Who Will Take Over the Sun-Times?

The Sun-Times is badly broken, said Sam McKeel, on coming to Chicago. The Sun-Times is the heart and soul of this company. My first responsibility is to fix it.

Which meant, inevitably, a new editor. McKeel joined the Sun-Times Company as president and CEO on June 19. On August 30 the Sun-Times’s executive editor, Ken Towers, was named vice president of reader relations, a post that had not previously existed.

The search continues for a successor. If McKeel, publisher Charles Price, and whoever-it-is get the paper back on track, Towers’s two-year term will be remembered as interregnal, the final phase of managerial chaos that has blighted the Sun-Times since Marshall Field sold it to Rupert Murdoch in 1983.

Towers did not contribute to the chaos but he became a symbol of it, an artifact of the old Field era sucked by vacuum to the top. Once, long ago, Towers was city editor, but a serious illness drove him from that critical job and he was put out to pasture as an assistant managing editor with modest administrative duties and none that were editorial. Although publisher Jim Hoge, editor Ralph Otwell, and managing editor Gregory Favre tumbled out the door as Murdoch entered, Towers had no reason to bolt. The sale of the paper resurrected his career. Towers stayed to help Murdoch’s minions pick up the pieces, and Favre’s job became his.

Towers was ME under the Scotsman Charles Wilson and the Australian Roger Wood, Murdoch executives shipped in from London and New York, respectively, to keep the Sun-Times going, and then under Murdoch’s ultimate choice of editor, the New Zealander turned New Yorker Frank Devine. Publisher Robert Page bought out Murdoch in 1986 and that was the end of Devine–he and Page couldn’t stand each other. But Towers soldiered on. Next he served under Matthew Storin, a studious product of the Boston Globe whom Page hired as his blue-ribbon signal that the Sun-Times was back in steady hands.

But it wasn’t. Staid Storin and the rambunctious Page could put up with each other for only nine months, and Page did not beat the bushes a second time for a tony chief. Towers was on hand so Page moved him up.

But already Page’s own position was crumbling. Too erratic and self-indulgent for his board, he lost authority first in bits, then in chunks, and last summer his impatient financial backers sent him packing. General manager Charles Price, a lawyer two years out of Cleveland who knew hardly anything about newspapers, became acting publisher. And with acrimonious labor negotiations to worry about, and dwindling circulation, Price could reasonably set aside the question of an editor for another day. Didn’t Ken Towers deserve a chance to show what he could do without Page’s interference?

Yes. Towers’s survivorship was the only continuity that upper management of the Sun-Times had known since 1983; he had done everything asked of him, run the paper whenever the Sun-Times found itself between editors, and for long stretches been the one exec around who knew something about Chicago.

But as editor, Towers wasn’t able to lift the Sun-Times out of the mire. The falling circulation could not fairly be laid at his feet–blame, instead, the price rise to 35 cents from a quarter and a distribution system in shambles. And Towers did make some interesting appointments, did overhaul the Sunday edition, did put out a daily paper that would not have perturbed those haughty readers who threw down the Sun-Times the day Rupert Murdoch bought it and have never picked it up again.

But to the large portion of his staff that the years had made numb and cynical, Towers remained a custodian. Not decisive enough. Not independent enough. Not creative enough. Not inspirational enough for a newsroom that longed to feel reborn.

The headhunters found Sam McKeel, 62 years old, in Philadelphia. He’d risen through the Knight-Ridder chain to publisher of the Inquirer and the Daily News, and at his age he wouldn’t be going any further. The Sun-Times Company gave him the chance to crown his career by setting right a bollixed operation; to sharpen the challenge, there’d be equity in the company.

Good journalism is good business–that’s a rule of thumb at Knight-Ridder, which keeps its publishers and editors in separate tents. McKeel is surely looking for an editor he’ll feel comfortable leaving alone. Back at the Inquirer he’d had Gene Roberts, generally considered one of America’s great editors. So McKeel is used to the best.

Charles Price is now, under McKeel’s tutelage, the full-fledged publisher of the Sun-Times. Price told us he hopes to have a new editor within 60 days. It’s been a national search, not made any easier by the Sun-Times’s careening, sagging image. Two names figure centrally in newsroom rumormongering about who Towers’s successor will be. One, interestingly, is Matt Storin, who is generally well remembered as a decent man who might accomplish far more under McKeel than he managed to under Page. The other is Mary Anne Dolan, a syndicated columnist who once edited the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner. Neither wanted to talk to us about their discussions with the Sun-Times. But Storin was last in town two weeks ago.

Other names to pop up have included Max McCrohon, the present editor of the Herald-Examiner and a former editor of the Chicago Tribune, and Gregory Favre, who’s now editor of the Sacramento Bee. Both deny talking to the Sun-Times.

Our choice? Well, given the need for binding wounds and watering roots, not to mention closing circles and indulging ironies, we’d like to see the job go to Katherine Fanning.

Until recently, Fanning was editor of the Christian Science Monitor. She’s the widow of the storied Larry Fanning, who in the early 60s ran the Sun-Times’s late sister paper, the Daily News. Her first husband was Marshall Field IV; it was their son Teddy who forced his half-brother Marshall V to put the Sun-Times up for sale in 1983 because the paper was half his and Teddy wanted his money out.

We asked Price if Katherine Fanning had been considered. He wouldn’t say. We asked him if he knew who she was. “I certainly do,” he said.

Fit to Print

The Sun-Times doesn’t publish so much stellar journalism that it can afford to dish off good stories to other publications. But that happened twice this summer.

The first one was a piece on redlining by Sun-Times financial writer Susan Chandler. It showed up in the July/August issue of Chicago Enterprise, a magazine on economic-development issues put out by the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago. Chandler’s article was full of statistics that indicate whites can still get mortgages in Chicago much more easily than blacks. She wrote it for the Sun-Times, but it died on the city desk.

And now the September issue of Chicago magazine carries a short article by Sun-Times investigative reporters Deborah Nelson and Tom Brune. It’s about a “drug ring” inside Evanston’s Saint Francis Hospital. Hearing rumors of the operation, hospital administrators hired a private detective to investigate, and he eventually made a case against a doctor, three nurses, and two other employees. All six either quit or were fired. The nurses were reported to the state licensing board.

But the doctor wasn’t. Instead he was given a letter of recommendation, with which he left Saint Francis and soon had himself a new job at Mercy Hospital. “Too often,” says the article, “hospitals are pushing suspect medical personnel off their staffs and onto someone else’s.”

Nelson and Brune dug out this story for the Sun-Times. After Ken Towers killed it, they went to the magazine.

Towers told us he didn’t like Chandler’s story because “it was a very superficial treatment.” He said, “I think when you get into redlining, you either get into it or you don’t.” We’re not sure what Towers means; Chandler’s piece was modest in scale but some of her statistics were telling: for example, the mortgage application of an upper-income nonwhite is 50 percent more likely to be rejected than the application of a low-income white.

The Nelson-Brune story made Towers squeamish. “I couldn’t get a fix on what [the doctor’s] role was,” Towers told us. “Was he selling? Buying? And then to complicate things his name was left out, as if that would somehow protect his identity.”

We appreciate his reservations. The Chicago article troubles us too for what goes unsaid: not just the name of the doctor and the specifics of his misbehavior, but also the extent of the problem this tale purports to exemplify. But Chicago’s editors satisfied themselves that the story was solid enough to print, and the Sun-Times shouldn’t have let it get away. In the end, Mercy Hospital also sent the doctor packing–but only after hearing about him from Nelson and Brune.

But with Ken Towers taking his leave, we’d rather end this column on a note of achievement. Last month, U.S. News and World Report ran an unflattering report by Paul Glastris on the political machine of East Chicago’s Mayor Robert A. Pastrick. Pastrick watchers in East Chicago tell us that Pastrick responded like the feudal boss Glastris made him out to be–by dispatching his troops to buy up every U.S. News in western Lake County, Indiana. The only copy to be had was the one behind the desk of the Robert A. Pastrick Library, which you had to ask for and then read standing where the librarian could see you.

Yet the story got out. First, photocopies were circulated by hand. And a week later the Sun-Times reprinted the entire article. Good for the Sun-Times.

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