By Michael Miner

Sun-Times Pitches Woo

Next Friday the Sun-Times advertising department decides whether to join Big Labor. Some 180 employees will cast secret ballots that could turn them into the newest unit of the Chicago Newspaper Guild, itself a small part of the massive Communications Workers of America. Sun-Times management abhors unions, and it’s firing every gun.

“For the last five weeks it’s been manna from heaven,” says one ad seller. “It’s been, ‘We love you guys.’ We’ve gotten tons of goodies–promotions, more money, computers, sweatshirts. We’re getting a cruise on Chicago’s First Lady, trips to the new printing facility. New fax machines, copy machines. A new incentive plan.”

Not to mention a ton of old-fashioned caring. Publisher David Radler has come to the ad staff both to speak and to listen. “He said, ‘I had no idea’ our salaries were capped,” the salesman tells me, “‘no idea’ our commission plan penalized us once we reach our goal, ‘no idea’ our parking wasn’t paid for, ‘I had no idea you need new computers.’ He said basically no one came to ask him for anything…because he never would have said no.”

From Radler on down, Sun-Times management has talked to the workers like a Dutch uncle. It has patiently explained that unionism leads to strikes, and strikes lead to pain and unemployment. It has shown them a movie about the recent newspaper strike in Detroit and wondered why they’d risk that sort of tumult and suffering here.

It has even canned the boss many of them hated. Francesca Briggs, a chain-smoking wine connoisseur in her mid-40s, came down late last year from the Hollinger paper in Calgary, where she’d done amazing things as vice president for advertising. Radler, who in addition to being publisher is chairman of Hollinger International, wanted Briggs to work her magic again in Chicago. The Sun-Times claims as many readers as the Tribune and four-fifths the Tribune’s daily metro circulation, but its ad revenues are a third of its rival’s. The Sun-Times newsroom scrapes by on a starvation budget, and before Radler spends more money he’d like his paper to make it.

About five years ago, when a milder case of union fever struck the ad department, guild leaders advised them to go slow and do everything by the book. This deliberate approach to insurrection gave the paper’s old management plenty of time to preach the gospel of a union-free workplace, and the movement fizzled out before it even reached the stage of collecting signed cards asking for representation.

Since then Hollinger has taken over the Sun-Times. Other media companies merely dislike unionism; Hollinger brass have looked the beast in the face. “Because we come from a socialist country [Canada], we’re more used to dealing with it,” Radler told me this week. “We see the negatives–which would shock you. It creates barriers to progress. It creates elements of distrust.”

There’s a touch of Napoleon in many Hollinger executives, who regard grievance sessions as almost as much fun as winter on the outskirts of Moscow. Briggs fit the mold. She was given to calling Sun-Times advertisers whose buys weren’t big enough and bluntly telling them to get it up. If that’s how she treated the folks she was supposed to woo and win over, imagine her style with the ones she came here to whip into shape.

Running a sales force means calibrating a compensation plan so that its mix of base pay and commissions yields the balance of stability, company loyalty, and naked aggression the moment demands. Briggs wanted plenty of naked aggression, but she put the stick before the carrot. As if a staff already stretched thin were teeming with lollygags, she raised quotas–without increasing incentives. To fill upper-management jobs that in-house people weren’t encouraged to apply for, she advertised heavily in trade journals, and her staff took to reading them as tip sheets of who was coming and going. She soon ran a department full of frightened old hands who believed she was setting them up to be fired.

This spring a committee of about ten insurrectionists again approached the guild. The second time around the advice became, let’s make it fast and silent. In two weeks the cards were signed and submitted to the National Labor Relations Board. “We caught the company completely off guard,” says an organizer.

On May 26 Briggs disappeared. “She’s taken four or five weeks’ vacation pending reassignment, and she will go to a Canadian newspaper,” says Radler. “She felt she was the focal point of the unhappiness which led to the attempts at unionization. She felt she had lost the confidence of the people downstairs [in advertising].”

Radler replaced her with executive editor Larry Green, who took over with three strong pluses. First, after 30 years in Chicago and 10 at the Sun-Times, he knew the territory. Second, he knew the ad department, having put in three years there earlier in the 90s. And third, he knew the newsroom, where he’d spent most of his career.

But in his three and a half years as executive editor Green had become known to reporters as the guy in charge of worrying about how the news would play with advertisers. It’s an unseemly duty, if arguably necessary–“The advertisers are the bread and butter of the newsroom,” says Radler–and it got Green knocked and mocked in this column. A blazing temper didn’t help his reputation. In short, last month’s personnel shift brought sunshine to two departments, as each lost a top exec lots of subordinates couldn’t stand.

“I’m usually calm, but I have my moments,” Green told his new staff in a get-to-know-me memo. It went on, “You will probably hear other things about me from the Guild and that does not surprise me. They do not like me. I have not let them intimidate me. I have gone public with things they would rather have kept secret. And I have done what managers sometimes have to do; I have been involved in the firing of three of their members (yes you can be fired even if you are in the Guild) and I have disciplined several others for a variety of infractions ranging from making mistakes in print, to misusing company equipment.

“And they ridiculed me when I chose to defend our advertisers–your clients. They have leaked damaging material to other publications about my efforts to protect our advertisers in copy and photographs. They have been critical of decisions not to offer free publicity to companies that buy ads only in our competition.”

After this Nixonesque indulgence, Green lightened up. He said he was installing a glass door in his office to symbolize his “open administration.” Come on in, he said, and bring your suggestions. “I’m looking forward to the time we can get back to the reason why we’re here: To work as a team, to have fun again and to make lots of money.”

The next day guild leaders posted a note in the newsroom. “Since the organizing campaign began,” the note concluded, “David Radler has been attending Advertising department staff meetings and making all kinds of promises. And it seems likely that in that vein, Larry Green will try to go down to Advertising as ‘Mr. Good Guy’ who will attempt to quiet things down and probably urge the Advertising department staff to ‘Just give me a chance’–and, Oh yes: Please vote against the Guild. It will be interesting to watch.”

With all due respect to Detroit, says the guild, the facts are that there’s never been a single strike at the Sun-Times in the paper’s 50-year history. Will this history of forbearance reassure the rank and file? If it’s proof of adept–not feckless–unionism, it’s evidence of enlightened management too.

So-Called Experts

Some important skills come only with time. One of them is knowing how to finesse a contradiction. A while back a colleague declared himself on an issue that had divided scholars for decades. But fresh evidence has since come in, and when examined 99 ways out of 100 it stamps my friend as flat-out mistaken. The job facing him now is to find that 100th way and sell it to his readers.

“I’m going to have to weasel my way through this,” he brooded. I referred him to the Sun-Times of June 4 and told him to learn from masters.

Two distinguished journalists opining within had to face awkward new facts about the war over Kosovo. John Keegan, the world’s best-known military historian, had argued that NATO bombing by itself wouldn’t win the war because in the history of warfare, air power without ground troops had never been decisive. Political columnist Robert Novak was as contemptuous of President Clinton’s warmongering as of anything else he’s done.

But on June 4 it appeared that Clinton had won the war. Keegan, with a reputation as a serious scholar to maintain, marveled at his own error. “I didn’t want to change my beliefs,” he wrote, “but there was too much evidence accumulating to stick to the article of faith–held by all military analysts outside a few beleaguered departments of air power studies in the service academies–that air forces could not, on their own, win wars. If it turned out otherwise in the Balkans, I wrote at the time, many military analysts, me included, were going to look foolish. It now does look as if air power has prevailed in the Balkans and that the time has come to redefine how war may be won.”

Novak dismissed victory as an illusion tempting only to lesser minds. “Long-term consequences of the NATO air war may not be kind to the president’s legacy,” he warned. “The U.S. military emerged from 10 weeks of bombing not bloodied but with a depleted store of weapons. There is no denying now that this is a hollow military, unable to launch a land war and not equipped for multiple crises. Nor was there any secret of negative feeling by the officers and the troops toward their commander in chief. U.S.-Russian and U.S.-Chinese relations…have been undermined….NATO’s bombing of civilians has increased anti-Americanism across the world….In time, the question will not be whether Clinton is vindicated but whether the cost–in prestige and power more than dollars–was worth it.”

So anyway, I told my friend, you might consider the option of saying you were wrong.

“Yeah, maybe,” he replied dubiously, “but don’t you think there are plenty of ways things could fall apart in Kosovo?”

And three days later it looked like things had. If good news comes along and embarrasses you, the right response might be to sit tight and ride it out. Weaseling, we agreed, is a subtle yet essential skill, and it’s inexplicable that they don’t teach it in college. Any decent journalism school should make it a graduate-level course.

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