Page’s New Boy

Few newspapermen have worked 35 years without at least one fatal battle with a boss.

“I guess I’m a different breed of cat,” said Ken Towers, the new executive editor of the Sun-Times. He’s survived at the paper for 35 years. He’s reported to Jim Hoge, Charlie Wilson, Frank Devine . . . seen Marshall Field sell the paper to Rupert Murdoch and Murdoch sell it to Robert Page. He’s kept his job through a parade of forceful personalities.

Page promoted Towers from managing editor last week when Matthew Storin resigned. His heart leapt and his wife Rita was proud. “I’ve always wanted a job like this, yeah,” Towers told us at home. We were breakfasting in his TV room over chocolate-covered doughnuts and coffee. The walls are decorated with Cubs and Bears memorabilia, and a still life of oysters Towers sketched himself.

We wanted to know the Towers theory of survival. “It’s very simple. It’s so logical. The goal is to get a paper out, right? The best way to do that is to minimize conflict. I have not consciously sought to avoid conflict. I just have a different way of resolving conflicts. In many ways, it tends to get the show on he road. For me, it works.

“My feeling is that once you have a fight, if you dissent, you say so. Whatever the decision is, you support the final decision whether it was your original decision or not. You support it as enthusiastically as you can. There has rarely been a situation so outrageous that I couldn’t live with it,” said Towers.

When Storin resigned, “a difference in philosophy” was the official reason offered. Storin’s decision to exit did not surprise us. The histories of Page and Storin tell us they were bound to collide. In Boston, Page had been publisher of the Herald and Storin was managing editor of the Globe. Storin spent 15 years at that rich, dominant paper, and Boston Magazine called him “the most successful managing editor the Globe has had in decades.”

Storin enjoyed plenty of autonomy at the Globe. “The editor is the editor is the editor,” said Thomas Mulvoy, the Globe’s present managing editor. “It’s kind of a church-and-state arrangement here, if you will. For the 15 years he worked here, it was almost a religion.”

When Page took over the Herald for Murdoch in 1982 it was virtually bankrupt. Robert C. Bergenheim, the previous publisher, watched Page turn the Herald around. “You cut forces to the absolute bone. You beat the unions to death, which I like. You operate on a very lean staff, but a good staff. There is something to being lean and hungry. You get a good gossip columnist and enough of a splash of hard news. You make it very entertaining . . .” Bergenheim calls it “good commercial newspaperism. As opposed to a paper of record that isn’t necessarily reaching for sales at the newsstand.”

Page had been an editor himself earlier in his career. When an old editor buys a newspaper, it’s only natural he’ll fiddle with it. Yet when Page wooed Storin to the Sun-Times nine months ago, he assured Storin he’d run the shop. Eager to distance himself from Murdoch, Page coveted the image of high-quality journalism Storin represented.

But he never forgot the basic Murdoch formula: Whatever works, works. And when Page and his investors looked at circulation figures and blanched, he ordered jazzier headlines–it was important to attract the “impulse buyer” on the street. He ordered a new Social Security game that began the day after Storin left. He put an editorial on page one attacking the New York Times for questions it was putting to presidential hopefuls about their private lives.

“Storin kept finding out Page made editorial decisions without telling him,” we were told.

“I am what I am,” Storin told staffers on leaving. Storin praised Towers. Towers praised Storin. They hugged. Mike Sneed cried. Storin went around saying good-bye to everybody. Then he was gone.

“I don’t have any plans,” Storin told us later. “I hope to stay in the newspaper business, which means not staying in Chicago, unfortunately.”

Page held a brief meeting with his editors. “We don’t need foreigners coming in telling us how to run our newspaper,” he reportedly said, “Look around this room. We have lots of here. Lots of talent on this staff.”

“We’re a paper of personalities, ” said Towers. “Traditionally, we believe in the star system, Now we have our two latest, Jeff Zaslow and Diane Crowley. We have Sneed. We have Kup, who is master of them all. We have Ebert.” And now they have reporter Mark Eissman, a top Sneed source at the Tribune who is finally following her across the street after months of Sun-Times courting.

But the rank and file are distressed by Page’s extravagant spending to lure an Eissman or Steve Neal, or hire two advice columnists, while they suffer budget cuts and layoffs. And they worry that Page’s eagerness to please advertisers may be affecting the editorial content of his newspaper. And that Page has isolated himself from anyone who will stand up to him.

“In a manner of speaking, he better be right,” said a staffer. “Because if he’s wrong, ain’t nobody gonna tell him about it. And that’s a dangerous position to be in. There is no one left to say him nay.”

English Spoken Here

We are irked when newscasters merrily go along in English, then suddenly offer us “Neeek-arragwa” or “Kohn-traah” or “Kohl-ohm-biah.” Pronunciation is an imprecise art in the news business–still, we can’t forgive “Neeek-arragwa.”

“That affectation can be bothersome,” said Colleen Dudgeon, assistant news director for Channel Two. “I think it might be better just to use the good old American way of saying it,” Chris Witting, news director of WBBM-AM, told us. “If you listen to Spanish newscasts, they do the same thing. You’ll suddenly hear “Kleenex” or “Ontario.”

“I used to do that myself,” confessed Felicia Middlebrooks, WBBM newscaster. “I have a fondness for the Spanish language. I got a letter one day from someone who wrote, ‘I just wondered why, if you say “Neeek-arragwa,” you don’t say “Pah-ree.”‘ I have since stopped.”

News director Paul Davis of Channel Nine says there are enough inconsistencies in American. “I’ve got a guy who says ‘warter.’ I’ve never got a call about it, ever, though I shriek every time I hear it. That new woman from Channel Two does a pretty good job, but she does have two words that come out Canadian, ‘oot’ and ‘aboot.'”

AP and UPI issue “pronouncers” daily to their TV and radio clients. “AP does not take any of this lightly,” said Jan Thomas, an editor in Washington. “It’s a difficult thing to call. We will use ‘Moscow’ instead of ‘Moskva,’ and ‘Munich’ instead of ‘Munchen.’ We went from ‘Peking’ to ‘Payking’ to ‘Bayzhing’ to ‘Beijing.’ There are many people, you say ‘Beijing,’ and they don’t understand what you’re talking about.”

UPI’s World-Prono-Guide is compiled in Chicago. Its latest puzzler was Senator Daniel Inouye. “We first had the phonetic dating back from Watergate,” said Susanne Fowler, national broadcast news director. “Then we got a message from Honolulu it was wrong. It was ‘Ihn-noh-way,’ and we used that for a while, then the Iran hearings came up and we had a call from CBS to discuss whether the phonetic was right or not. Because of that, we called Inouye’s office. Now it’s ‘Ee-noh-way,’ with no syllable accented.

“I’ve heard ‘junta’ instead of ‘hunta’ on the CBS network all the time,” said Fowler. “Who knows why we say ‘Florence’ instead of ‘Firenze’?”

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