By Michael Miner
In the fullness of time someone from Chicago will again be asked to edit the Sun-Times. But for now it’s business as usual. The paper’s owners, who are Canadian, announced the other day that editor in chief Nigel Wade, who’s Australian, was stepping down and would be replaced on May 15 by Michael Cooke, who’s English and will become editor in chief, and John Cruickshank, who’s Canadian and will become vice president for editorial. At the moment both work in Vancouver.
Who are they? I asked Rob Dykstra, publisher of the Langara (College) Journalism Review in Vancouver.
“I was actually surprised both would be heading to Chicago,” said Dykstra. “They’re two very different people. John Cruickshank is kind of a low-key, quiet, serious, almost erudite kind of guy with pretty good journalism credentials. Michael Cooke is an entirely different person. He’s flamboyant, gregarious, has lots of ideas on the go. Some ideas are appreciated by the staff and others aren’t. He gets an idea and runs with it and doesn’t care what people think. He’s not the type of person who’d massage employees first.
“Another aspect of Michael Cooke is that he has a brashness to him and he’s not afraid to tackle the union situation. It’s been part of Michael Cooke’s unstated mandate to try to find a few holes in the contract and take away some of the union’s strength. The union will file grievances and the grievance process goes on and on and on, and in the end he may or may not win it. But nevertheless, precedents have been set.”
Is he trying to break the union? I asked.
“Ultimately, that’s the idea,” Dykstra said.
Since 1995 Cooke, who’s 47, has been editor in chief of the tabloid Vancouver Province and Cruickshank, who’s also 47, editor in chief of the broadsheet Vancouver Sun. I asked my sister Dixie, who lives in Vancouver, for a rundown. “The Province is a rag,” she E-mailed back. “It’s a blue-collar paper with lots of sports, simplistic ultraconservative columnists (some antiUSA pandering), lots of local issues. We get it on Sunday for the funnies (I still have to have Sunday funnies) and I read it cover to cover, but I consider that a guilty pleasure. I also get the Sunday NY Times, but I read the Province first.
“The establishment paper is the Vancouver Sun. Lots of business news, the big classifieds section, a small global section, a fair amount of federal Canadian content. Decent sports section. Nothing particularly notable, but you have to read it to know what is going on in Vancouver. We get it every morning and read it cover to cover but rarely find it quotable….The best journalism is still found in the Globe and Mail.”
Like the Sun-Times, the Province and the Sun are Hollinger newspapers, but then so are more than half the papers in Canada. One of them, the Calgary Herald, has been gripped by a strike for the past five months, and this strike provides a colorful backdrop to the change of command in Chicago.
In Calgary last month, the local bishop, Frederick Henry, wrote an essay for a national Catholic magazine chastising Hollinger’s chairman, Conrad Black: “Church teaching encourages Catholic workers to become actively involved in their own unions and urges the Catholic community as a whole to support the essential role that labour unions have to play in society.”
Black, who learned a thing or two about Roman Catholicism in the 80s when he converted to it, refused to put up with that. Turning from his failed crusade to have himself named to Britain’s House of Lords, he responded with an essay in the Herald that accused Henry of “shirking his fundamental duty to avoid ex cathedra moral statements on important matters in his see until he has informed himself fairly about them.” Picking up steam, Black explained that “in the Leninist terminology that would be familiar to the strike leaders, [Henry] has made himself a perfect ‘useful idiot’ to them,” and then spoke directly to his coreligionists in Calgary: “If your jumped-up little twerp of a bishop thinks I’m not a very good Catholic, I think he’s a prime candidate for an exorcism.”
News of this outburst soon made its way to the Sun-Times newsroom, where it reminded the occupants of what not to bother hoping for in a new editor. Nigel Wade abhors the Chicago Newspaper Guild, but there’s no reason to think any other Hollinger editor would prove any friendlier.
Nevertheless, when I got Michael Cooke on the phone I probed for stray wisps of sympathy. He described Black’s exhibition as a “wonderful piece of national theater” and assured me that the strike in Calgary was far too complex a matter to be casually discussed. I asked about life with the newspaper guild at the Province. “You can spend your day fighting, or you can spend your day doing journalism. I know which one I prefer,” he replied. “I don’t think they’ve carried me around the newsroom on their shoulders, but I do all right.” He allowed that some employees pursue a “political agenda,” these being the ones “who walk around with the [union] contract in their pockets,” then went on, “Frankly, one wants to spend one’s time putting out great investigative features, not arguing whether someone should have time and a half after two hours.”
Cooke’s Union Jack inflections and breezy hauteur reminded me of someone, and that someone is Nigel Wade. Can Wade be on his way out because he’s interchangeable? I wouldn’t have thought that a punch press could be built that stamps out Wades. But if one exists, Conrad Black is certainly its owner. The five years Wade spent in Chicago after coming over from Black’s Daily Telegraph in London constitute a reasonable run of time for a company man in a foreign billet, and his desire “to take a different direction in my life with the approach of my 55th birthday next year” is credible. But because Wade recently bought an expensive home on the near north side, and because it was generally understood at the Sun-Times that he intended to work there into 2001 before retiring, and because circulation and ad revenues have faltered and completion of the new south-side printing plant has fallen behind schedule, and because Wade doesn’t seem to have anything in particular in mind to do next, his staff suspects he’s been nudged prematurely toward the door.
After all, the past is often prelude. Cooke and Cruickshank showed up at the paper in February in the guise of mere consultants, but I’m told Wade displayed irritation when asked what they were doing there. Recall that Wade was but a consultant himself when he hit town in December 1994 to advise editor Dennis Britton. Wade took over the paper a year later.
Wade gamely appeared on Carol Marin’s news the day his departure became public and insisted he was leaving voluntarily. Marin asked about the Sun-Times’s “very, very slender staff,” and Wade allowed it was smaller in number than some “overstaffed operations around the town” but stood second to none in quality. He even singled out three writers: Chuck Neubauer, Lee Bey, and Mary Mitchell. For years I’ve listened to minority reporters at the Sun-Times (many on their way out the door) complain that Wade didn’t value them or the stories they wanted to write. Yet Mitchell and Bey are black, and Wade gave them extraordinary opportunities. “I was a crime reporter, and he made me an architecture critic,” Bey marvels. “It speaks to his power of vision and his ability to shake things up, which the paper really needed.”
“Nigel spoke out very openly with his viewpoint that he doesn’t think it makes any difference if a reporter is black or white,” says Mitchell. Wade correctly observed that by now a lot of America’s racial dialogue is empty ritual and PC cant. But figuring this out isn’t the hard part of dealing with race–it’s just a good start. Beyond all the posturing are real agonies he didn’t seem to understand. (Of course, his assignment from Hollinger was to raise circulation in the suburbs, not Englewood.) Wade is a bold, imaginative newsman endowed with dramatic limitations. “Biased, mean-spirited,” said a reporter who won’t miss him. “Arrogant, mercurial, antiminority.”
Roger Ebert speaks as someone who will. In a conversation we had a couple years ago, he called Wade the “most distinguished newspaperman” to edit the Sun-Times–a Neiman fellow, a foreign correspondent in Russia and China, a senior editor at a serious London daily. “And he takes news seriously,” Ebert said. “There’s more foreign news than there ever was before. There’s more real news than there ever was before. He’s also been very open to finding people on the staff and making them columnists. Now occasionally Nigel will do something like get mad about the Paul Robeson thing. [Wade was outraged to see Robeson featured in the Sun-Times because Robeson was a commie.] But I think that’s kind of endearing. He doesn’t just do the expected thing because it’s politically correct. I think the paper now is as good as it’s ever been. The investigative stuff–what we’ve done to the City Council in the last year –is absolutely amazing….The Sun-Times is the paper that really seems to be here in Chicago covering Chicago, and the Tribune seems to be covering some amorphous media-conglomerate notion of a market.”
This kind of chauvinism warms Wade’s competitive heart. If there’s anything editors learn in London it’s to view their work as a street fight. Whenever one of his people gave two weeks’ notice because he’d decided to work for the Tribune, Wade planted him face first on the next down elevator.
Of course, his people continued quitting to go work for the Tribune, and Wade was one of the reasons they did. Swaggering, idiosyncratic commanders who happily go to war each day are less fun to follow into battle when they’re willing to identify their own troops as among the enemy. In a 1998 essay John Cruickshank described in broad strokes a newsroom such as he may soon encounter in Chicago: “Disappointed by what they understand of public taste and contemptuous of editors, many reporters now feel detached from the fate of their papers. Having lost their sense of connectedness to readers and their spirit of common purpose with their colleagues, they work primarily for themselves, deriving their job satisfaction from their professionalism.”
Cruickshank was describing a terrain in which dailies were losing readers to neighborhood papers, TV, and the Internet, and in response editors were moving their dailies down-market or desperately trying to ingratiate themselves with every demographic group “their marketing departments can identify.” He complained of “generic” and “superficial” news that makes any city sound pretty much like any other. But in the pages of the Sun-Times, Chicago has remained unmistakably Chicago. The alienation of reporters here has gone on for its own reasons. In part it’s a defense mechanism that dates back to 1984, when Rupert Murdoch took over the paper.
“John Cruickshank’s perhaps the most thoughtful journalist I’ve worked with side by side,” said Michael Cooke. “He’s very shrewd, and he has a brain the size of a basketball. He’s also a nice bloke.”
I asked Cooke how he and Cruickshank intend to divide up the newsroom. He said they wouldn’t. “We’re going to edit the paper together. His decisions are my decisions and vice versa. People should view our titles as coleaders of the newsroom. The real issue for us is how tired John and I will become of people asking that question.”
Sun-Times reporters don’t buy this forecast of chummy coleadership, and neither does Rob Dykstra. “Cooke will run the paper–that’s what the editor in chief does,” he says. “And where John is going to come in with his wisdom, I don’t know. But one thing I do know, the people at Hollinger have probably thought about this quite carefully. They’re not pitching them both out of Vancouver just for the fun of it.”
The Sun-Times is a tabloid that thinks it’s a broadsheet–Murdoch’s big mistake was not to understand that–and now Hollinger’s sending in an editor from each tradition. Cruickshank rose to managing editor of the national Globe and Mail, a conservative non-Hollinger broadsheet, before going to Vancouver, but Dykstra says the Sun needed to be rejuvenated and he hasn’t done it. Meanwhile, Cooke’s Province passed the Sun to become British Columbia’s biggest newspaper, and two years ago he was given double duty as a founding editor of the National Post, which Black established to compete with the Globe and Mail. Cruickshank is a worthy, but Cooke looks like the comer. These appointments could be Hollinger’s deft way of putting Cooke in Chicago and taking Cruickshank out of Vancouver.
Does the Sun-Times have the staff it needs to do the job? I asked Cooke. For years I’ve heard Sun-Times reporters yearn for reinforcements, while Hollinger executives cleave and recleave with Zeno’s scalpel that one last milligram of fat. Cooke replied, “It doesn’t strike me as particularly thin.”
Wit should always look effortless, but sometimes it grunts, wheezes, and staggers. As in the Industry Standard, a newsmagazine that covers the Internet economy, where a recent table of contents asked, “What makes Sammy Sosa click?” That isn’t a play on words–it’s hard labor. (OK, if you give up, the point of origin is a novel published 59 years ago called What Makes Sammy Run? whose protagonist is Sammy Glick.) The article, by the way, is several notches above this cutline. It describes how big-league baseball has finally lifted a finger to establish some sort of parity between rich teams and poor teams by pooling the teams’ Internet revenues in the commissioner’s office.
Each side in the recent debate over an honorary Hugh Hefner Way accused the other of provincialism. To stick my own oar in, a trivial gesture prompted a pretty remarkable discussion of whether the withering founder of a famous skin magazine deserves tribute, disdain, condemnation, or simple pity, and there was nothing provincial about any of it–except, of course, the concern itself. Nothing is more provincial than thinking it’s important to look like you aren’t. Let the record show that the accusation of provincialism was first made, for her own reasons, by Christie Hefner.