Sun-Times Shake-up–Who’ll Rise to the Top?

A few weeks ago I wrote about the wonderful rivalry we were going to see between the Tribune and Sun-Times sports sections under old buddies John Sherwa and Rick Jaffe. They’d known each other since college, and they’d even lived together for a while when they both worked at the Los Angeles Times. Now Sherwa was the new sports editor of the Tribune, and Jaffe was managing editor in charge of sports at the Sun-Times.

Sorry. Jaffe just quit. He’s on his way back to LA to take the job Sherwa gave up. Jaffe’s going to be called the executive sports editor, whereas Sherwa was merely the deputy sports editor, but fancier titles and bigger salaries are two of the reasons people move around. Jaffe will do what Sherwa did: run the Times’s sports section under sports editor Bill Dwyre and wait for him to retire.

Jaffe, who’d followed Dennis Britton here from the LA Times, explained to me that when Britton quit as editor of the Sun-Times the LA paper decided Jaffe was fair game. They flew him out two Fridays ago and offered him the job the same day; Jaffe accepted the following Monday, and the next day he resigned from the Sun-Times.

“They were very nice to me. They did not want me to leave,” Jaffe said. “They’d always told me they had big plans for me, and one day I would move up to be editor at one of their papers or publisher at one of their papers. But right now this is a good move. I don’t think I’ve finished everything I want to do in sports.”

Besides sports, Jaffe was in charge of photography and graphics at the Sun-Times; he deeply influenced the paper’s visual texture. His bosses at the American Publishing Company and its parent Hollinger chain–the “they” he was speaking of–liked him a lot. On Sundays, when Jaffe ran the entire newsroom, APC chairman David Radler liked to come in and hang out in Jaffe’s office. “Most of the time we were talking about sports,” Jaffe said, but reporters outside the glass partitions interpreted the bull sessions as evidence that Jaffe had been anointed. Hollinger vowed a “global” search for a successor to Britton, but Jaffe and managing editor Julia Wallace were the apparent in-house candidates.

The day Jaffe turned in his resignation he was running the paper by default. Wallace had taken a vacation, and Britton and former executive editor Mark Nadler were history. Jaffe’s departure may not make it any more likely that Wallace will wind up the paper’s next editor, but it’s squelched speculation about who the leading insider is.

Do you want the job? I asked Wallace. She remained silent the appropriate instant. “Yes,” she said. “I think it’s one of the greatest jobs in American journalism.”

Wallace is not the silent type. Unlike Britton, she will never be accused of remoteness. “I think the editors of American Publishing think of her as fickle, giggly, and goofy,” a well-placed reporter told me. Do you? I asked. “You know, sometimes she has terrific news instincts, and sometimes it’s like talking to a baby.”

“She’s got cojones,” said another reporter. “She’s a bubble.” Then added, paradoxically, oxymoronically, “She has that steely practical sense.”

And a third: “The rap on Julia, and it’s universal, is that Julia doesn’t know when to stop. When Nadler was here you had Nadler to curb those excesses….She’s very personable. She mixes well with the staff. But people who criticize her or disagree with her don’t go far at the paper. That is very, very unfortunate.”

I read Wallace the list of pluses: you’re an enthusiastic, hands-on boss with a sense of style and a great nose for news.

“Yes, I think those are all true,” she said. “Absolutely.”

Then came the minuses: you get carried away, take good ideas to extremes, and don’t like criticism.

“They’re screwed up on that,” Wallace said. “On the first question, I think that’s something I’m learning as I go, frankly. I had two bosses, then I had one boss, and now I don’t. It’s something I work on, because I do try to push the limits.

“On the question of criticism, that’s not quite what it is. I don’t like it when people say, ‘This can’t be done.’ I think anything can be done. It’s ‘Should it be done, and can it be done in the best way?’ I’m clearly not a manager who says, ‘This is what I want. Go do it.’ I’m very open and often change my mind. But I don’t accept this ‘Well, we can’t do that’ as a reason not to do something.”

A case study: last month’s Metra train-school bus crash in Fox River Grove. Wallace is enormously proud of her paper’s ongoing coverage. As many as a dozen reporters have been pulled off their usual assignments to produce “Tragedy on the Tracks,” a series of reports about rail safety that remains on page one more than a month after the accident. “Solely for the purpose of winning an award,” said an unadmiring staff writer. “People here have called it unconscionable. We beat the Tribune, and then we beat the story. We beat it and beat it.”

Wrong, says Wallace. “It’s one of the times a paper needs to suck it up and do what newspapers do. What happened here was an accident waiting to happen. There were a lot of things a lot of people could have done to prevent it and didn’t. We did this as a public responsibility. Clearly it’s meant there are some other things we couldn’t do we’d like to have done. Some people are stretched thin. But people generally are proud of the work we’ve done and understand it.”

When and where a newspaper that needs more reporters than it’s got should pick its spots is an old question. Wallace has the next several weeks to sell her answers to her paper’s owners. For form’s sake, if for no other reason, the Sun-Times isn’t expected to announce a new editor until there’s a new publisher on the premises, and that position is expected to remain vacant through the end of the year.

Yet the next publisher’s say in the appointment of an editor is likely to be nominal. The Hollinger chain has an editor in chief now, and she’s no one less than Barbara Amiel, the wife of chairman Conrad Black. A London journalist who’s observed Hollinger politics from close up told me, “Barbara will recommend someone to David [Radler], who’ll turn it down at his peril.”

What about Nigel Wade? I asked. Wade’s the editor from Hollinger’s Telegraph in London who made several fact-finding trips to Chicago. Mark Nadler couldn’t stand him, but Wade got along fine with several other top figures at the Sun-Times.

“He’d relish the chance,” said the London journalist, who knows Wade. “But I don’t think he’ll get it. Barbara will appoint her own editor.”

Starr is Reborn

Brenda sniffled. She sat on a park bench and sniffled over Basil St. John, her once and future but rarely present love. A crack Reader editorial assistant turned the matter over in his mind. Brenda Starr, feminist ideal, never shed a tear for any man. Something was wrong here. Then he thought he had it: the strip was being drawn by someone new!

Our man was both right and wrong. “Brenda actually sniffles on occasion,” said Brenda Starr’s author, Mary Schmich, speaking from Harvard University, which she’s attending on a Neiman fellowship. “Before I took her over she wept openly. The way I write Brenda, about once a year she sniffles over Basil.”

But yes, cartoonist Ramona Fradon was no longer Schmich’s collaborator. After 15 years of drawing Brenda Starr–two with the strip’s creator, Dale Messick, three with a short-lived successor who made the wretched decision to shift Brenda into television, and ten with Schmich, a Chicago Tribune columnist who promptly put Brenda back on the Flash–Fradon decided “enough is enough.” She told me, “The fact of the matter is, I finally got enough money together to stop drawing. I really don’t like to draw. It’s been a daily struggle to grind out that drawing. I’ve been in this business since 1952, and it’s always been an agony to me.”

The worst part about drawing Brenda Starr, Fradon told me, was having no idea where the story was going. “You know, a story generally lasts maybe three months. Theoretically you should have a script of the whole story when you start it so you can contribute to the plotline through the drawings. But I never got more than three days of drawings at a time. I’d be drawing the Sunday page two weeks ahead of the dailies, so I never knew what was going on.”

Clarity has never been the hallmark of Brenda Starr. But raw emotion surges from the page, as can be seen in the sampling of Messick’s Sunday strips, dating back to 1941, now on display in Chicago’s Campanile Galleries. And however incomprehensible the plots, Schmich’s cutting-edge social criticism can always be discerned. At the moment Brenda’s the nemesis of coffeehouse magnate and corporate do-gooder Buzz Bucks. In short, Schmich is lampooning the Starbucks and Body Shop empires, which is to say the zeitgeist of her recent stomping grounds, Lincoln Park.

No wonder we read her.

Brenda Starr has for decades served young American women as a beacon of fortitude. “She was really juggling her family against her work,” Fradon said. “She was struggling with what women struggle with.” That’s why the social significance of Brenda’s sniffles cannot be overstated quite as much as you’d think. “She used to cry all the time,” Fradon said. “I can remember constantly drawing close-ups of Brenda with a tear coming out of her eye. When Mary took over the strip she stopped crying.”

Except for Basil. “I’m interested in seeing how Mary brings Basil back this time,” Fradon said. “The last time I saw him he’d had a lobotomy.”

One possible solution would be for Basil to show up as an academic at an eastern university. Not for a while though, not until Schmich is safely out of Harvard.

“People are always asking me, when is Brenda going to go on a fellowship?” Schmich said. “Not until I finish my fellowship. She always has to be surrounded by buffoons, and people would take it very personally.”

News Bite

In a speech to Republican governors Newt Gingrich responded to the appalling murder of Debra Evans by declaring it “no isolated incident.” The House speaker went on to explain that “what’s going wrong is a welfare system…a criminal system…an educational system.”

This diagnosis was derided as political opportunism not merely by Gingrich’s usual enemies, but by Evans’s family. Having heard the speech, Governor Edgar felt obliged to come to Gingrich’s defense. In a Sun-Times article Edgar dismissed the “Democratic spin” and continued, “He was saying that, unfortunately, in our society today we don’t have as strong a sense of right and wrong as we used to have, and we’re going to have to restore that.”

Evans’s killers, police tell us, also murdered two of her children and kidnapped her unborn baby by cutting it from the womb. The governor did not attempt to pinpoint the time when shifting moral tides turned this kind of aggressive behavior into conduct that has to be regarded in context.