Rupert Murdoch purchased the Chicago Sun-Times last November supposing there’d be someone to edit it when he took the paper over in January. And there wasn’t. Publisher Jim Hoge was expected to leave, but Murdoch believed editor Ralph Otwell would agree to stay on for several months. Otwell wouldn’t. Next Murdoch flew managing editor Gregory Favre to New York, told him everything he didn’t like about the paper, and offered him the job of editor. “I turned it down,” Favre told me. “Obviously we had a tremendous amount of philosophical differences at all levels.”
Not that there was a wet eye in the house, but Murdoch found himself in January in a somewhat desperate situation. He had a publisher for the Sun-Times in Robert Page but no one to hold it together editorially. Mike Royko quit at once and almost everyone else wanted to. And it was no idle wish. The famous “window” made leaving so lucrative that it would have been financial folly for some of the senior employees to stay.
It was then that Murdoch brought in Charles Wilson.
“A dreadful man, a British journalist who had never met him told me. This journalist called back. He had weighed his words and decided they wouldn’t do. “There are lots of Wilsons in British journalism,” he thought I must understand. “They come to journalism by a different route than American journalists do. American journalists are gentlemen. The Wilsons clawed their way up from the bottom. No college. Out of high school they start on some weekly paper in the provinces. From a weekly to a daily. They’re damn good at their jobs but they’re not literate, not fine writers. They’re rough-tough types.”
This British scribe had asked around about Wilson and now he was telling me what he’d found out. “Wilson wouldn’t stab someone in the back but he would tell you to your face you’re no bloody good and why don’t you shovel manure. You’d find Wilsons on the Daily Mail, Daily Express, not the Times of London.
“The British journalist is a superb technician, quicker off the mark than the American journalist. Wilson would see the American journalist considering himself as a professional as a lot of bunk. He sees it as a craft. Murdoch said journalism schools are full of failed editors pretending to be professors.”
For 16 years of Wilson’s career you would have found him on the London Daily Mail (not the tabloid Daily Mirror, as I erroneously wrote in the Reader in January). He wrote features there and held the posts of city editor and sports editor. Sure enough, he had no college, started as a copy boy, was drafted into the Royal Marines for two years, and when he came out joined a weekly paper in the provinces.
Later he became editor of the Evening Times in Glasgow, his hometown. After which, as he proudly put it to me a few days ago, “I did in 100 days—100 days from announcement to first edition—conceive, hire, launch a broadsheet-quality Sunday newspaper called the Sunday Standard which was placed head to head against the Sunday Times in Scotland.” And outsold the Sunday Times, said Wilson. He got that going and then Rupert Murdoch hired him, bringing him back to London as executive editor (number two man) of the Times of London. So the sort of man you don’t expect to find at the Times wound up there.
I spoke to Wilson last week, and I asked if he had been at all apprehensive about working for Murdoch. Not at all, he said. “I was proud to go to work for the Times. When you join a paper in the UK you don’t join the proprietor. You join the title.” Good Times, Bad Times, a recent book by Harold Evans, whom Murdoch hired to edit the Times of London and later cashiered, contends that Murdoch has done great damage to one of Britain’s noblest institutions: “A transition from light to dark.” Not so, says Wilson.
Now he’s in Chicago as Murdoch’s temporary. He’s the senior of four men Murdoch sent in to fill gaps, the others being Roger Wood, editor of the New York Post (who’s spotting Wilson this week while Wilson’s back in London), and two copy editors from Murdoch’s San Antonio operation. Wilson says Chicago is growing on him. It’s not out of the question that he might wind up here permanently, although in his conversation with me he was assuming his stay at the Sun-Times will be a short one.
Speaking with Wilson by phone a few days after our interview, I put to him the distinction the other British journalist had made. He disagreed with it. He considers himself a professional. A professional is adaptable, he said, and can do the job in any setting. Wilson’s definition of “professional” might not be everybody’s at the Sun-Times. Was it professional to fill a full quarter of page one with an enormous picture of an unshaven Cary Grant, as the Sun-Times did shortly after Wilson came in? Generally, the paper’s staff thought no: crucial space had been turned over to a celebrity who hadn’t even died … and who was, furthermore, the wrong celebrity—a face from the past. And Wilson disagrees.
“The only reaction to that photo has been journalist,” he told me. “None of the letters saying you’re turning the Sun-Times into a rag—by the way 60 percent of them predated Murdoch coming in, and of course the other 40 percent did not—and complaining about sensationalism mentioned the photo. Only one story came up at all—the rabbis [“Rabbi Hit in ‘Sex-Slavery’ Suit,” page three, January 22].
“I’m still surprised at this,” Wilson went on, meaning the storm within the Sun-Times. “It was and is in my view a very good news picture. It amazed me that people said ‘My God, it looked like he was dead.’ The point of the picture was … he was 80 and he looked 60. I would like to look as good when I am 60. That’s part of it right there. And there as nothing else. It was a very poor night for news pictures. You need a picture of a certain design to carry the page. It wasn’t an ideal page-one picture by any means. Today we have Marines loading in Beirut. It’s a much better news photo.”
Wilson has managed to convince a few people who work for the Sun-Times that he at least, if not Rupert Murdoch, is not an awful man. Some are staying on the strength of this impression; but many other journalists, more than I suspect Wilson realizes, tell themselves that they fully intend to leave and are just waiting for the right moment. The Cary Grant picture, the redesign that swamped the news section in a week … here were portents that Murdoch had ordered the Sun-Times to gallop down an alien path. Wilson’s finest hour came several days later: when Yuri Andropov died early in the morning, Wilson ordered the first extra edition Chicago had seen … some say in 25 years, others since World War Two. Wilson had stuck it to the Tribune, and restored at least a twinge of fun.
An obvious and perhaps useful way of describing Wilson is in contrast to Hoge, the prior source of energy at the Sun-Times. They are both 48. Hoge is tall and solid and Wilson a bantam, Hoge Upper East Side and Wilson Glasgow. Against Hoge’s Yale there is Wilson’s Royal Marines. Against Hoge’s trying to buy the Sun-Times away from Murdoch there is Wilson’s working for him. An editor who is going to stay calls the pair “the two smartest men I have worked for at this paper.”
I told another writer, someone who left the Sun-Times last week, that I was going to be talking to Wilson. “Oh, that should be interesting,” she said. “What do you think of him?” I asked. “They’re all whores. They’re unscrupulous yes-men working for a shifty bastard.”
For the sake of the Sun-Times and a city that needs it in a responsible form, I hope these feelings can be superseded. Wilson, who was to me personable and generous with his time, put it this way: “The hostility when we came was like a marine barrage.” He thinks it’s a little better now—at least he walks down a hall and doesn’t feel quite the same hate billowing off everyone he passes. We talked in the wood-paneled board room in the newspaper’s executive suite. “Almost disgustingly opulent,” Wilson said.
Michael Miner: I’d like to find out what your intentions are for the paper—yours, and beyond you Mr. Murdoch’s. The city is very apprehensive, and I’m apprehensive. I thought it was a good paper before and under fairly able management.
Charles Wilson: Well, it may have been. But the man who owned the paper, the people who owned the paper, decided they were going to sell it. And it came on the free market, and Rupert Murdoch simply bought it because he was the highest bidder. And that is the highest standards of American business.
MM: But now that he’s got it, what do you think he’s going to do with it? What are you trying to do with it in the time you’re here?
CW: I am very much here on a temporary basis. Originally, Rupert was led to believe that senior executives were going to stay on at least for a year to allow a smooth changeover. But he discovered that in fact there wasn’t going to be any sort of changeover period, people weren’t going to stay on, senior people. And he suddenly found that the newspaper was without an editor.
MM: As I understood what you told me the other day, there was never any doubt in your mind but that [Andropov’s death] called for an extra.
CW: Yeah. I woke up—I’ve been staying at the River Plaza, which is next door to the office, it’s like an actual room in the office. And I normally wake up about five, ten to six, and the first thing I do when I wake up is roll out of bed and put on the television news. And I pulled the button and learned instantly that Andropov was dead. And it had only been announced a very short time before. In fact it was announced, it was on the wires, at 5:45. So I realized that the situation was that our last morning edition would have finished printing approximately an hour or so before and that our next edition on the streets wouldn’t start printing until 1:15. And it seemed to me that was a long gap. There was an audience arriving at work, and there was going to be an audience, a shopping audience, out both in the city and in some of the suburbs. And so I decided to do an extra. And was frankly surprised by the amazement that it seemed to cause so many people because it hadn’t been done here for so long.
MM: Is it done all the time in England?
CW: Yes, well, exercises like that, yes, are done. I’ve done it in England many times … I wouldn’t have been able to have done it quite so quickly as I did here in terms of … we printed after eight o’clock. I think if I’d made the same calls at the same time in London, for instance, on an evening paper, I wouldn’t have ha the paper before nine-ish. And if I’d made it in Glasgow where I ran an evening paper two jobs ago, I would probably have made it by about 9:15. Because the equipment here is so good.
MM: When were you on the street?
CW: You could buy the paper outside about 8:35.
MM: Does this tell you anything about the difference between newspapering in Chicago and the United States and back in England?
CW: I’ll tell you what it told me more than anything else. In the composing room I have to compositors say “Geez, we haven’t done this for 25 years!”—that’s what it tells me. Never happens in New York, and it happens in London and it would happen in Manchester, and it hasn’t happened in Chicago for 25 years.
MM: There must be a difference of attitude here and there in the way that newspapermen look at newspapering.
CW: Perhaps it’s a difference of attitude of management. Is there something wrong with it?
MM: No, but it’s different. It may be as simple as how editors believe in spending their money.
CW: It didn’t cost a great deal of money. You see, it cost us money in a journalistic sense because the material was all in the system. It was pouring in from AP and UPI.
MM: Was there overtime?
CW: There was some overtime in the composing room. There was some overtime with drivers, but very little else. I mean it was really marginal.
MM: How widely circulated was it?
CW: We printed nearly 18,000, 12,000 of which went in the city, and they all went [sold]. Six thousand went to the suburbs. It was mainly a city operation, of course. But it sold out in the city. And the overtime involved was pretty marginal. And it seems—I mean I didn’t realize that this would be the effect, but it had a very uplifting effect upon the staff throughout.
MM: An effect the staff needed.
CW: If you have a situation where 63 people have just taken the money and gone, obviously your staff morale is not going to be as high. It would need it, yeah.
MM: I was speaking to a friend of mine here, asking him about that. He said, “You know, these new people have incredible energy. They really do love putting out newspapers.” As though that made them different, say, from the old management. And he said, “We have to remind ourselves that they all work for Murdoch.”
CW: Since I came here, I have interviewed a vast number of the staff of the Sun-Times—not all, but many of the people who left through the window. And many, frankly, I tried to convince that life wouldn’t be as bad as they thought it was going to be if they stayed. And I spoke to—I’ve now spoken to, certainly a couple of hundred of the journalists who either were or are working for the paper. There are very few I haven’t got round to. Obviously, with 367, it’s difficult to see them all. And I have never heard such, frankly, hysteria. It’s more than apprehension; in some cases it was fear. I mean, some of the questions I was asked were quite extraordinary. Are we going to have a sports department? Are we going to have a Washington bureau? Are we still going to use photographs? You cannot produce a newspaper without all of these and many more. In most cases, most of the questions, the true answers were and are and will be, no, we’re not going to cut that department or that enterprise or that area of journalism. We’re going to put more of that energy you talked about into it. And we’re going to be more competitive with the Tribune. People talk about Murdoch as if he’s some sort of ghoul with horns—you know, he’s half human, half monster. And he goes about ravaging the earth. Yes, he does produce the New York Post. Yes, he does produce the Boston Herald. Yes, he does produce the London Sun, which has naked breasts on page three. But he’s in a market in London where several other tabloids also put breasts on page three, some of them in color. But he also owns the London Times, which is still the most prestigious newspaper in Britain and one of the most prestigious in the world. Yes, he does own the Sunday Times. What I suggest you do is read Harold Evans’s book and look today at the Sunday Times and the Times. Now, the Times is produced every day, and like every other newspaper, very other decent newspaper in the world, 99.9 percent of what’s in it is true at the time the guy wrote it. And that comes out every day. Harold Evans’s book came out once, and it doesn’t have to pass the same test of accuracy that a daily newspaper does. One would have to look at the Times and the Sunday Times, and there are papers of—I can’t saw equivalent quality because I work for the Times—but there are also very good newspapers in Australia. Now, the point I’m making is that I’m not defending any of the tabloids, although there’s absolutely nothing in my view wrong with tabloids per se. Rupert Murdoch is not a publisher of tabloids, he’s a publisher of newspapers. And just as, in my view, any experience, trained journalist ought to be able to change gear and work for any newspaper across the marketplace, then Murdoch can and does own a broad spectrum of newspapers directed at certain markets.
MM: Do you believe that all these journalists who left were unwilling to change gears?
CW: Not all of them. Many of them left simply because of money. There were a number of reasons. If you want, I will give you them.
MM: I’m interested in that.
CW: There were some people who were straightforward and very honest and said, “I’ve read about Murdoch. I’ve read Evans’s book. I’ve seen the New York Post. And I’ve never worked for that sort of paper, and I don’t want to give it a go. And the best of luck but I’m going away, thank you very much.”
MM: Did you tell them it won’t be that sort of paper?
CW: Oh I did that, yes. But they would no more believe me than they would believe Rupert Murdoch, because I clearly represented an extension of what they felt he represented. There were another group who said, “I don’t mind working here. I would like very much to stay, but the financial inducement that the window arrangement represents is just too great.” It was just too great for them. They found themselves being told by accountants, you’d be foolish not to go, because chaps were leaving, chaps in their 40s were leaving with sums of money the like of which they had never had before and would never get again. They could put it directly into an IRA, and people had it worked out that if it stayed in the pension fund, it might be worth six figures if they were lucky by the time they were 65. If they put it in the IRA, it would be worth at least a quarter of a million dollars. They had an opportunity to secure their retirement just like that. And some of those had jobs, because as in all these sort of situations, the people that go first are the good people. Because they’re the people who have their hands snatched off by other newspapers.
And there are other people who had to weigh against the fact that they didn’t have another job that they had this crock of gold. These were the two basic groups with whom I had no quarrel at all. But there was a third group who really just wanted the money, but they didn’t have the fiber or the courage to say I’m going to take the money. they had to have a moral reason for going. There was a fourth group the third group was associated with. The phrase I keep hearing, and I’ve heard it ever since I came here, or since the window opened—”by peer pressure.”
MM: They were shamed into it.
CW: They were shamed into it by peer pressure, by the hysteria about what it was going to be. And they were shamed into it by their colleagues who said, “I am a moral person; I will not work for the grand pornographer. And if you stay, you must be a person of less status than I am. Less of a man. And the honorable thing is to leave.” Now that was just … ! Some people have damaged themselves, but many others have damaged their wives and families.
MM: Was the extent of this anticipated by yourself or by Rupert Murdoch?
CW: Whenever Rupert Murdoch shows an interest in a paper in America, and to a lesser extent in other places but particularly in America, we have this sort of hysteria. But I could not have thought before I came here that it would be as deep, as stupid. It’s madness. I mean people were asking me questions indicating that we’re going to take the Sun-Times, make it like the New York Post. It will never be like the New York Post. It cannot be. It’s a different market and exercise. It’s a paper of totally different character. [As] it will never be like the London Times!
MM: Many people must have asked you about the editorial policy. They wondered who you were going to endorse for president this year. And they wondered how honorable it would be.
CW: How honorable it would be?
MM: This is one thing that’s certainly held against Rupert Murdoch—that he not only chooses his candidates, his political people, but he cozies up to him. For example, he would run his coupons on page one of the Post encouraging people to write letters to Ed Koch asking him to run for governor. That there’s something unprincipled about this. I know he’s had trouble with the staff of the Post. He had trouble with the staff at the Australian when they felt that his editorial position in the race for prime minister in the mid-70s spilled over into the news columns.
CW: Well, it doesn’t spill over into the news columns in the Times and the Sunday Times. And it doesn’t spill over into the news columns of the Sun in London because—some people would say there aren’t any news columns in the Sun. But whatever you say about the Sun, it is a very successful paper, and many of the people who read it would not read anything else. But at least they can spell a few words because they read the Sun. Would it spill over into a paper like this? I don’t think so. I don’t see how it would. The editorial policy of the paper is frankly something I’ve left pretty much alone. You have to look at the editorial policy and what’s being said about it [against] the background that the chief editorial writers was a lady …
MM: Lois Wille.
CW: Lois Wille, who was a person that many people here admired because they’ve told me so. I’ve never met her, unfortunately. Because she left—she did not wait for the window. I think she left right away. And I don’t think she gave herself even the opportunity of discussing with anybody—she assumed that it would be not acceptable to her, and she went. Just as Mr. Royko went. They left more or less together. And after she left, there was also a great deal of peer pressure in that area because editorial writers are people who feel that they are professionals. And many of them feel they cannot write an opinion they do not hold. And they felt that their opinion may not be the same as Rupert’s or whoever came to edit the paper. So again, without giving anything or anybody an opportunity, they just left.
But there again, you see, you have to bear this in mind. That if the window had not existed …&nbps; The biggest single factor in all of this was the window arrangement that Marshall Field has with the guilt. With the window dangling there as a ransom to leave—that’s what it represented: it was a ransom to leave the newspaper. [Any editorial writer] who had any genuine doubts, who stayed awake at night thinking, Here is my life. Am I going to be sacked because I don’t share—[because]what I do at the ballot box is different from what the paper might become? Will I be told to write something different? Will I be sacked, whatever? The person who had these apprehensions also had this ransom to take the money, forget the apprehensions, and leave. Now if the money hadn’t existed, many of these people would at least have stayed to discover whether their fears were going to become realities. But they didn’t.
MM: One of the problems is just that [the Sun-Times] was sold to Murdoch, that it was not sold to Jim Hoge, the person they already worked for, knew, and pretty much admired enormously.
CW: Oh yes. He seems to have been—again I’ve never met him, but he seems to have been a Hollywood-like figure. He was a good-looking guy who was the publisher but was clearly a former editor and retained many of the reins—r-e-i-n-s reins—and the trappings and the image of the editor, and was sort of an editor-in-chief. He was good looking, he was clearly a bright man …
MM: Do you feel a need to demythologize him now?
CW: Well, it’s not something I’ve even thought about. What am I going to do?
MM: Well, there was this episode with the security contract.
CW: Let me tell you about the security contract. When it became clear within a few hours of being in this newspaper—and there was episode after episode, it did not matter whether you changed the curtains in the secretaries’ washroom or whether you printed the word “fuck” upside down on the front page, or whether you printed pictures of the president or Jesse Jackson, or whether you called policemen cops or cops policemen—whatever you did, and there were some ludicrous examples, people would say, “There you are, it’s Murdoch. That’s it.” And the security incident arose in the following circumstances: I came in on a Friday morning to find a note under my door from a reporter who had already resigned saying he was outraged to hear that the security contract had been handed to a firm on which the Sun-Times and other papers had thrown in doubt because of its ownership’s connection with Chicago politics. And frankly, security, schmurity. I knew nothing about it. But I went to see the publisher [Robert Page]. I mean, I just walked along the corridor with the bit of paper in my hand, and he was out and I reached him on the telephone. That was only about nine o’clock in the morning. I’d gone into my office about ten to nine. The Tribune were already calling us to ask us about it. So the story had gone round the office pub—and the Tribune had been told, by our own staff. Or people who were then still our own staff. The allegation was that Murdoch had arrived in town. Within ten days he’d fired the security people and given the contract to what they felt was a dubious organization, and that was outrageous. [The firm in question was AIC Security Systems Inc., headed by Victor Vrdolyak, brother of Alderman Edward Vrdolyak.]
The publisher knew absolutely nothing about it. And in my presence, the publisher called the member of the management under whom security happens to fall and said what’s going on? What is all this about? And to cut a long story short, he went and produced the file. Months before Marshall Field ever put the newspaper up for sale, it was decided that if they privatized the security, it would save $24,000 a year, an amount in that area. This is a contract worth between six and seven hundred thousand pounds. Sorry, dollars. At that time, the security staff were full-time employees of the company. And they put it out to tender. They tendered companies, and the lowest tender was the company that got the contract. And they—there was a note that says that taking this contract with the company would save $24,000 on a contract worth over $600,000. And the date, set before Murdoch ever knew the paper was for sale, was two weeks ago, about a week or two weeks after Murdoch officially took over. And there was material in the file that the production manager [who controls security] produced in front of me to the publisher. There was a handwritten note from Jim Hoge that said, words to the effect, we’ll keep a low image or a low profile. And secondly, that the Sun-Times not be used in any brochure or publicity material that the company might want tot use. The same day that Page saw the file, he canceled the contract on the grounds that he, the publisher, hadn’t signed it.
MM: Had it been signed by anyone?
CW: It had been agreed by the production manger before the takeover by Murdoch. I don’t want to say it had been signed. It had certainly been agreed. I mean the date was agreed. I think there must have been something signed. It was signed by the production manager, not by Bob Page, who genuinely knew nothing about it. I was there when he walked through the office saying what in earth is going on?
I was very pissed off about it at the time. I’m a human being just like all those other people out there. And I’ve been having rubbish poured over me and the organization that I’m pretty proud to work for for a number of days, and I was then accused of being dishonest. I don’t know the people in these parts, I don’t know these Chicago politicians at all, but I was accused of dealing with shoddy politicians. And I discovered not only was I not dealing with them, but it had been done by the previous management. And it was quite clear from the correspondence that not only did he know what he was doing, but he knew the consequences of—the possible consequences of it being made public.
[Wilson made available to me a photocopy of what appears to be a handwritten note from “JH” to Thomas Tallarico, former general manager of the Sun-Times. The blurry copy appears to say: “(1) OK with me (2) I think we should seek low profile, however/i.e. agreement that AIC does not sue us in any of their brochures etc.” The note is undated, and nothing else was forthcoming to place it in a context. I couldn’t reach Hoge, who was out of the country, but he has denied signing any contract with AIC, deciding instead to leave the matter to his successor. Robert page, the new publisher, agrees on this point. “One of our guys signed it who shouldn’t have,” he told me. “It was an innocent act” page as not aware of, he said, and when he found out he repudiated the contract.]
MM: I gather circulation has been going down.
CW: It’s been affected. No newspaper …
MM: Since before Murdoch bought it …
CW: Oh yes. The projection for 1984 would be a dip in circulation, and for 1985 would have been a dip in circulation. And the Sun-Times was losing the battle with the Tribune. And that’s statistical fact. Since Murdoch bought the paper, we have lost circulation. We have lost more, but not a lot more, than what the projected drop was.
MM: Can you say how much you have lost?
CW: Our first three weeks dipped 17,000. The last two weeks we returned about to where we were. Quite clearly, the absolute barrage of anti-Murdoch publicity that has been caused by his initial interests in the paper, the fact that he was able to outbid a local hero, the fact that there was the ridiculous Royko affair, when Royko broke his contract and left … [all hurt circulation].
[According to figures form the Audit Bureau of Circulations, average daily circulation of the Sun-Timesrose from 649,040 at the end of September 1981 to 651,579 a year later and then dropped to 639,134 at the end of September 1983. Average Sunday circulation fell from 681,904 to 677,681 to 669,426. Page told me the drop-off became sharper when the paper was redesigned last spring. He said the new look appealed more to graphic designers than to the public, which concluded the Sun-Times now had less in it. About the time the Sun-Times changed designs USA Today was introduced; surely this was a factor in the Sun-Times‘s lost readership. Page said it wasn’t.]
MM: I’ve been told that Royko could have been kept if he had been —if the proper attention had been paid to him. That all he needed was to feel wanted.
CW: That may be true. I haven’t met Mike Royko. I admire his column. I think he writes very well, and it would be stupidity and it would be a lie to say that I’m glad he went, because—although he’d already gone before I ever saw a copy of the Sun-Times—I’ve enjoyed reading many of the columns he’s written for the Tribune since. And whether or not he could have been kept, I don’t know. If he could have been kept, it’s a great pity that we didn’t get to him till it was too late. You have to remember that this was a very odd sale. When newspapers are sold or closed, the cleanest way it to do it instantly, because you protect the newspaper and you protect the staff if it’s done cleanly and instantly. It was quite clear that the long period between the purchase agreement and the official takeover, coupled with the window, which as I’ve said earlier was the single most damaging self-inflicted would I’ve ever seen on any newspaper …
MM: What do you make of the Sun-Times now? It was losing circulation, and something presumably had to be done about that.
CW: Sure. Something would have had to have been done about that before the end of this year if Marshall Field had stayed on as owner of the Sun-Times.
MM: It was serious leakage?
CW: It was. It was a hemorrhage. And the thing about newspaper hemorrhages is that they get worse. Once they start, they get worse, and it’s like the trickle that becomes a flood.
MM: What do you propose to do about it? You won’ be here long enough to do many of those things yourself, but I imagine you give Mr. Murdoch your advice.
CW: I think the Sun-Times should continue to be aimed at the same broad market it’s in at the moment. And by that I mean that there should be no attempt to take the Sun-Times either up-market or down-market, but to pursue the same path that it’s been pursuing in the last 12 months. But you can either run along the same path your you can dance along the same path or you can walk backwards along the same path. We will change gear along that path. Our plan is to make the paper more attractive to the readership.
MM: By doing what?
CW: We’ll certainly have more in it. We will have more news at the front of the book, we’ll have a more readable feature section. And we’ll continue to have the better of the two sports sections. It seems to be widely acknowledged throughout the city, both among Tribune readers and writers as well as our own staff, that we have the better of the two sports sections.
MM: I think the Sun-Times can’t afford not to. The Tribune possibly can.
CW: We could only, I suppose, afford to have the second-best sports in town if we were the best in everything else.
MM: Sports is more important in the Sun-Times than the Tribune.
CW: Well, if I was editing the Tribune I would take an opposite view. I think sport is important to every newspaper. You will find that the sports section in all the Murdoch papers is pretty good and always improving.
MM: You immediately changed the design of the paper, at least of the front news section.
CW: We did two things. First of all, we stopped using the very old-fashioned Caslon face in headlines that had been used inside in the news pages. And we used more of the Univers san serif typeface, which was already used in the news pages but as a secondary face, and was used in the page one headline. But in the features area at this moment, we still use Caslon, and we’re still using it currently in the business section and will probably go on doing so.
MM: It’s a much inkier looking paper now.
CW: I wouldn’t agree with that.
MM: It’s a much more vertical paper, although it seems to change from day to day.
CW: One of the things that I felt, speaking individually, one of the things I didn’t like about the Sun-Times before what that it was the same paper day after day. It was monotonic—it looked the same from page to page from section to section, from news to features to sport. There were some very, very beautiful page. At the front end there were some very beautiful pages, pages you might want to frame and hang on the wall. But they weren’t news pages. There was no element of pace and excitement about the day’s events, which is what a newspaper is all about in my personal view. And so, as I was saying, we’ve only changed two things. We’ve changed the typeface, and we’ve changed the width of the column measure in the news pages.
MM: You’re saying a paper couldn’t be pretty?
CW: It can be pretty in some places, but it shouldn’t … the paper should not be of a single character either from page to page throughout or day to day.
MM: That old look was not negligence, it was not something that had been around forever and never been changed. It was brand-new. They spent a year or so researching it.
CW: It was new in April.
MM: It must strike you as a horrible miscalculation.
CW: I think it was, yes. Yes, I think it was. But it hadn’t stopped the slide in circulation, which it was intended to do.
MM: What do you think of the Tribune? do you think it’s a vulnerable paper?
CW: I think in some areas it’s vulnerable. I think it’s frighteningly huge, it’s a massive—when you look at the building and you look at the size of the staff and you look at the amount of money it takes out of the city, it’s—it really is a thousand-pound gorilla. It’s a very stimulating competitor. And it has some very good things in it.
MM: What are they?
CW: If I told you that, then the Tribune would know what I felt.
MM: There’s not much news in it.
CW: That’s true.
MM: There’s surprisingly little.
CW: That’s true … . The Tribune has a long history of success, and it’s very easy to become complacent when you have a long history of success. And they perhaps do things that are based on a tradition of success.
MM:: I think there’s a relationship in the minds of people who look at the Sun-Times now between the sans serif type and the stronger headlines and a down-scale product. Your first Sunday paper that came out looking like that convinced a lot of people I know that they never wanted to read the Sun-Times again.
CW: I can’t understand why. The same stories written by the same journalists and chosen by the same editors were produced that week. The only thing that was different was that we were using a sans serif headline and some narrow column measure. Certainly, the first few days, the first week or two after we changed over, the news pages were not very attractive, and certainly some of them had some very, very stupid mistakes. But it was caused by the fact that the staff were not used to working in narrow column measures, and they weren’t used to dealing with pages other than simply drawing two lines, two vertical lines down the middle and dividing the page into three columns and plunking a picture in the middle. But the paper has now settled down a great deal, and I think any criticism that there was in those first few days should have all but gone by this time. The paper has evolved very quickly only because the staff have settled down …
MM: Are you going to replace the people who left?
CW: We will replace those people who need replacing.
MM: Do you expect to wind up with a smaller staff?
CW: Not necessarily. We might wind up with a bigger staff.
MM: It’s been contended that Murdoch came in here intending to frighten people into quitting as the quickest way to reduce his payroll.
CW: Well, he didn’t need to frighten anybody into quitting because people were already deciding what they were doing. People were getting this peer pressure. People were being shamed into leaving before he arrived in the city. And it did not cost him a penny to reduce it. Because all the money that was taken out the window was coming from the pension fund. It wasn’t his money.
MM: But now he’s got a weekly payroll that’s considerably smaller than Jim Hoge had two months ago.
CW: He has currently, but it clearly won’t stay like that.
MM: He has a reputation for running papers on the cheap.
CW: Does he? You mean he’s got a reputation for many things, but most of what is written of Murdoch is plain old-fashioned horseshit. And he doesn’t run the Sunday Times or the Times on the cheap. The Sun has an enormous staff. There is no way that the Sun-Times will be run on the cheap, whatever that means.
MM: What’s important is you’re going to be doing a lot of hiring.
CW: Let me say this to you. The Sun-Times can only be turned around and become a successful newspaper with the climbing circulation if it takes circulation from the Tribune. There will be an increased element of double buying. But in the long run, we have to take copies from the Tribune. Now it is impossible to think that you can take copies from the Tribune, an organization that spends as freely as the Tribune does, without spending money yourself. Murdoch will spend money in all the areas that are necessary to produce a good journalistic product. We will hire people to replace some of those that have gone. We will send people across the nation and abroad where it is necessary, at least as much as we did in the past.
MM: Has the budget been increased?
CW: The editorial budget has not been redrawn yet.
MM: Do you expect it to be increased?
CW: I honestly don’t know. I don’t know whether it will be necessary for it to be increased. It may be increased. There will be no cutting of the budget.
MM: The strength of the Sun-Times for the last ten years has been its investigative journalism. The stories I suppose you’ve come to be a little bit familiar with since you’ve been here—like Mirage, the investigation of Cardinal Cody a couple of years ago—will that continue?
CW: The Sun-Times will continue to be an investigative newspaper and do those things which American journalists call investigative stories. Only yesterday I had along session with executives going through those investigations that we’re currently undertaking, and it was quite a formidable list. And we discussed each in turn, reassigned some of them because some of the people who were working on long-term inquiries had clearly left, so we had to reassign other people to them. And we added one or two brand-new items to the list, and later the same day I set in motion a long-term investigation which I hope will prove to be a very important one, to only for the Sun-Times but for the people of Chicago. I mean, I used to be known as Campaign Charlie when I worked for the Daily Mail. I personally am a great believer—and although I have won no Pulitzers, people working for me have won many investigative awards.
MM: Is this something you’ve picked up since you’ve been here—the investigation you set in motion? You have to know a city fairly well to know what rocks to turn over.
CW: Every morning now that the window has closed and I have to spend less time convincing people they shouldn’t jump out the window, I have come into the office, certainly by nine o’clock, having read all the papers, which aren’t very many because there are only the two locals ones, the New York paper, and the Wall Street Journal to read—if you’re used to reading 10 or 12 morning newspaper, then I have a nice easy morning—and I come in and sit down and discuss the day’s papers with some of the executives on the paper, and we talk about ideas that they may have or I may have, both for the day’s news and for future investigative stories. And we’ve discussed a number. And the one I’m talking about has been formulating in my brain for about the last ten days. I hope it will work.