Sun-Times: Shaking Up…

Since Dennis Britton took over as editor of the Sun-Times last December, the reporters there have been wondering when he’d grab the paper by the neck and shake it. They’ve found him amiable but distant, able but either uninspiring or not yet ready to inspire.

But last week, things happened. On Monday, Britton and metro editor Jim Martinez called in close to a dozen reporters one at a time and reassigned them. Some were given beats that hadn’t existed, such as the new museums/libraries/cultural institutions beat, and the new foundations/charities/private social services beat. “Chicago has an incredible foundation community that nobody covers on a regular basis,” Martinez told us later. “They cover the society events, not the news events.”

The point of this restructuring, Britton explained the next day at a staff meeting, was to get away from “rote” coverage of traditional news. “We’re looking for cutting-edge stories,” said Britton, stories that take a “consumer approach” by “spinning forward”–for instance, not just reporting the mayor’s plans for a new airport but telling how that airport would affect the readers who live on the southeast side, where the mayor wants to build it.

There’s nothing novel about a newspaper vowing to describe the forest as well as the trees–“It’s what editors have been telling reporters forever,” Britton told us. He conceded at the beginning of his pep talk that his staff probably would have heard it all before, and he joked about his own cliches. What makes now different, he said, is the state of the paper. Circulation has leveled off at 530,000 after dropping for two years, Britton said; but unless the Sun-Times seizes a “niche” for itself as the paper that day in and day out delivers local news clearly, concisely, and in the context of its readers’ lives, it’s as good as gone.

“This is our future,” Britton told his staff. “This is how we’re going to survive.”

As a model of the reporting he wants, Britton mentioned the page-one features of the Wall Street Journal–not nearly so long, of course, but as intelligently written. Here the editor raised the hopes of at least one reporter, who later told us: “The news desk has always had this formula, Journalism 101, and if you didn’t write this formula you’re dead meat. A pun for a lead, followed by a nut graph [a paragraph that summarizes everything], and quick, get a quote up high. So everything read with the same rhythm. I think that’ll change now.”

Reporters at the Sun-Times have been complaining for years about an indifferent news desk. When Britton arrived they sent him a batch of memos that said the same thing. But nothing changed, and the staff wondered if the memos were even read.

Apparently they were. The high point of the staff meeting came when Britton turned the floor over to Martinez. Before discussing the new beat assignments, the metro editor got something off his chest.

“I haven’t been a very smart editor,” said Martinez, admitting that he wasn’t always open to the story ideas that reporters brought him. “You’ve been doing the right things, and some of us haven’t been listening. I apologize.”

and Cutting Back

“I don’t want to give you my name,” said the caller, “but I’ve got a tip for you.

“I’m a retired Sun-Times employee in the advertising department. Every year they have a golf outing that’s quite nice, and they always invited the retirees to the outing. Thirty or forty of us went last year and it was always one of the highlights of the year. It’s at a fancy place, usually Wood Dale. It’s one thing the Sun-Times does that was very classy. They usually do things kind of second-rate, but this was really neat.

“They usually send you a letter ahead of time, do you want lobster or steak? There’s usually a beautiful dinner after the golf, and then people sit around and tell stories. It’s about the only time all year the retirees get to see a lot of the people we used to work with.”

Are the major advertisers invited, too? we asked.

“No, it was just for the department,” said our caller. “It was quite big–200 or 250 people plus the executives of the paper. Jim Hoge used to go. Emmett Dedmon used to go. It was really a great thing.”

It does sound lovely, and we don’t even play golf.

“This year it’s August 10,” said the caller. “It’s a cookout. And for the first time in history, they’re not inviting retirees.”

That sounded odd to us. Mark Dacey, the Sun-Times’s new advertising chief, is famous at the paper for his love of golf and the delight he feels when everyone around him is enjoying it too. As editor Dennis Britton remarked about him, “He invited half of North America to the U.S. Open.”

We called Dacey and asked him why he was skimping on this year’s golf outing, which as usual is at Brookwood Country Club in Wood Dale. “It’s not a cost-cutting measure at all!” he said. “We tailor our company’s social events to specific purposes. There was a decision made to keep the event more company and employee oriented. We try to keep some variety in what we do.”

Dacey has been at the Sun-Times only since last year, so we sought to inform him that tradition, not variety, has long been the hallmark of the annual golf outing.

“If in the past retired employees have been favored with invitations to our social event, that’s wonderful!” he effused. “But we certainly reserve our prerogative to recast it. As for cost cutting, what business isn’t doing cost cutting of one kind or another?”

Then Dacey told us that it was someone else in his department who actually made up the invitations. We asked Dacey if this other party had been acting on his own.

“He and I made a decision to keep it all in the family this year,” Dacey said.

The nice thing about the golf outing is that they’ve always kept it in the family. This year it’s just a smaller family.

The Capitalists Are Coming!

Project Censored is the commendable–if hyperbolically titled–contest that for 14 years now has been pointing out big stories that the major American media let get away.

Take 1988. First place went to a piece in Willamette Week, of Portland, Oregon, that was a collection of derogatory information about George Bush. If only the voters had known . . . But the voters didn’t; even though this info showed up here and there before the ’88 election, the mainstream media pretty much ignored it.

Unfortunately, Project Censored’s own hands were soiled. The way the contest works, Professor Carl Jensen of Sonoma State University sends out one-page synopses of various stories to his panel of judges, and they send back their choices. But Jensen had blanched at one section of “The Real George Bush,” a precariously sourced discussion of “the mistress question.”

So Jensen left it out of his synopsis. In other words, Project Censored censored its own first-place entry.

The announcement of 1989’s top ten “underreported” stories arrived the other day, and our first reaction was, Sonuvabitch! they screwed up again! “The top underreported issue of 1989 according to a national panel of media experts”–we’re quoting the announcement–was “the growing threat of a handful of monopolistic global media lords to the international marketplace of ideas.”

The release went on to say that the one place where this growing threat got aired was the Nation magazine, in an article by media critic Ben Bagdikian. But Bagdikian happens to be a fixture on that “national panel of media experts.” The choice of the Project Censored judges was a story by a Project Censored judge.

We gave Professor Jensen a call. “I didn’t know what to do about that,” he admitted. “Several people sent in [i.e., nominated] Ben’s global media lords story. Ben’s been a judge from the first year. I didn’t want to keep him off the panel.”

Jensen’s way out of this ethical cul de sac was to ask Bagdikian not to vote for his own story. With the 15 judges all responding anonymously by mail, Jensen convinced himself that if Bagdikian’s story were chosen anyway it would deserve to be. Besides–Jensen didn’t add this but we will–disqualifying Bagdikian’s piece would mock the point of the competition, which is to draw attention to issues that deserve it most.

Jensen’s explanation mollified us, largely because we think Bagdikian is right as rain. We’d just visited Czechoslovakia, where an independent press with scarcely any wherewithal is struggling to stand up and be counted. A Prague journalist named Jaroslav Veis talked to us about the state of the free press. Kay Graham’s been in, Veis said. So has Robert Maxwell’s manager for Central Europe.

Rupert Murdoch? we asked. Took me out to dinner, said Veis.

These barons aren’t just browsing. Maxwell already owns 40 percent of a paper in Hungary. Murdoch owns 50 percent of a Hungarian company that publishes a popular daily tabloid and a weekly newsmagazine.

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