A woman’s no longer an oddity in the press boxes of America, but the July 14 visit by the Tribune’s sports editor was historic. Down on Comiskey’s greensward the Sox battled Cleveland for first place. Upstairs, the boys found it hard to focus on the game.
Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti picked up his phone and called his desk. She’s here, Mariotti whispered to sports editor Bill Adee, and she’s sitting right behind Solomon!
Alan Solomon, the Tribune’s Sox reporter, gabbed away as though Margaret Holt were a million miles distant instead of a couple of feet behind his back. Rising to fetch some coffee he lifted his cup in Holt’s direction, but she did not respond to this salute. After six innings, as Holt got up to go, she paused for a word with Solomon’s sidekick, Paul Sullivan. “Hi, Sol,” she said, finally acknowledging him. “Hi, Margaret,” Solomon said back. “Thanks for coming.”
They hadn’t spoken since the day before, when he sent her flowers. He’d landed at O’Hare after covering the all-star game in Pittsburgh and called a florist. The arrangement arrived during a meeting Holt was having with her deputies. There was a note. The note (according to Solomon) said this: “The whole building, the whole country are laughing at you. Put the TV back.” Holt knew what that meant.
We reached Solomon last week just before he vanished in Alaska. What (in God’s name) did you have in mind? we wondered.
“It was to let her know there was a problem on the copy desk, and the TV was part of the problem,” Solomon told us. “The purpose of the flowers was to let her know it was more than her and me.”
By various accounts Margaret Holt is a cool and distant boss. She’s also (1) a woman (2) from out of town (3) whose last job wasn’t even in sports, and (4) who inherited a staff that had openly campaigned for someone else. Last December editor Howard Tyner brought her in from the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, where she’d run the Palm Beach bureau, to juice up the sports section. She’s doing it.
But Holt’s changes have offended writers such as Solomon. They’ve gone down particularly badly with the copy desk.
“I had a conversation with her about editors,” says Elida Witthoeft, who ran the desk before quitting two months ago. “It’s my perception editors and writers are all in the same cart riding to the same destination. But she didn’t agree with that. Her perception is writers are driving the car and we’re the cleanup crew. That became unacceptable. That is not how I regard my work.”
Snatching the TV set was the most unacceptable act of all. It had sat on the sports desk since time immemorial. “Its role for us was to monitor late games, especially on deadline,” says Witthoeft. “After the game it might be flipped to ESPN.”
But a couple of weeks ago Holt banished it as a distraction. She announced that if anyone needed to check a late score they could watch the TV in her office.
“It was sort of a control gesture,” Witthoeft presumes from her new vantage in Minneapolis. “I very much think she thought she did not have control and was not getting control and did not have the respect she deserved as sports editor.”
A sense of grievance had been building up inside Solomon for some time. The whole drift of the sports section–away from game stories, away from locker-room quotes, away from a preoccupation with the Cubs, Sox, Bears, Bulls, and Blackhawks–rubbed him wrong. The loss of the TV set exhausted his powers of self-control.
So now Holt had this note to ponder. What to do? The day after she showed spine enough to stalk Solomon in his lair at Comiskey Park, she summoned him into hers. Solomon describes their session as merely “tense,” and that may be true; but by the time the story of the confrontation reached us it had become “a shouting match full of obscenities.” Holt put Paul Sullivan on the Sox beat and gave Solomon two choices: (1) The University of Illinois. (2) A desk job. Solomon asked for a third–two weeks of comp time to go to Alaska (the only state he’d never set foot in) and think over his career.
“If I’d been her,” he told us, “I would have reacted the exact same way she reacted. With outrage, and a sense she couldn’t tolerate that kind of gesture. It was just something I felt I had to do, and maybe I was stupid for doing it.”
But there’s only one thing he’s sure he’d do differently. He’d send balloons instead. “Some people said the flowers were sexist. My wife, by the way, is a [free-lance] baseball writer and a card-carrying member of NOW. I’m not a caveman.”
Affection for Solomon does not run so wide and deep that no pleasure has been taken in some quarters over his travails. Nor do reports of a riven, demoralized Tribune sports staff deeply distress competitors.
But the loss of the TV set proved a travesty too immense for even the keenest rivals to countenance. The Sun-Times sports department immediately set partisanship aside. They packed Bill Adee’s old black-and-white TV, half its antenna gone, in a box padded with Sun-Times sports sections and shipped it across Michigan Avenue.
“I was hoping to get a new TV out of the deal,” says Adee, who hasn’t yet.
The first report to make its way back to Adee was that Holt had refused the gift. This proved untrue. Remarkably, the TV showed up last Friday perched on the Tribune sports desk. More remarkably, Holt ordered the night crew pizzas. (Not everyone would eat them.) And a bouquet of roses and carnations arrived at the Sun-Times. The note said thanks and was signed “Margaret and the guys.”
Margaret Holt wouldn’t talk to us, but two persons who respect her did. One is baseball writer Jerome Holtzman. “I find her manner to be fine. She seems to be knowledgeable,” he said. Holtzman is glad he’s rarely in the office. “One of the advantages of being a baseball writer, you’re not in on the office intrigue. I don’t want to be in on it.”
The other is Howard Tyner. “I felt that a sports page that basically delivered results, even in stories that were well written, wasn’t enough,” he said, explaining the goals he’s given her. “Increasingly with outlets such as ESPN or sports radio, not to mention SportsChannel and over-the-air television, results-oriented sports sections really didn’t go very far.
“And furthermore, by focusing on results you limit yourself to a fairly traditional area of coverage–last night’s game. If it isn’t the Sox or Cubs it’s the Hawks or Bulls or Bears. And that’s your sports page. And me–perhaps having been a soccer fan for many years from living outside the U.S.–I found it kind of ridiculous we didn’t cover with more enthusiasm the nontraditional sports. I don’t mean tiddledywinks. But there are some sports we didn’t cover very much. And we weren’t looking at sports as news. Again, it was results, results, results.
“We’ve tried to have both results and also interesting stories about sports in general, displayed well for readers who don’t want to read the game story from last night. That was something Margaret and I talked a fair bit about. That there is resistance to it doesn’t surprise me. It isn’t a 180-degree shift. It’s just not doing things the way we’ve always done them.
“There’s still a game story on the front page virtually every day. But we don’t automatically put it on the front page. And the agate [stats and box scores] has been expanded and reorganized. I’m an agate person. I love to look at agate.”
And to oversee all this, we said, you dropped in a woman from out of town with no sports background.
“She does have a sports background,” said Tyner. “She worked in Dallas in sports. She went to college on a golf scholarship. But you’re right. It’s not an easy position that I put her in. But it was my feeling that the sports section was not as lively as the Sun-Times’s, that it wasn’t as attractive. We have the horses, but we needed somebody–supported by the editor–to come at it in a different way.
“People should understand that Margaret and I talked about where we were headed, but the impetus for this came from me. I didn’t stick Margaret over there and turn her loose to do whatever she wanted.”
“I don’t see how a sports desk can operate without a TV set,” Bill Adee was saying. “We only got cable about three years ago, and I don’t know how we survived without that.”
The TV aside, Adee can talk about Holt more sympathetically than her own staff can. “I always thought the Tribune was pretty gray,” he told us. “They didn’t have many pictures. Now they do–with all the agate moved onto two scoreboard pages, although that kind of goes against the industry trend. Another big, noticeable difference–they’re much more featurey than they used to be. Some stories kind of border on the strange. You’ll have a feature on some Houston Astro, and the game will just be mentioned where they give the score.
“Another thing is what they put on the front page. They don’t put game stories on the front page. I’ve lived in Chicago most of my life, and I’m used to the Sox or Cubs game on the front. It’s good to have some surprises every once in a while.”
Adee mused, “No one’s probably saying anything worse about Margaret Holt than they said about Rick Jaffe when he came in and started changing things. I think you have to start with that as your level of complaining.” Jaffe, the Sun-Times’s assistant managing editor for sports, introduced many of the design changes Tyner wanted Holt to react to.
“One thing I’ve learned,” Adee went on, “most people dislike their bosses and complain about them. God, I can’t even imagine what it’s like at the Tribune, where you have a lot more codgers complaining than we do. Actually, I think all of our codgers are gone.”
An appropriately flattering profile of New City cartoonist Chris Ware ran in the Tribune’s Tempo section last week. Inappropriately, full disclosure wasn’t made. The author of the piece, Marc Spiegler, happens to be New City’s staff writer.