New Surface, Old Tensions

What’s new about the Sun-Times is skin-deep. The paper introduced a different design this week that gives it “a cleaner, livelier, more contemporary feel,” to quote from a memo editor Dennis Britton wrote his staff. I think it’s inky and messy . And beneath the surface the same dark waters roil.

Britton and executive editor Mark Nadler oversaw the face-lift, with input from eminence grise Nigel Wade, who went back to London the other day wishing the revisions had gone further. At any rate, there’s a new headline typeface, and a new order to the news hole, with metro, national, and global stories neatly compartmentalized. Mike Sneed’s been pushed back to page four, where she shares space with quirky news briefs prepared each day by Zay Smith, a wonderful writer who should have been dusted off years ago.

“Nothing they told me seemed dumb–which is rare,” says a reporter, referring to the staff meeting at which editors discussed the changes.

Wade has now visited Chicago twice, and he promises to return. What that bodes is the paper’s great mystery. Wade is deputy editor of London’s Telegraph, which is owned by Hollinger, Inc., whose American Publishing Company subsidiary took over the Sun-Times last March. He’s studied the Chicago operation and written reports focusing on what he apparently regards as an editor-heavy newsroom writing to fit a rigidly formatted news hole. His critiques were submitted to David Radler, president of Hollinger and chairman of American Publishing.

At a staff meeting a couple of weeks ago Britton insisted that he was the Sun-Times’s editor for keeps. At the back of the newsroom Radler watched with what the reporter quoted above called “narrowed eyes.” It has become so widely apparent that Britton doesn’t get along with Radler–or Mark Nadler with Nigel Wade, for that matter–that a mood of apprehensive discombobulation pervades the workplace. Hostile winds blow high and low.

At the same staff meeting Britton complained of a lack of energy. This lament was met with predictable indignation and a spate of bulletin-board memos asserting the rank and file’s good name. Britton responded in conversation that he didn’t mean the rank and file; he meant the city desk–that “Berlin Wall.” But several days earlier Jim Merriner had been replaced as the paper’s chief political writer. The demotion, we’re told, “hit him like a ton of bricks.” The paper’s editors decided Merriner wasn’t showing enough energy as a reporter, though no one could fault his writing or analysis. What especially distressed Merriner’s many sympathizers was a perception that he wasn’t warned. With all those editors on the premises, there wasn’t one who’d sit him down and tell him what he needed to hear.

The newsroom Wade found too many chiefs in operates on a “pod” system that assigns one assistant metro editor to clusters of reporters. Above these assistant metro editors are deputy metro editors, above them is assistant managing editor Steve Huntley, and above Huntley, but still below Nadler, is managing editor Julia Wallace. An impressive flow chart, to be sure.

Whether the fundamental problem is one of organization or simple numbers is uncertain. But if numbers aren’t a culprit they soon could be. This month Britton announced the third buyout offer since American Publishing bought the paper. Any editorial employee with the company five years or more whose age plus length of service equals at least 60 years can leave and receive one year’s pay.

“This offer is a response to the continuing need to lower newsroom operating costs,” explained a Britton memo. “Hopefully, we can make the necessary reductions through voluntary buyouts rather than through less attractive methods of reducing payroll.”

At a meeting he called to explain the buyout Huntley told his forces to keep their chins up. He said American Publishing wanted to make the Sun-Times lean and mean, not eviscerate it. Once a healthy cash flow was established the paper’s owners would start pumping money into the product.

This is a credible forecast. After picking up the Telegraph in the 80s, Hollinger invested heavily in it–though not before breaking its unions. But in the distressing here and now Huntley’s reporters told him they didn’t get it. How would it serve the Sun-Times (or themselves) in any way if its most experienced journalists were invited to pack their bags? (At an informational meeting last week for editorial employees considering the buyout, seven people showed up.)

At least one diligent Sun-Times reader who’s been watching reporters go out the door is no longer comfortable with what he’s buying for his 35 cents. This is Thom Clark, who’s president of the Community Media Workshop, a teaching program that shows community groups how to reach the mainstream media with their programs and causes.

“One of my basic rules is that if you want to be in the public arena you have to read the papers,” Clark told me. “And if you’re working in the city the Sun-Times is the paper you have to read. I’m worried about my rule of thumb not being as valid as it was, especially with the Tribune organizing an urban-affairs group [a new team of reporters that’s been told to go out and find Chicago stories]. To be honest, I’ve already seen results from that.

“We haven’t had the Daily News in town for a while,” Clark went on, “but the Sun-Times did represent that legacy. And I’m afraid of that legacy slipping away.”

News Bites

Rest easy, Thom Clark. Mel Reynolds went to court last Friday for a hearing in the sex-crime case against him. Federal judge Fred Suria Jr. dismissed three counts of obstruction of justice but refused to throw out the indictment altogether.

The Sun-Times account ran on page 11. The Tribune didn’t carry a story.

And on the global front: New York Times, page one headline, February 11–“Mexico’s New Offensive Erasing Rebel’s Mystique”; Chicago Tribune, page one headline, February 13–“Mexico seeking to rob top rebel of his mystique.”

The Times beat the Tribune by two days, but at least the Tribune piece was written by one of its own reporters. Usually when deja vu strikes, the Tribune’s picked up a story from the Times news wire a day or two after the Times ran it.

A Sun-Times double dip.

Top scoop: When the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, meeting in Rosemont, decided unanimously to require departments teaching obstetrics to offer training in abortions, the Sun-Times rounded up local comment and led the paper with a story bylined by Tom McNamee. The Tribune settled for an AP story on page eight, contributed no local reporting, and didn’t mention that the decision was made here.

Bottom scoop: When the Nation of Islam decided to open a restaurant on 79th Street, the Sun-Times told religion writer Andrew Herrmann to get to work.

This hapless assignment produced a Sunday exclusive worthy of the immortal C.P. Pecoraro, author of those bogus restaurant reviews betrayed by the small print as advertising. The religious dimension to Herrmann’s report consisted of an observation that there’ll be no pork on the menu. Otherwise he desperately made lists: “The fare at Salaam will include Mediterranean, Asian, Mexican, Indian, Caribbean and American, said Salaam President Keith Hopps. The building will have a banquet facility. Construction features include marble floors, crystal chandeliers, cherry furniture and brass accents.”

Louis Farrakhan was identified as Chicago’s “new celebrity restaurateur.” There was no further explanation of who Keith Hopps is.

Willful Ignorance

Good evening. I’m George Will, and I’ll be your host each week on Masterpiece Jetsons. For no small fee I’m contributing my innate dignity to this new program because it precisely demonstrates the sort of children’s educational programming that privatization can offer. If you don’t like our show, simply turn the dial. If you do, may I remind you that our sponsor this evening is the Ketchup Institute of America–ketchup, the most important food group in a big red bottle. Bert and Ernie like it; your kids will too.

As we await the first provocative episode of Masterpiece Jetsons, I’m reminded of Samuel Johnson’s pointed aphorism, “Nothing so concentrates the mind as knowing that you’re about to lose your federal funding.” No, Samuel Johnson did not survive into the 21st century, but neither, thank God, did the preposterous dependency on Washington largesse that vitiated the republic for half a century. Which is why a spirit of rugged if ignorant individualism shapes the lives of George and Jane Jetson, their children Judy and Elroy, and loyal dog Astro. Although Spacely Space Sprockets, Inc., does accept the occasional government contract, sprockets billed to Uncle Sam do not cost $400 each in this day and age, and if they do it’s only because of inflation, which is not half what it would have been had the Democrats stayed in power.

Tonight we find Spacely common stock increasing by three-quarters of a point as one of those painful recalibrations to which the human animal is forever prey abruptly pares 20,000 employees from the Spacely payroll. Bidding farewell to Skypad Apartments, the Jetsons set out for the nearest state offering unemployment benefits, which turns out to be Manitoba. Sickened when little Judy asks innocently, “Daddy, are we feeding at the public trough?” George Jetson decides to come home and starve like patriots. There’s an awkward delay at the border when the Jetsons are unable to recite the 27th through 43rd amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the immortal “Bill of Goods” authored by the second wave of Founding Fathers in the waning days of the 20th century.

All ends happily, however, in this engrossing study of the future based on authentic 1960s cartoon projections. George returns to Spacely, joining the design team entrusted with the long-awaited Sprocket-A. Three months’ work is guaranteed.

Now let’s watch.