Small Time: The Shake-up at Chicago Times

What happened at Chicago Times is an old story. The people with the money decided it was being wasted. So they stepped in.

“How could a magazine have failed more convincingly than Chicago Times has failed with respect to its business plan of 12/86?” wondered Tom Small, chairman of the board of the Chicago Times Company, in the document declaring his decision to take over.

Small recalled that the financial projections that had seduced his family way back when were based on assumptions presented to them as being “as reasonable, realistic, and conservative as one could hope for.”

So what happened? Revenues for the first year came in 44 percent below those “conservative” projections and expenses 14.5 percent above. Paid circulation, which was supposed to exceed 45,000 by the end of the first year, hit 15,000 instead.

“The business plan of 12/86, which was subtitled, ‘Meeting the Challenge of Change,'” Small noted tartly, “met no challenge except persuading investors to buy the concept.”

Small delivered these zingers last month in a thick document that bore the modest title “An Evaluation of Editorial Applicants.” Small was evaluating editorial applicants even though that’s exactly what Todd Fandell, publisher of Chicago Times, had just spent the last four months doing. And Fandell had already found someone terrific to take over as editor.

He’d wasted his time. The Smalls were fed up with Fandell. Small decided to put Fandell’s choice for editor and Fandell’s runners-up—and some incumbent editors of the magazine—through paces of his own. He pondered the results, probably drank a gallon of coffee, and drew his conclusions.

“I am the person uniquely qualified to lead our highly talented editors, to assist in new hires, and to direct the magazine’s evolution,” announced Tom Small. On January 31 the board of directors received this proposition.

Todd Fandell was one of those directors. Some of the money that put Chicago Times on its feet was his. Some was his dad’s, some came from friends. But more came, and has kept coming, from the Small Newspaper Group of Kankakee. The Smalls controlled the board. So Tom Small emerged from the meeting as editorial director of Chicago Times. Fandell keeps his title (at least until the stockholders meet next Monday), but he has lost his magazine.

Tom Small, who is 40, is an undergraduate history student at Roosevelt University. He goes to school in the morning and provides leadership in the afternoon. The first impression he’s made on a lot of people—some of whom appreciate his intervention, others who don’t—is that he’s an odd duck, somebody the family might have sent to Chicago less to troubleshoot than just to keep busy. One passage in his “Evaluation” gave us the uneasy feeling that Small has moved into too big an arena:

“We want a magazine Chicagoans feel obliged to read, but it must also be a vehicle important people want to appear in,” he wrote. “We need their support because we need their information. We need them to trust us with confidentialities. So we have the clean suede glove on one hand and the iron-mail glove on the other. The higher we uphold the ideal of Chicago in one, the more satisfyingly terrible is the reality we put forward in the other.”

It’ll be easy to spot Tom Small on the street. He’ll be the guy waving to important people with gloves that don’t match.

We got a better impression of Small by calling the Roseville Press-Tribune outside Sacramento. This is a suburban daily, circulation 15,000, that Tom Small used to manage for the family. (Small left in December 1987, and the paper was later sold.)

“He wanted to be proud of the paper editorially,” one of the editors told us. “If it suffered, it suffered on the business side. Our news hole was a big one for this size paper. We won all of the awards that you’re supposed to win and then some.”

Small left his editors alone in Roseville, and he tells us he’ll be doing that in Chicago. Which means the bimonthly magazine has come full circle. Tim Jacobson, the editor in name only for the past seven issues, is back in the saddle. It was Jacobson in 1984, when he was editing Chicago History for the Chicago Historical Society, who had the idea of a like magazine with a wider scope for a broader audience. Now he gets another chance to produce one.

The mailings that preceded Chicago Times to the marketplace in 1987 were works of art. The actual magazine didn’t have a tenth their style. Richard Koff, the Northwestern consultant brought in by Fandell who gave the Smalls those “reasonable, realistic, and conservative” projections, says the reason they didn’t hold water is that “when people started to receive the magazines themselves they canceled at a rate of 60 to 70 percent. That changed the economics.”

After two issues, Fandell pushed Jacobson aside. The magazine, he felt, had no edge. Chicago Times has limped along ever since, surprisingly good surprisingly often if you knew about the feuding inside. It’s been a house divided: on one side Fandell, on the other Jacobson. Koff says Fandell should have removed Jacobson (who, however, had a contract, plus money of his own invested); Instead, Fandell temporized, bringing in John Twohey, a former Tribune magazine editor, as interim “editorial director.” When Twohey reminded the board last summer that he didn’t intend to stay forever Fandell began searching for someone permanent.

Small Ideas

Todd Fandell knew he was on thin ice. Once he’d found a replacement for Twohey, he prepared a thick document, “The Editor Selection,” and presented it to the Small family over the Christmas weekend. This material defended both Fandell’s choice and himself; though Tom Small had not made a move yet, things had moved past the point when the family would automatically ratify Fandell’s decisions.

So Fandell argued that the “requisite editorial leadership . . . was lacking at the launch. . . . The vision for the magazine, as it had been developed and shaped over a period of more than two years by the publisher, had far outstripped the ability to execute it on the part of the person from whose ‘idea’ the actual magazine eventually evolved.” That means Jacobson. Fandell hailed John Twohey for bringing the magazine “significantly ahead of where it was” despite “the shortcomings of his staff.” And he said he had devoted “several hundred hours” to his search for a new leader:

Who was Flora Johnson Skelly.

“She is someone in whom I believe I will have total confidence,” wrote Fandell. “It may take a little time to fully earn it after what I’ve been through, but I feel it already.”

You will not find a word raised against Flora Skelly here. In her years as a Reader contributor she gave this paper some of the most thoughtful and skillfully written articles (on black intelligence, medical ethics, the chemistry of the brain, medieval saints . . . ) that it has ever run. She enjoys a fine reputation as a hands-on editor, currently as assistant executive editor of the American Medical News. And she’s a friend. This article is being written on a Kaypro computer she lent us two years ago.

Tom Small didn’t care who she was. The test he cooked up for Skelly and other candidates, as well as for Jacobson and other staffers, was to evaluate the November-December 1988 issue. Small’s own opinion was that it contained the best article Chicago Times has run (Jan Morris’s essay on the city), flagged by “the worst cover I have ever seen on any magazine” (a 1980 photo of a dour mechanic standing by a locomotive).

Skelly called the cover “unattractive.” To Jacobson it was “a libel on the piece it purports to represent.” Jacobson gave his pent-up exasperation a healthy venting, and Small was pleased. On the strength of this response, plus what he had seen around the office, Small concluded that Jacobson was by no means the albatross that Fandell had made him out to be. Quite the contrary. Small applauded Jacobson’s “indignation at mediocrity” and his “dry, distant, and erudite tone.” Jacobson, it appears, just needed a fair chance.

Small wrote, “As Editorial Director, I would allow Tim Jacobson to exercise his good judgment.” Unfortunately, he added conditions. “I would often like pieces shorter than he would, and with a less academic tone,” commented Small, who intends “to nudge our course towards a more broad-based ideal.” Worst of all, Small flatly rejected Jacobson’s call for “renewed steadfastness to our original purpose.” Small responded, “I emphatically disagree that we must be steadfast towards any grand plan. Rather our goals must be dynamic and responsive.”

In other words, Jacobson probably faces the same fights with Small that poisoned his relationship with Fandell.

Small made quick work of Skelly, In a cover letter to her critique of the test issue, she’d dared to praise Fandell’s man John Twohey for his “steady improvements” and to speak of the magazine’s “citywide respect.” Small came down on her with both boots:

“Is such a letter normally the occasion for a job applicant to inform her prospective employer of the merits of his present staff?” he wrote querulously. “Has she been recommended for this job for sound reasons, or because she is one of the three or four persons on earth who believe this magazine rests on a solid foundation?

“To put it bluntly,” Small went on, absurdly, “Ms. Skelly is a bullshit artist.”

Thus Small, cavalierly maligning one of Chicago’s top journalists, drove the last nail into the coffin of Todd Fandell.

Those old mailings had made us hope for a magazine that would somehow be the Atlantic and New Yorker and Chicago History rolled into one, written by our friends for a public that ate up every word. We see flashes of that Chicago Times in each issue. Maybe it can still happen.

When that guy in funny-looking gloves carrying school books under his arm goes hopping by on Michigan Avenue, wish him luck.

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