor took authority over strategic planning that most publishers reserve for themselves.

Even subalterns and reporters who loathed Squires as a volatile, humiliating bully gave him this: he ruled the fourth floor. There’s a touch of paranoia inside a big, rich newspaper like the Tribune, a notion that the place is under siege from on high. One day, the journalists fear, the bean counters like John Madigan (an investment banker who’d become Cook’s chief financial officer) will take over the place, slashing budgets, raping integrity, and selling op-ed columnists into slavery.

And Squires wasn’t going to let that happen. “Fuller’s been acceptable at the highest levels for a long time,” one assistant editor told us, comparing his new boss to his old one. “Squires has been an active menace for a long time. They don’t know how to deal with him.”

Last Christmas, Jim Squires gave a little speech to his editors. He talked about the Tribune’s history and traditions. He said what a pleasure it had been moving the paper onward with the assembled.

Jeez! everyone thought. He’s leaving.

It would be 12 more months, but they were right. “I think that’s when my career at the Tribune did end,” Squires told us, as he looked back to last December. It ended when Brumback moved up to corporate president, and his Tribune job, which Squires wanted, went instead to John Madigan. What the New York Times last Monday called “a bruising corporate power struggle” had ended in Squires’s defeat. In a short time, Squires assumed, Cook would let Madigan become publisher, too, and the job of editor of the Tribune would unpalatably diminish.

But it offends Squires that everyone seems to think losing a power struggle is all there was to it. “It’s not that simple,” Squires told us, “and I’ve seen that in every paper and I’m satisfied with that, in the sense that it’s a good, plausible explanation, and it’s one I’m not uncomfortable with in that people have to believe something. They have to find a reason for all the things that happen in life. Thinking that I wanted that job so bad that I had to leave because I didn’t get it is a comfortable explanation for them, so I’d just as soon let it be.

“The fact is that it’s not true.”

Squires asked us to appreciate the nuances. It wasn’t the job he’d missed so much as the shrunken job he’d keep. Besides, he didn’t think he should stay on as editor much longer under any circumstances. That would defy his own notorious ethic of midlife rejuvenation. “I have always thought editors stayed too long,” he told us this week. “They become overbearing and defensive about their work, too protective of their staff. The time had come under my timetable anyway to begin to follow my own advice.”

Squires says he offered to resign at the beginning of this year and Cook and Brumback asked him not to: Madigan was too green to run things yet. Waiting suited Squires. He was program chairman for the American Society of Newspaper Editors convention in April, a big responsibility that he wanted to see through. He had changes in mind for the financial section; there was John Crewdson’s two-year AIDS project to see into the paper. And he believed the Tribune was overdue to begin strategic planning for the 90s. He wanted a hand in that.

So he stayed, bending a lot of ears about what he’d do next, still zealously guarding the fourth floor but cut out of Task Force 2000, the strategic planning group that Madigan ran from his office on three. Jack Fuller was on the task force, and Fuller made a splendid report to the newspaper’s middle managers two days before his ascension was publicly announced. By then the lords of the Tower had told Squires there was no reason for him to hang around any longer.

It’s easier for us to say that Jim Squires was a great editor than a good one. “Good” implies a certain competence at handling people that Squires, by all accounts, lacked. “Great” leaves room for flaws as big as abilities. The saga of the Tribune since Colonel McCormick died has been a slow march away from right-wing stupidity. Squires marched double-time. The old Tribune arrogance that once blighted a lakeshore with McCormick Place became in Squires’s hands a far better thing: an eagerness to tell Chicago what to think. Squires’s Tribune issued massive reports on the underclass, the schools, neighborhood development, the City Council . . . He wanted to set the terms of public debate.

“You’ll talk to people who say he’s got a volatile personality,” Mike Royko told us. “When I came into the business, editors who didn’t have a volatile personality were considered weird. He’s got a short fuse but he’s a brilliant guy. Once you get by the obvious choices of the New York Times, Washington Post . . . it’s hard to find another paper you can outright say is better than the Tribune.”

“He took this paper farther faster than anyone could have taken this paper anyplace,” a section editor told us the day Squires quit. And he went on, “This is a great day! We win. The Tribune can move on to the next step. Squires kept wrecking it and fixing it. Fuller will put walls up to go with the steel Jim put up.”

Squires detected a note of his own turbulence versus Fuller’s calm in various newspaper accounts and he wasn’t too happy about it.

“They seem to be giving me credit, or some blame, for the constant churning in the newsroom–and I’m a little piqued,” he said. “I don’t think anyone knows what they’re talking about. I’ve churned up the newsroom, no doubt about that. But that’s less a facet of my personality than a calculated need to achieve an end. Basically, the Tribune, when I came here in the 80s, was still organized like it was in the 30s.”

That had to be fixed, he told us, because efficiency was his only means of springing the money to do new things. “I had to put people to work who hadn’t worked in decades.

“Also,” said Squires, “I had a habit of saying to people, you’re at the top of your career. You ought to quit and do something entirely different.” He thinks people need to be plunged periodically into disconcerting newness. “The alternative is to peak at 40, 45, and stay the same while the world passes you by.”

Not everyone Squires disconcerted agreed with him on this point, and Squires was a little sorry to see Fuller telling the New York Times “I’m probably a little less inclined to turn on the Mixmaster in the newsroom.”

“Jack Fuller says he’s less likely to do it,” Squires told us. “I suspect he is. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t right to do it.”

We asked Squires about the disconcerting newness facing him. He’s 46. He doesn’t have a job. For a while this year he talked up the idea of writing a column in Washington, but now he said, “I thought that might be a graceful and comfortable way to exit as editor of the Tribune. But that was never really offered to me as an alternative and I never pursued it with any vigor.”

He says he has three books in him he wants to write and a farm in Kentucky with 25 horses. Maybe he’ll go back south (he’s from Tennessee) and write and raise horses and be perfectly happy.

“If someone waves a big newspaper challenge at me, I know what’s going to happen,” Squires said. “All that excitement will come back and I’ll say sure.”

Lynda Barry Gets Intentional

Last spring cartoonist Lynda Barry moved to Chicago and her play The Good Times Are Killing Me became a hit so big it’s still running. This week she went downtown for a group photo the Tribune asked her to be in of a couple dozen Chicagoans who made a difference in ’89 in arts and entertainment.

Barry looked around at the Tribune’s other choices. Every face she saw was white. Where are the blacks, Asians, Hispanics? she asked entertainment editor Richard Christiansen. Christiansen said black sculptor Martin Puryear had been asked to be in the picture but he couldn’t make it.

“She seemed uncomfortable with the fact there weren’t any more,” Christiansen told us. “I said if it makes you uncomfortable, please feel free to leave without any hard feelings.”

So Barry left.

“He said this isn’t intentional–it’s how it came out,” Barry told us. “There’s this idea if it’s not intentional it’s OK. The hell with that–you have to get intentional.”

Barry’s play is about a girl growing up in a racially changing neighborhood. “All I could think of was my cast looking at me in that picture,” she said. “The idea all that play did was garner me the right to stand with a bunch of white people freaked me out.”

Is that it for Chicago? we asked nervously. Barry is a moving-on sort of person.

“No, I think Chicago’s fabulous,” she assured us. “I just think there’s a part of it that pretends only white people exist, and that’s the part that makes me want to stay.”

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