Warren Goes to Washington

We have seen respected journalists at daily newspapers become editors everyone despised. Their aggression made them unfit to handle power. Or possibly it was the power they didn’t have; what were they now but cat’s-paws of senior editors, themselves the anxious satraps of some bullying Mr. Big?

We have seen respected journalists become editors who withered on the vine. They were too decent, their bellies held too little primeval fire. Often their role became holding the fort after one asshole flamed out until the next arrived.

Seventeen months ago the new features editor of the Chicago Tribune, Howard Tyner, picked a new editor for the Tempo section. Tyner deemed Tempo, after a decade of revolving-door leadership, confused and lethargic. He wasn’t sure what to do about it, and he took a flier.

“Against the advice of a lot of people who said he had no experience in editing and was a quirky personality who wouldn’t be up to it and would cause trouble”–so Tyner recalls his decision today–he turned Tempo over to Jim Warren. We knew Warren as a brainy, sarcastic workhorse who covered labor and then media for the Tribune and also wrote a weekly column in Tempo on the media and another on magazines. Generally he held management in low regard.

Warren’s appointment struck us as excellent. All that was strange about it was that it was the sort of thing that never happens except when the inmates take over the asylum.

How did Warren work out? Well, today Tyner is editor of the Tribune. He considers Tempo the best thing about the paper, and when he dropped in on the woebegone Washington bureau two months ago to introduce himself and attempt a pep talk, Tempo was his example and his standard.

“Not without design,” says Tyner. This month Tyner appointed Warren to take over the bureau. Says Tyner, “He’s proven himself to be a marvelously sensitive manager of people, which is what the Washington bureau needs right now.”

“Clearly this is a big priority for Tyner, a big priority,” Warren was musing a few days before departing. “They have a lot of people there, they spend a lot of money. There was a sense of unease with the way the operation had been run and what they were getting out of it. There was simultaneously–I don’t know how to modestly put it–a very, very generous internal perception of what had happened in Tempo since July of l992, when somebody who had never managed anything other than a checkbook was, to the astonishment of lots of people, including himself, put in charge.”

Warren described the Washington bureau to us as “a group of talented people who have been beaten down emotionally, I think as a result of a very autocratic style of management and by conflicting signals from Chicago about what their collective purpose was. There’s no blueprint for any change. I want to see how they react to being treated like adult human beings.

“When I think back on my labor-writing days, how lost in the whole discussion of worker productivity in this country so often is the role of management and what I think is often incompetent management. It’s “blame the rank and file’ for the lack of imagination, the lack of motivation presented by managers. I do think–combining my labor and media backgrounds–the newspaper industry has been a very mismanaged one from top to bottom. There are too many scared, insecure editors who surround themselves with weaklings, who are in charge of very good people. To me, why [Tempo] worked is I had five exceptionally strong, independent-minded people working with me as my colleagues. These are people who’d read my column and not be cowed to say, ‘This is full of shit.'”

He considered, “My insecurity wants me to have strong people around as support. Most people’s insecurity goes the reverse.”

If we were writing this piece with a shiv in hand we would now stick it in Warren’s back. But there is no shiv. There is no evidence of dissimulation, no one who debunks his rhetoric and despises him.

“He came in here and liberated some people,” said his friend Paul Galloway, who’s written for Tempo ten years. “There was a rap on those of us who worked here. We were stagnant and underachieving. He’s the best idea guy I ever had here. He’s the best pencil editor. Any change or suggestion he makes enhances the piece. And he’s got a sense of courage. He’s not intimidated by the bureaucracy of a newspaper, never has been.”

“I think the Tempo staff is really crazy about him. We’re like little Moonies,” said Cheryl Lavin. “I don’t know if it was planned or not, but he came in with this attitude, “It’s us, the editors and writers, versus them, the big paper’s staff, all the other editors.’ We were like this little guerrilla band. He was very iconoclastic at the meetings. He was a real straight shooter. He talked about the management, what he thought about them, named names, bitched and moaned, and really seemed to be like he was on our side.”

“Jimmy Warren was the yin to the corporate yang,” said Anne Keegan, who earlier in her career was a front-page columnist and had deep doubts about moving to Tempo. “There are no other yins to the corporate yang. Jimmy Warren wears Brooks Brothers clothes, but half the time his hair’s mussed up and his shirt’s hanging out and he’s giving you cynical assessments of the assholes further up. And if his replacement isn’t like that, Tempo’s doomed. He was a pleasure to work with. He loved taking on news. He liked news features, and news wasn’t doing them very well. He allowed the people in Tempo to do what they do best.

“He had a meeting on Monday, and we all cried. Someone said to me, ‘This is a good one. Usually we can’t wait until they scoot out the door.'”

Warren moved to Washington last weekend, sooner than Tyner had intended. Tyner called the incumbent bureau chief, Nicholas Horrock, back to Chicago for a talk on December 2 and Horrock decided not to show up. So Horrock went on “leave” and Warren was told to start packing.

Warren flew in earlier last week for what he called a “quick introduction,” but a bureau reporter says Warren spent the day talking with reporters about their beats and their ambitions. The last several years have been lousy ones in Washington, in large part because the relationship between Horrock and Chicago had disintegrated. “It became very difficult to communicate,” the bureau reporter told us. “A big part of making this work is having an effective advocate. We were never sure of the filter. What were we hearing from Chicago? What was Chicago being told? That sort of stuff. It was crazy. It’s a communications company–you’ve got to learn how to communicate.”

“I think, overall, it’s clear that the bureau is not held in real high esteem there,” said Warren. “I think there is a realization, albeit an ego-deflating one, that we are just not a major player anymore in Washington, for reasons that do include things out of our control. I mean, we’re not read there–why leak to the Tribune? I think I’m going to suggest there are other ways to gain respect than by being one of the boys and girls on the bus, in the plane, and not having the nerve to put in the paper what you really discussed at the dinner party with your powerful friends. I don’t have any great craving to be accepted by the muckety-mucks there. I’d rather be respected for being tough-minded and accurate than sucking up.”

Warren, whose eerie capacity for incessant work Tyner likes to think of as inspirational, will by choice go on writing his columns. And because he’s photogenic and acerbic, it’s commonly assumed at the Tribune that he’ll be blessed with the star power of a TV pundit. Warren says what he wants in Washington is air. One reason to continue writing “Sunday Watch” is to force himself to meet people. “It’s to get the hell out of that office at 16th and L Street. My feelings about managers are well-known here. They sit in offices and don’t have a clue what goes on in a city like Chicago. They don’t have a clue what neighborhood is where.”

He said, “I have absolutely no desire to make this a long-term thing. I have no desire to be there in five or ten years as part of the Gridiron Show, prancing around onstage, singing to the president, or whatever the fuck they do.”

Trib’s New Sports Boss

Howard Tyner announced a lot of staff appointments last week. Aside from Warren–no, counting Warren–the most interesting is Margaret Holt as assistant managing editor for sports.

The Tribune is touting Holt as “the first female to head a sports department among the nation’s ten largest newspapers.” She didn’t move up through the Tribune ranks; Tyner got to know her last year during a visit to the Tribune Company’s Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, where Holt was running the large Palm Beach bureau.

The job of ME for sports opened up, and Holt, to Tyner’s surprise, applied for it. “She had a five handicap on her college women’s golf team,” Tyner told us.

“The sports department,” he said, “needs as many days as possible to have a whole lot of people out there saying, ‘Trade Pippen? What a crazy idea!’ That’s what I want. That’s what I don’t think we’ve had. We’ve had it occasionally, but we respond to the outside challenge through volume rather than imagination and quality.”

Between the Lins

From the department of subliminal organization: adjacent headlines in the Sun-Times.

“Cardinal Closes 3 Parish Schools”

“Man Accused of Sexually Abusing Daughters”

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