Jack Schnedler Hits the Road

Abandoning a long life under the volcano, Jack Schnedler is shifting his operations to someplace safe and friendly. He’s resigned as travel editor of the Sun-Times to become an assistant managing editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the paper that emerged from Little Rock’s brutal newspaper wars of the 1980s.

He’d been an editor at the Chicago Daily News when it closed in 1978. He’d been an editor at the Washington Star when it folded three years later. The Sun-Times has changed owners three times in the 12 years he’s worked there, austere, perilous years in which Schnedler made the dubious career move of getting older.

“I’m sure you know the various buyouts that have been put on the table by the new ownership,” he said. The American Publishing Company wants to cut costs; and though it hasn’t been laying off reporters and editors, it’s lovingly nudged many of the senior ones out the door.

“The buyout was the buzzer that told me that, gee, you’re 51. This is a paper interested in divesting itself of its older, more expensive employees. Maybe it’s time to see what else is out there.”

He called his friend Griffin Smith Jr., a former travel writer who’s now executive editor of the Democrat-Gazette. Smith was hiring. (After the conservative Democrat absorbed the liberal Gazette three years ago, Little Rock’s new monopoly daily made the curious decision to improve. Spurring it along this unfamiliar trail was a desire to keep pace with the ambitious hometown boy that its editorial page excoriates–Bill Clinton.)

“So at the age of 51,” Schnedler reflected, “I’m embarking for the first time in a noncompetitive newspaper market.” He doesn’t expect to be writing travel stories–his new paper’s travel editor is Griffin Smith’s wife. But, he says, “I see this as a chance to stabilize my journalistic life and be in a spot where I’ll be working with congenial people and a congenial management, in a situation where the words writers produce and editors edit are still considered the principal product, instead of an unfortunate number of places where the words are considered a garnish scattered around the design.”

He went on about the Democrat-Gazette: “I have a sense that (a) this is quite a good newspaper already and (b) within sound economic bounds it has the resources to get better. And it’s a newspaper with a very collegial staff attitude. There’s a low level of management stress and creative tension.”

It sounded as if Schnedler were drawing a comparison.

“What I’d say is I’ve had a sense in the last year and a half that even though my track record here has been that I’ve produced a section that is one of the best in the country and has won various awards, perhaps the present editorial management felt they knew considerably more about what should be in this travel section than I did.

“It was sometimes a little difficult for a crusty 49-year-old travel-writing veteran to be given a sense that management felt his product wasn’t so hot after all. I will take at face value the kind words both on paper and in person that [executive editor] Mark Nadler and [managing editor] Julia Wallace had to say” when he announced he was leaving.

Schnedler may be wrong to take the second-guessing personally. Whatever its other needs the Sun-Times has not stinted on appointing editors. What reporters deride as micromanagement and simple butting in the front office perceives as keen, responsive oversight.

Jack Schnedler says you guys have been looking over his shoulder, we told Nadler.

“I think probably in general he’s right,” Nadler replied. “In the sense that we don’t view the various sections of the paper, whether it’s Travel or books or Weekend Plus or Auto Times, as autonomous sections. I think there probably was a tradition here of the editors of some of those sections making all of the decisons. It’s fair to say we’ve made an attempt to bring all the sections of the paper into the fold.”

Schnedler’s successor–not yet chosen–will be easier to control if only because he or she will always be around. Actually, Schnedler will be replaced by two people: an editor stationed in Chicago and a globe-trotting staff writer. “That’s a common enough way of staffing travel sections,” he told us. But it wasn’t his way. “It was sort of a Walter Mitty job for me. On the average I was on the road for the paper 20, even 23 or 24 weeks a year. In 1985 I was on the road 204 nights.

“It was pretty much my call where I went, when I went, what went in the section. In a sense, that was a dream world.”

Schnedler formed a lofty but accurate view of his contribution. Given the sort of city-obsessed paper the Sun-Times has become, Schnedler’s section produced its only in-house foreign coverage.

Jay Mariotti Stays Put

Jay Mariotti shares some of Schnedler’s concerns about the future, but he tells us he’s staying anyway. The story that Mariotti was leaving knocked around for weeks, and there were good reasons for it:

The Sun-Times was hunting for a new sports columnist.

Mariotti was talking to the San Jose Mercury-News.

Richard Ciccone, managing editor of the Tribune, was telling people that Mariotti’s agent ran into him and remarked, “If you guys are interested in Jay, give me a call.”

We’ll take these one at a time.

The Sun-Times does want another columnist, but what editors–and Mariotti–say is that the paper hopes to complement its top gun, not replace him. They’ve been turned down already by Diane Pucin of the Philadelphia Inquirer and more recently by Mike Downey of the Los Angeles Times.

Downey used to write for the Sun-Times, and resisting the invitation to return was agony. “That was one of the toughest phone calls I ever made, telling them I wasn’t coming,” he told us. “There were times I would have put my hand on a Bible swearing I was coming.” But he said the Times offered him more money and made a long-term commitment, so he stayed put.

Talks between Mariotti and the Mercury-News broke down before that paper offered him a job. “I’ve got a couple of kids. I’ve got a family. I don’t really feel like moving. I thought I had a good job, but I listened,” Mariotti told us. The Mercury-News is “on the rise. It’s a computer-age newspaper. I think that that paper being in the Knight-Ridder chain, being a progressive newspaper, it’s one of those rock-solid newspapers that will be here for some time. You’re looking for stability more than ever in the newspaper game. I felt it had that stability, security, and a chance for syndication within the chain. But all that aside, I felt here’s where I should be.”

What about the conversation your agent, Joel Weisman, had with Ciccone? we asked him.

“Joel represents me to ‘MVP and in TV endeavors,” Mariotti said. “If Joel did that, that was beyond the bounds of what I employ Joel to do.”

Would Ciccone be making up a conversation with Weisman that never happened?

“If he’s looking out for my well-being, that’s one of the reasons I employ him,” Mariotti said. “We are not peddling my services to the Tribune so far as I know.”

News Bites

From our notebook:

The Sunday Sun-Times, the great open wound of Chicago journalism, continues to undergo agonizing reappraisal. Its circulation has dipped below that of the daily paper, and recent increases in the price of newsprint make producing it costlier than ever. Should ad rates or the price be boosted when its hold on the marketplace is already so precarious?

“If there’s anything we’ve learned about the Sunday paper,” said Mark Nadler, “it’s that this problem is 40 years in the making.” Nevertheless, we recall an era 20 years ago when the Sunday paper bristled with the opening salvos of major investigations. We suggested a return to hard news. Nadler said they’ve done that. “It was the early 90s when the concept was to try a newsmagazine approach to the Sunday paper–that was a big fad in the industry. And readers were telling us, ‘No! We prefer a harder edge to the Sunday paper.'”

But at the moment the editors’ focus is on features. The Sun-Times is working up prototypes of a new Sunday section that would combine People Plus and Arts & Show. “If we find one that works we’ll do it,” Nadler said. “It’s got to work editorially, it’s got to work for the pressroom, and it’s got to work for the advertising.”

But nothing’s imminent? we said. On the contrary, Nadler told us. If they come up with something they like they’ll make the change immediately. It’s Sunday, but there’s no luxury of time.

Oliver North just wrote with some good news and some bad news. The good news: “I raised enough money to get my message of limited government on TV, by going over the heads of the left-wing media.” The bad news: “We’ve spent almost all of the money we’ve raised.”

He’s strapped, the race is tight, and plenty of undecided voters live in northern Virginia, “which receives most of its news from the liberal media based across the Potomac. . . . Whether I’ll be able to get more ads on Northern Virginia TV will depend on whether people like you send money.”

The candidate sent along a picture of the North brood. Everyone’s sitting around the kitchen table grinning with affection. (It must be great not to have dad in federal prison!) There’s a note on the back that says, “My family and I really would appreciate your donation to my campaign. Ollie North.”

Spending in Oliver North’s Senate race has already passed $15 million, almost four times what his opponent’s spent. He’s closing in on Jesse Helms’s record for the most expensive Senate campaign of all time.

We’re not sure how an ornery cuss like Helms was able to raise all that money, given how little use conservative Republicans are known to have for special interests, but North is doing it by being a darn nice guy.