So Much for Retirement

“I’d heard it rumored for a couple of months that the Tribune was going to call me,” says Mike Downey. “Some people said they were going to call me about the sports column and others about the Bob Greene thing. After a while I wondered if they were going to call at all.”

Downey has been living out west in the kind of joblessness that goes by the name retirement if you got when the getting was good, and newspapers weren’t something he felt a need to return to. “I told myself if the Chicago Tribune or the New York Times or the Washington Post were to call, that was a call I would take,” he says. “But it would take something really spectacular to get me back in the fold.”

Meanwhile, the Tribune had been limping along with only one sports columnist, Rick Morrissey, since December 2001, which is when Michael Holley went back to Boston, two months after he’d arrived. Bernie Lincicome had quit in the summer of 2000 and Skip Bayless in the summer of 2001, both of them complaining on the way out the door that they didn’t feel appreciated. Promoted without fanfare, Morrissey has turned out to be excellent, but Tribune sports was looking like a place no out-of-towner with any star power wanted to touch.

This forlorn situation was one of the reasons sports editor John Cherwa lost his job a year ago. His number two, Dan McGrath, moved into the top spot and offered a column to S.L. Price of Sports Illustrated. Price turned him down. Then he turned to Mike Wise of the New York Times. “I asked him, ‘What would it take to make it happen?'” says McGrath. “He said, ‘You know, I really like my life. I’m not ready to make another move.'”

As for Downey, the Tribune had already made a couple of runs at him in 1997 and ’98. “I’ve known Mike more than 20 years. He’s always been on my radar,” says McGrath, “but I more or less sort of believed he was retired.”

Mike Downey is as pure a child of newspapers as you’ll find. Growing up in the south Chicago suburb of Steger, he began writing obits for the Chicago Heights weekly Star as a 14-year-old sophomore at Bloom High School, and by the time he graduated in 1968 he’d been a proofreader, a reporter, and an editor. “I was so busy working at the newspaper I kept putting off college,” he says, though he briefly attended Prairie State junior college, where his journalism instructor was someone who’d worked under him at the Star.

Downey got to know some sportswriters at the dailies, and they pitched him to their bosses. Ray Sons, sports editor of the Daily News, was interested but hamstrung. “I kept telling him, ‘Mike, you’ve got to go back and get a college degree,'” Sons remembers. “‘I can’t get you past my managing editor. He’s got a stack of application forms from guys from Columbia and Missouri–some of them have master’s degrees.’ But he had the talent, obviously.

“Well, the deal was, at that time it was very difficult to get good copy editors, and at the Star and other papers of that size you had to do a little bit of everything. So I was able to hire him [in 1975] as a copy editor on the midnight shift.” Sons had told Downey he wouldn’t be allowed to write, but Downey did so well on midnights that eventually Sons came up with a weekly column on TV sports.

By this time Jim Hoge, the editor of the Sun-Times, was running the Daily News too. He’d been given Marshall Field’s afternoon paper by the desperate publisher to see if he could figure out a way to keep it alive. “Hoge was trying to build the Daily News as the paper of choice among the intelligentsia of Chicago, not the blue-collar types,” Sons says. “So Downey wrote a column about NASCAR racing on TV, and he used the phrase ‘Dolly Parton headlights.’

“I was called on the carpet before Hoge. He says, ‘NASCAR racing? Dolly Parton headlights’?”

That ended the column.

“At any rate, Mike can be very funny,” says Sons, “and humor is that rarest quality in a columnist.”

The intelligentsia didn’t respond, and the Daily News folded in early 1978. By then Downey was writing after all, covering college basketball, and Hoge brought him over to the Sun-Times. He covered the Bulls and DePaul basketball (a big beat then; the Blue Demons were the top-ranked team in the country) before moving into entertainment features, under the impression the Sun-Times was prepping him for the only column it could free up–TV critic. But the Tribune’s Gary Deeb, then a hot property, offered himself to the Sun-Times and got the job instead. “They couldn’t resist,” says Downey, “and they offered me a job as Ebert’s backup and a weekly column. I passed.” This was late 1980. A few months later the Detroit Free Press offered to make Downey its lead sports columnist. “He didn’t like the idea of going to Detroit–who does?” Sons recalls. “But I said, ‘Mike, you ought to take it. This is your opportunity to show what you can do, and in a couple of years someone will hire you where you want to go.'”

“He walked into Detroit, and he captured the town,” says Jay Mariotti, who was a Detroit News sportswriter back then. “He was a blast, the life of the party.”

He was also letting his bosses know he wouldn’t mind moving into news. That’s why he was assigned to help cover the 1984 Democratic and Republican national conventions. Downey ran into Hoge at the Democratic convention. Hoge was running the New York Daily News at the time, and Downey says Hoge talked to him about bringing his sports column to New York. When the Republicans met, Downey sat with Mike Royko. “He was encouraging me to come back to Chicago and go news side.”

But instead of New York or Chicago, in 1985 Downey took his sports column to the Los Angeles Times. The Sun-Times tried to bring him back to Chicago in 1994 and came close–the paper “festooned my hotel room with a ‘Welcome Home’ banner and baskets of local products,” Downey says. The Tribune came even closer a few years later. In late 1997 “they offered me a sports column, but Royko hadn’t been replaced yet, and we began talking about that. The only candidate they had in mind was John Kass, and [editor] Howard Tyner said–I trust with great sincerity–that they’d hold off on replacing Royko if I’d come to town and let readers get to know me and me them.”

Downey says, “I would have dropped everything for that job, and salary would have been no object. That was the ultimate newspaper job–like center field for the Cubs, like being Leno and Letterman replacing Carson. I worked with Mike, played softball with Mike. It was the job.”

But since it hadn’t exactly been offered him, he stayed in LA. “Six months later,” he says, “they made an offer so lucrative it blew my LA salary away.” By now Kass had taken over Royko’s space, and nothing was on the table but a sports column–but the money was incredible. “When I got back home the editor of the Los Angeles Times, Michael Parks, called me upstairs and offered me a page A-3 column on news side. I told him it was probably the one thing he could have said that would keep me from Chicago.”

He wrote the news column three years. “I’d promised myself I’d get out before my 50th birthday,” he says. “Then the Tribune Company bought the Times. I said to myself, if these people are the greatest people I ever met I might stay on longer. But the Tribune Company’s editors were pretty aloof to me. I was so enthusiastic about working for Dean Baquet, a former Tribune editor who was going to be the Times managing editor. But his office was ten steps from mine, and he never spoke to me the entire time we were at the paper together. I felt my being there wasn’t a high priority, so I actually pushed my retirement up a few months.”

A journalist I know in LA says Downey’s news column didn’t work: “He was playing out of position and showed no mobility when it came to hard-core reporting.” Downey tells me, “I left the LA Times on perfectly pleasant terms,” and he says, “I’ve traveled and read and done all the things I wasn’t able to do. I got married in ’99 for the first time [to Dean Martin’s daughter Gail], so it was my first time to actually have a life. I sat by the pool and read, and it was the best two years of my life.”

He goes on, “At no time had I indicated to anyone my willingness to get back in the business. Nobody dreamed I’d give up the good life to come back to the hard life.”

But Dan McGrath began hearing that if he was looking for a columnist Downey was someone he ought to call. In November McGrath attended a dinner where Ray Sons, now retired, received a Ring Lardner Award (from the Chicago Athletic Association). Sons told the Dolly Parton story and talked about Downey, and McGrath decided he should at least ask.

“The whole deal was done in a week,” says Downey. “If Michael Jordan can unretire, and Ryne Sandberg and Bill Parcells, hell, why can’t I? I always figured I’d get back into writing in some form. It’s in my blood.” He’d written a novel that hasn’t been published–a mystery that opens in Chicago’s south suburbs and moves on to Michigan and California. (“I don’t know where I ever came up with those three places,” he says.) He’d dabbled at screenwriting long enough to establish that he wasn’t any good at it. And he’d become aware of the itch he wasn’t scratching. When he and his wife went east for Liza Minnelli’s wedding, “I was saying, I could do about five columns on that. And when Ted Williams was frozen, I was saying, if you can’t get a column out of this you’re in the wrong business.”

So he said yes to McGrath. “They caught me in a good mood. I wouldn’t have come for less money. There was a greed factor involved.” His wife “can’t wait,” he says. “When we were in New York for the wedding we were reminded of how much fun city life can be.”

The enemy hails him. “He’s what I think a sportswriter should be,” says the Sun-Times’s Rick Telander, “a guy with a bit of skepticism, but witty and knowledgeable and aware of what’s going on outside the world of sports. I was shocked, and I guess you can say I was very happy. The fellow writers are the guys who become your working associates. They’re the guys who laugh at your bad jokes, the ones you share gross moments with–planes that are late, computers that break down. I still can’t believe he’s coming back. I had images of him floating on an inflatable raft in Beverly Hills with girls bringing him Mai Tais.”

Mariotti calls Downey a mentor. When Mariotti was 25 the Cincinnati Post offered him a column. Cincinnati? Mariotti asked Downey, who was at the rival paper in Detroit, what to do. If you don’t hop on it, said Downey, it might not come around again. “I took his advice,” says Mariotti, a columnist ever since. “Blame him.”

Yet Mariotti wonders if Downey and the Tribune are making a mistake. “I remember Mike telling some of us one night he was tired of the whole thing. Once you lose your love of sports, I don’t know if it comes back. When I hear the word ‘retire’–and that’s the word used by Downey–that’s the point of no return. But he’s back. If you see the Downey you saw in the 80s he’s going to be a great hire.”

Says Sons, “Hell, he’ll be the best in Chicago the day he starts.”

Coming home is never easy and often wrong, and when Downey launches his sports column in the Tribune on January 19 he’ll be home in more ways than one. “I thought about it long and hard,” he says. “Part of me said, ‘Been there, done that.’ But the part I haven’t done was the Tribune. That was unfinished business to me. I was a newspaper brat. I always wanted to work in that tower.” He hasn’t forgotten that he and Tyner talked about a news column in 1997, and though he didn’t bring up the possibility this time around, it’s on his mind. “The unspoken part, at least on my end, is that three years from now, or five years from now, if they’d be so inclined–”

Shifting to news?

“I’d be interested in that at some point if they would.”

Talked Out

CityTalk was based on a couple of premises: that the constituency of Window to the World Communications Inc. would welcome a cultural journal pitched at the same level as its radio and TV stations, and that the company would reap a bounty by creating a “platform” for all the advertising that was inaccessible to WTTW because it’s a public station and to WFMT because its ads are read by announcers.

CityTalk hit the ground running in November 2000 by offering freelancers the startling rate of $1 a word. But advertisers didn’t flock to it, and a survey established that despite some excellent reporting and writing, readers didn’t hover at their mail slots when it was due. CityTalk was, after all, a premium that came automatically to anyone who gave money to WFMT or WTTW.

In July 2001 CityTalk was redesigned with a glossier look, but it was cut back to a biweekly and became staff written. Last June the staff of ten was reduced to seven. And last Monday those seven were told the January 17 issue would be the last.

“It’s not just CityTalk where we’re having to cut back,” publisher Parke Richeson told me. WTTW Inc. laid off 23 people in all, 6 of them at CityTalk. The only staffer to survive was a designer, who’ll go to work creating the new Network Chicago Guide, a simple monthly providing CityTalk’s one indispensable feature: the WTTW and WFMT program listings.

Editor Dave Wieczorek, who’s out of a job, and Richeson, who stays on as WTTW Inc.’s senior vice president for finance and business development, should be remembered for what

they did right. CityTalk was consistently interesting to read, and ad revenues were inching up. A corporate spokesperson says the magazine sold about $1.2 million in advertising during its lifetime; $460,000 of that came in 2001, and something approaching $700,000 in 2002.

Even so, CityTalk had been launched in good times to make money, and in bad times it was losing it.

News Bites

The Tribune has taken to running sports briefs that don’t mention the sport. As in this item from last Saturday’s paper: “Canada beat the U.S. 3-2 in the semifinals of the world junior championship in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Team USA will face Finland for the bronze medal Sunday. Canada will play Russia for the gold.”

The effect is so totally casual it’s RedEye worthy.

“Ritalin may help kids avoid drugs” was the curious headline in last Monday’s Tribune. Remarkably, RedEye said more. Its headline announced, “Ritalin kids take fewer drugs later, study says.”

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