Walter’s Directives: Who’s the Boss at Channel 2 News?

Tom Lindner was hired in June as producer of Channel 2’s 10 o’clock news and told to make changes. After only two months on the job there’s a big change—Lindner’s been taken off the show, apparently because of a collision with Walter Jacobson.

The station romanced Lindner, 30, away from his old job at station WCCO in Minneapolis, where he is well regarded by former colleagues, to pep up the show. Station executives contacted him in late May, flew him to Chicago twice, and he started work June 19.

Lindner said he heard nothing but praise for his work until last Thursday, when he was called in by news director Greg Caputo and told he was off the 10 o’clock news. From now on he would work weekends as a producer and as a field producer three days a week. In other words, he would not be seeing much of Walter and Walter would not be seeing much of him.

Lindner’s job was filled by Mike Radutzky, a Channel 2 producer whom Jacobson had wanted all along. “Jacobson made no secret of the fact that he wanted Radutzky to have the job,” said a Channel 2 reporter.

The question is: Who’s running the Channel 2 news operation?

The answer seems to be: Walter Jacobson. Management apparently is unable to even hire a producer on its own and make it stuck without Walter’s permission.

Bill Kurtis was the only one who could restrain Jacobson, and since Kurtis left to coanchor the CBS Morning News Jacobson has increased his control over the newsroom. Lindner says he saw very quickly that the management was frightened of Jacobson. “The newsroom is being run in a lot of ways by an anchorman,” says Lindner.

Channel 2 staffers agree. Jacobson frequently, in effect, produces and directs his own broadcasts while on the air and throws little tantrums if he doesn’t get his way. “He’ll watch the monitors and if he see something interesting he’ll say, ‘Let’s go now to Jesse Jackson headquarters,'” says a Channel 2 reporter. “That will cause havoc in the control booth because they’ve got all the equipment set up for something else, but they’ll drop everything and follow Walter’s orders.”

Of course, as the station’s top draw, it’s only natural that Jacobson has a lot to say about how the newsroom operates. As a Channel 2 veteran put it, “He’s the franchise.” But if they were going to make Radutzky the 10 o’clock producer it seems like it would have been better to do it without chopping up Lindner’s life.

With Channel 7 breathing down the station’s neck, Lindner was instructed to breathe new life into the operation. But he found it difficult to make the slightest change. One night, at Caputo’s suggestion, Lindner had Jacobson try something new: after a taped story by political reporter Mike Flannery, Jacobson was to chat with Flannery at a desk away from the usual anchor desk. The idea was to introduce a little variety into the show.

Jacobson’s response to the suggestion was described by witnesses variously as a fit, a tantrum, and “going berserk.” Nevertheless, Lindner held his ground, Walter did it, and by all accounts it worked well.

According to Lindner, Caputo told him he was being reassigned because the show wasn’t lively enough and the writing (long a beef of Jacobson’s) hadn’t shown major improvement. But several reporters said that it wasn’t fair to expect Lindner to be able to have much effect on the writing in the short time he was on the job.

When Lindner was fired from the show, Jacobson was on vacation in Spain. Walter’s absence was cited by Joanie Schwabe of the station’s public relations department as an indication that Jacobson had nothing to do with the firing. But a reporter at the station compared the firing to the Saint Valentine’s Day massacre, when Al Capone made it his business to be in Miami Beach.

Schwabe said Caputo decided that Lindner “needed a little more experience in the Chicago market.” Jacobson has made it clear he prefers promoting Chicago people to bringing in outsiders.

Neither Jacobson nor Caputo could be reached for comment on the controversy.

Lindner isn’t sure what he’ll do, but he’ll probably leave the station. Right now he’s trying to see if he can get his old apartment back in Minneapolis.

RupertWatch: Is the Sun-Times Getting Better?

Nine months after Rupert Murdoch took over the Sun-Times it’s clear that it hasn’t become the New York Post, as many feared it would. In fact in many ways it’s a better paper than it was before. But even though the tree didn’t fall in the forest, people heard the crash, largely because of the noise Mike Royko made in quitting and going to the Tribune.

These are among the conclusions of an 11-week study done by graduate students in Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. The students conducted random sample surveys of readers, interviewed Sun-Times management as well as some former executives, and made a detailed comparison of today’s Sun-Times with the paper of 1976 and 1980.

The study turned up a number of surprises.

While Murdoch had been accused of sensationalizing headlines, Sun-Times headlines were found to be less sensationalistic than before. The students typed out 24 randomly selected pairs of headlines from stories in the Tribune and Sun-Times from 1976, 1980, and 1984. They were shown to 244 people who rated them on a scale of one to seven for sensationalism. Sun-Times headlines from 1976 and 1980 were rated 4.0, slightly less sensationalistic than the Tribune‘s which came in at 4.2. For 1984 the sensationalism grade dropped for both papers—3.8 for the Sun-Times and 3.5 for the Tribune.

The survey found that Sun-Times headlines were being written largely by the same people who wrote them before and that management had issued no orders to change the way they were written. Copy editors told the students that some front-page headlines were written by the new Murdoch people and they just tried to copy the style on their own.

While the new Sun-times has been criticized for running shorter stories, the study found that local stories in the Sun-Times are slightly longer than those in the Tribune. And after the Murdoch takeover there was a 20 percent increase in the number of Chicago-area stories in the Sun-Times.

Another surprise was the finding that Sun-Times readers are in some ways more conservative than Tribune readers, such as on the issues of abortion and prayer in school. Thus the paper’s shift to a more conservative editorial page might find favor among the paper’s blue-collar readers.

The study found that most Sun-Times readers still like the paper and plan to stick with it, but people who don’t read the paper, or who buy it infrequently, blame Murdoch for a loss in quality. The study concluded that this poor image was caused by the bad press Murdoch received, led by Royko’s statement that “no respectable fish would be wrapped in a Murdoch newspaper.”

In interviews with current Sun-Times staff members the study found some resentment at the manner of Royko’s departure, some feeling that those who stayed were stigmatized by his comments. The study also tried to evaluate the effect of Royko’s march across the street and concluded that one-third of the people in the Chicago area are Royko fans. Sixty percent of Royko fans said the quality of the Sun-Times has decreased under Murdoch’s ownership and 40 percent of the Royko fans said they read the Sun-Times less since he left.

Sun-Times circulation director James Engle told the students that the paper’s circulation dropped 32,000 immediately after the Murdoch takeover. He said 11,000 of the loss was because of Royko’s switch 13,000 was because of a story by Lynn Sweet bearing the headline “Rabbi Hit in Sex Slavery Suit,” and 8,000 was because of bad publicity about the Murdoch takeover. But he said circulation jumped 86,000 when Wingo started.

Eagle said Wingo costs the paper $2.5 million and is being financed by $3 million saved in payroll by the mass defections of staff when Murdoch took over. Sun-Times publisher Robert Page said in an interview on WGN radio last week that 5 of the 70 staff members who quit had asked to come back and that he might rehire some, but not anyone who had publicly badmouthed the paper. (In the same interview he said that he was “stunned” by the big coverage in his recent marriage received in the Sun Times. “I would have preferred that they not do it as they did,” he said, adding that it was an editor’s decision in which he declined to interfere.)

The Sun-Times strategy under Murdoch is to surpass the Tribune in circulation and become the true mass medium in the Chicago area within two years, reaching a circulation of 800,000 through Wingo promotions. The idea is to forced the Tribune into become a specialty medium appealing to an upscale audience, while the Sun-Times will offer advertisers a mirror image of the population and be the advertising rate setter.

Plans call for big changes in the Sunday Sun-Times this fall, including another increase in news space and more sectionalization of the paper similar to the newly designed full-size financial-real estate section.