By Michael Miner

Morale Dilemma

“If there’s one thing I would say to the people at the Sun-Times, it’s there’s life after the Sun-Times,” said Gil Jimenez. He’s lived one. Last year he moved on to Chicago’s Department of Aviation, with a window overlooking the O’Hare tarmac and downtown far away. “I could name names,” he continued. “I know people who have forgone love, forgone relationships, forgone marriage. I’ve seen people go through their 20s and their 30s and their 40s, and they’re approaching 50 and God bless them. They’ve given up a lot for their profession.”

Jimenez put in 24 years at the Sun-Times before leaving last year, and he’s a little surprised to be gone and not sure he wouldn’t go back. “I always loved the job and took issue with the people I worked for. That’s the lot of the newspaperman or woman since before the days of Ben Hecht.”

I’d called for his reaction to an anguished memo someone had posted in the Sun-Times newsroom. Something about the ceaseless coming and going of jet planes must encourage melancholic introspection, for what I got was half an hour on the state of contemporary journalism.

Margaret Maples wrote the memo late last month, distributed it to Sun-Times editors, and posted it on the bulletin board. The memo caused a great stir inside the paper, partly because it’s so true, and partly because it came from such an unlikely author. Maples is a middle-aged woman who sits on the copy desk and is best known for the homemade pastries she brings to work. “She was like the newsroom mom,” said Jimenez, “really a sweet, quiet lady with a lot of dignity. In my book at the Sun-Times, next to the definition of ‘dignity’ is ‘Margaret Maples.'”

She decided to address what her memo called “our situation.” Since January 1997, by her count, 92 editorial employees had left the newspaper, an exodus that followed on the heels of early-retirement incentives in the mid-90s calculated, she said, to make the staff “lean and mean.” She went on, “I’m fairly certain we haven’t replaced all 92….In addition to the loss of people who had ‘seen it all’–and could reassure younger employees about the continuity of the paper–our staffs now are smaller and we’re all doing more work to maintain the quality of the Sun-Times. We’re joking less, gossiping less, spending less time on office friendships. Lean and mean, indeed.

“Of course we realize we’re paid to work, not to joke, gossip or be particularly friendly,” she continued. “But those qualities are part of any creative product, and when they’re missing for long periods, readers are smart enough to pick up on the joyless stories that are one result.”

She then framed the problem in terms Hollinger International would understand. “Readers might not be able to put their fingers on the problem, but they’ll feel something is missing from their paper. They may find that extra spark in the Tribune or some other rival, and what started out as a morale problem on the fourth floor could show up eventually on our bottom line. But circulation is UP, right? Yes, so why should management worry about turnover? Because hiring and training new employees is expensive and cuts into profit. It also wears on existing staff, increasing the chance that more people will look for other jobs.”

Maples said she’d taken a “straw poll,” asking her colleagues to name one thing they’d like to change about their working conditions or one thing they “absolutely can’t stand” about their jobs.

She was told, “All you seem to hear is ‘Shut up and work.'” Maples commented, “Some of us are desperately treading water. We see it in managers who are in over their heads. These individuals are swamped. They lose the power to laugh. Their jobs eat them alive.”

She was told, “Are designers writing the paper now?” and “We can’t do anything about that…” and “I hate this job.” Maples commented, “Some reporters object to the emphasis now being placed on design, fact boxes, bulleted items and sidebars. It seems that when employees have philosophical or aesthetic objections, they haven’t been able to expect much compromise from mid-level editors, who are following orders from above.” This powerlessness takes the form of a “‘just grow up and stop whining’ syndrome that seems like torture to staff members. If this sort of unhappiness continues it sometimes surfaces as a simple scream: ‘I hate this job.’

“At that point,” Maples continued, “the tacit response has seemed to be ‘Then work somewhere else,'” which is what many staff members have decided to do. “I grant that it may be naive of me to hope so,” she concluded, “but maybe we can slow the revolving door.”

The memo impressed Gil Jimenez. “It would take a lot to crack Margaret,” he said. “It took a lot to crack me.”

A Sun-Times reporter I know who endorses everything in the memo says Maples, who had no wish to discuss it with me, is out there by her lonesome–the fear of retribution is simply too great for sympathizers to step forward. Reinforcing everyone’s apprehensions, night-side reporter David Southwell, a popular figure in the newsroom for both his writing gift and his goofily assertive personality, was called in on his day off last Sunday and fired by managing editor Joycelyn Winnecke. The same reporter I’d spoken to said it was more natural for the paper to build a case for canning Southwell than to look for a way to make the most of his talents.

Nevertheless, the Sun-Times is in a period when a staffer might write a letter such as Maples’s and hope it would accomplish something. The relationship between the newsroom and the very top editors–the pair Hollinger recently sent in from Vancouver, John Cruickshank and Michael Cooke–is more relaxed than it’s been since Nigel Wade’s heavy-handed predecessor, Dennis Britton, arrived in 1989. Metaphorically speaking, the new bosses might have dined out once or twice too often at Hooters, but, unlike Wade, their arrogance isn’t a package deal with their intelligence. When I asked Cruickshank about Maples’s letter, he chose to assert that he hadn’t yet “read it carefully” (though some reporters have been called in by Cooke to discuss it), but he went on, “The one thing I’m quite prepared to say about the memo is that I thought it was constructive in tone. Without any doubt she’s concerned about the paper–as we all are.”

Cruickshank reminded me that Hollinger has spent $115 million on a new printing plant for the Sun-Times and now intends to spend millions more on a new computer system for the newsroom. The present one doesn’t even allow for direct E-mail or immediate access to the Internet. “These guys are working on equipment that really stands in the way of doing the journalism they want to do,” Cruickshank said. “We want to see how the new technology aids in the process of producing the newspaper. Then we’ll see if we need more hands here.”

But one reporter with E-mail still can’t do the work of two. Jimenez ruminated, “Any business enterprise that relies on skilled craftsmen yet loses 30 or more per year and loses 20 percent of its workforce per year ought to take a serious look at what is wrong. I saw good, honest men and women rise through the ranks and lose something of themselves in the process, as if an us-versus-them atmosphere was the only one that could exist in the workplace.

“Morale was kept afloat by the fact that we could laugh and whine and bitch as needed. And like Margaret Maples, I saw many people in the workplace just lose hope and leave. It didn’t help that the spirit of camaraderie was lost. Where once we could go out and drink and bitch and cry on each other’s shoulders, in recent years there hasn’t even been that relief. Lifestyles change, young reporters go home to their families after work, the famous press watering holes closed for lack of business.”

Jimenez never expected to leave newspapers, and he doesn’t think he would have if the business had stayed what it was. “The fact is, journalism is not a business,” he said. “Publishing is a business. Journalism is not about profit and loss. It’s not about demographics. Its heart and soul is news, information, and a happy story once in a while. Publishing, on the other hand, is about how many pages, it’s about advertising contracts. Journalism has become lost inside this publishing machine. News has become a commodity, and we’re just commodity brokers, pretty fungible among ourselves.”

He looked back. When he was starting out, Marshall Field owned the paper and Jim Hoge ran it. “That guy played more favorites than Dave Feldman at Arlington,” said Jimenez, yet those were “vibrant times.” Then came the Rupert Murdoch nightmare, though “the funny thing about that is that the working conditions under Murdoch were some of the best we had. He had money, he knew where to spend it, and he spent it on his staff.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, as Jimenez got older things got worse. Soon Murdoch sold the paper to men who couldn’t afford to buy it. “From Murdoch we got into leveraged buyouts. Those were the days of Page and Shaykin and Britton, where the only thing that counted more than a good story was a cheap one.”

Jimenez brought to his O’Hare office a reminder of the good old days, a picture of himself, photographer John White, and two other reporters all dressed down for an undercover investigation. The picture is 20 years old, and Jimenez added a passage from Ben Hecht: “We were a newspaper tribe of assorted drunkards, poets, burglars, philosophers and boastful ragmuffins. We were supermen with soiled collars and holes in our pants, stone broke and sneering at our bet-ters in limousines and unmortgaged houses, cynical of all things on earth, including the tyrannical journal that underpaid and overworked us, and for which, after a round of cursing, we were ready to die.”

“The cursing continues,” said Jimenez, “but I can’t imagine anybody being willing to do that.” Die for the paper, he meant, which he’d once proved he would do by running into a burning building.

John White would, I replied.

“You’re right. There are some,” said Jimenez. “[Charles] Nicodemus, he’s crazy–he’d do it. There are probably a few. But not to the degree it used to be true.”

A newspaper has always been an uncertain place to grow old. Years before Jimenez joined the Sun-Times it was a paper that spackled its newsroom holes with kids who came cheap and gazed at the world with ignorant wonder. Hecht was reminiscing near the end of his life, but he’d left Chicago’s newspapers behind decades early, when he was still in his early 30s.

News Bites

Big Brother is the latest entry in TV’s hot new mode of “reality” programming. The show, given a detailed introduction last Wednesday by Steve Johnson in Tempo, isolates housemates who, like the castaways in Survivor, have instructions to periodically turn on their own, identifying and casting out the weakest or most irritating. Cameras are everywhere, and as the numbers diminish they keep rolling.

A couple of pages on in the same Tempo was a piece on the dramatic cutback in network coverage of this summer’s political conventions. NBC and CBS might skip the first two nights altogether. The conventions must be either too real or not real enough. To reclaim public interest, the parties could drop the primaries, put a camera in every corridor and caucus room, and eliminate one candidate a night until only the nominee survives.

“Where have all the hoops gone?” in last Saturday’s Tribune was the best kind of story, one that takes an impression that a lot of readers already have and tells them how and why it’s true. To keep the wrong kind of people from coming in and vexing the right kind of neighborhoods, basketball courts have been disappearing from Chicago playgrounds. Avani Patel and Marlen Garcia wrote the piece, and it deserved the Sunday paper.

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