Everyone at the Sun-Times has heard the story of Rupert Murdoch's bags, and everyone, it seems, is eager to tell it. An enormous amount of anger and contempt is invested in this simple tale.
A few days before Christmas, the publicity department was throwing a cocktail party on the seventh floor. Murdoch, the then owner-in-waiting, was in town and he dropped in, and promptly stunned and dismayed everyone by calling Jim Hoge "Jimmy." And Robert Page was also there. At the time, he was running Murdoch's Boston Herald, and when he was asked the obvious question he said no, he wouldn't be taking over the Sun-Times He was just in town to look the operation over.
When Murdoch glanced at this watch, he was at the center of one small group of people, and Page was at the center of another. Murdoch leaned over to Page and said, "You'll take my bags to the Whitehall," and left. Page didn't blink. A little later Page left with Murdoch's bags—"as if it was the most normal thing in the world," a reporter who was standing there said later. Many days later he was named the new publisher of the Sun-Times, succeeding Hoge. As Murdoch has been preceded to Chicago by a reputation as an arrogant garbage-baron, so Page was now welcome as a coat holder.
Tell me about Page, I said to someone who remembers him from UPI. Page worked at the wire service for 20 years, beginning as a reporter and climbing to vice-president and general manger. "He almost became president," my source said. "He was Rod Beaton's anointed successor, and from what I could tell, people thought Page deserved to be. But … Beaton does not fulfill his promises to retire … UPI's fortunes wane and Scripps-Howard sells it … and page leaves UPI."
That was in 1980. Page became editor of the San Antonio Light, a Hearst paper, and in 1981 Murdoch hired him as general manager of the San Antonio Express-News. In 1982 Murdoch moved Page to the Boston Herald, and now he's here.
"He's a very bottom-line-oriented guy. He's probably a fairly hard guy," Page's old UPI colleague said. "Working for UPI you've got to be that way. he's tough, business minded, not without charm. He showed a certain courage to leave UPI when he saw the handwriting on the wall. That represented a fall in stature. He's probably willing to take orders—but there's a core of integrity. Editorial excellence? If he works for Murdoch, who knows?
"I don't think he's a wimp. Beaton was a tough son of a bitch. He could have run the Teamsters. And Page would go jaw to jaw with him. Murdoch's an asshole but I don't think Page is an asshole."
Janet Cawley, a Tribune reporter, knew Page by reputation when she was at UPI. "I knew him as a man of integrity, who went to bat for his people, was well liked by his staff," Cawley told me. "He was one of the people instrumental in getting us living allowances overseas."
Testimonials such as these count for very little inside the editorial spaces of the Sun-Times, not measured against the story bout Rupert Murdoch's bags and reports that Page was seen trotting out ahead to open doors Murdoch was interested in walking through. In the staff's judgment, Page did not understand what massive antipathy he was walking into. Not until Mike Royko crossed the street did Page begin to get a clear idea.
"That shows how inept the new guys are if they knew how sore he was," a Sun-Times editor told me, "and how stupid they are if they didn't. They should have known no local judge would stand up to Royko and the Tribune."
And it didn't have to happen, this editor (and others) insisted. "Murdoch came in and said hello [to Royko] and not another word. Flattery's important to him [Royko]. If they'd come in and reassured him, flattered him he'd have stayed."
Royko's departure was briefly amusing, as he stuck his tongue out at Murdoch from the Tower; soon enough—once the lawyers had left the stage and his escape was a fait accompli—it made matters even more dispiriting. "Most people are cheering him on," the editor said. "He did what we want to do. Nobody wants to stay. Some have to … " But those who have to stay have lost the one person who might have stood up to Murdoch from within—not that this was a role Royko had shown an interest in. Instead he is now at the Tribune being paid handsomely to bad-mouth the paper they still work at. Now Lois Willie has followed Royko, and when Murdoch formally gives notice that his company has assumed ownership, there will be a more general exodus.
For the 15 days after the notice is given, the paper's Newspaper Guild members can request and be granted a buyout of their services— the suddenly famous "window clause." Murdoch will have to pay them a week's salary for every six months they have worked at the Sun-Times. Bodies are expected to tumble out that window—a list I saw of editorial employees likely to jump ship promises, if it is accurate, that the paper will be devastated. It's a danger that Robert Page apparently awoke to after Royko left; I'm told he then began asking department heads for the names of staff members who intended to abandon the Sun-Times. But when I asked the editor I was speaking with what assurances page could make that would change some minds he said none: "It's inconceivable that anyone would believe him."
Page would be drowned out by Murdoch's reputation, which is of a man who will say whatever needs to be said but will never let any promise stand in the way of business. Page's blandishments wouldn't be a tenth as effective in stanching the hemorrhage as the mere reality that in a shrinking industry there aren't many jobs to go to. For example, Richard Ciccone, managing editor of the Tribune, said he's personally talked to "25 or 30" Sun-Times people about coming over to the Tribune's news side, and a lot of other inquiries have been made at sports and features. He'll hire a few, and he'll have to go outside his budget to do it.
Besetting the Sun-Times these days is the specter of a self-fulfilling prophecy: Royko leaves, taking with him—who knows?—50,000 to 75,000 readers; the "window clause" bleeds the Sun-Times of a couple dozen of its best people; and then paper is no longer recognizable as the financial and editorial success that Murdoch announced last November he would buy and whose "high standards" he pledged to maintain. The very dismantling of the paper that the staff feared Murdoch would undertake will, ironically, have been accomplished for him by the staff itself; Murdoch and his henchmen will have no choice but to put together something new.
The Sun-Times is virtually headless. Hoge, the publisher, and Ralph Otwell, the editor, said their farewells as tears were shed all around, and they were gone, Hoge moving into an office across Wabash Street, in the IBM building, so near and yet so far that it must feel like exile. Rupert Murdoch flew Gregory Favre, the managing editor, to New York and offered him the editorship, but Favre turned Murdoch down. Favre came home and explained that his differences with Murdoch were "philosophical." He will stay a few weeks, to help get the paper through this difficult period, but he also has been looking for new work. Favre was in Denver when page formally took over, and Page himself was easier to spot on TV, scowling at the cameras and vowing to fight Royko every inch of the way in the courts, than in the newsroom. The staff felt a little like a platoon stuck in no-man's-land and down to its corporals and privates. Long-range editorial planning has been virtually nonexistent since November.
A few days ago, a note went up on the bulletin boards announcing that Charles Wilson, executive editor of Murdoch's Times of London, would be around for a few weeks lending his counsel. Here was no cause for jubilation. The memo mentioned Wilson's former service at the Glasgow Herald, a once straitlaced and conservative broadsheet that "went pop"—in the words of Pat Brogan, a former Herald employee—several years ago. It neglected his years at the racy London tabloid, the Daily Mirror. It called him "distinguished." Brogan, later with the Times of London and now an editorial writer at the New York Daily News, told me, "Murdoch always looks for tough, aggressive, unpleasant people to bring into his papers to whip them into shape. Wilson is very tough, unpleasant, rude to his subordinates. He puts the fear of God in them. He terrorizes people. Bob Page is rather a nice man, where Wilson personally is extremely unpleasant."
Reports of Wilson's personality—which may be exaggerated—aside, what in God's name is an Australian owner doing bringing in some flinty Scott to straighten out a Chicago paper whose staff believes, with good reason, it is already one of the finest papers in the United States? Who are these people? What are they doing here? Life inside the Sun-Times is a nightmare that compounds itself day by day and leaving seems to be the only way to wake up.