Invasion of the Bottom-Liners | Feature | Chicago Reader

Invasion of the Bottom-Liners 

The Corporate Takeover of the Chicago Tribune, as Witnessed (and Abetted) by Former Editor James Squires

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No American newspaper but the New York Times can match the Chicago Tribune in richness of tradition or worldwide fame. Its reporters were among the first ever accredited to cover the Congress of the United States. Its founder, Joseph Medill, called the meeting that resulted in the formation of the Republican Party. Medill's grandson, Colonel Robert Rutherford McCormick, had been dead for 17 years by the time I was offered a job as the Tribune's national political writer, but in newspaper lore the publisher still loomed as large as the great Gothic tower he had built on the highest point on Michigan Avenue.

Over much of the two decades following Colonel McCormick's death in 1955, his successors at the Chicago Tribune guarded his legacy as if they were sitting on the edge of a razor blade. What they feared most was the sight and smell of their own blood, which was beginning to ooze.

By 1972, when I was hired from Nashville's Tennessean, television had really begun to divert America's attention, and the household penetration of newspapers began only its second period of decline in history. (The first had followed the development of radio.) Afternoon newspapers were already on the road to extinction. In the nation's second largest market, the only newspapers left to threaten the Tribune were the Sun-Times and the Daily News, both of which were owned by the Marshall Field family. This fact was in itself a disturbing prospect for the Tribune and a telling commentary on the overall industry, for survival--not profit--had always been the goal of the Field newspaper empire. As long as it remained a viable competitor with the Tribune, big newspaper profits would be only a dream.

As had become the custom since McCormick's death, the Tribune was letting the Field papers choose both the weapons of war and the battleground. So each day a bitter front-page struggle was waged for supremacy of single-copy sales inside the city limits of Chicago, where the tabloid Sun-Times and the jazzy, well-written Daily News had a natural advantage. Tribune Company had let Field convince retail advertisers that city readership, not total market circulation, was the key to market supremacy. Chicago readers considered the Sun-Times the leader in sports, the best paper in local news, the paper of the future, and the paper most relevant to their lives.

Although the modern newspaper war between Tribune and Field lacked the energy and imagination of those fought by the old press lords, it retained one of their important characteristics--each company was privately held and answerable for its performance to no one but family stockholders. In this regard Chicago was fast becoming an anachronism. But both the Field heirs, brothers Marshall III and Ted, were far less dedicated to their grandfather's public service mission of keeping the Colonel's paper honest. Increasingly, they had become preoccupied with their own pursuits in real estate and moviemaking.

And though it would be a full decade before Wall Street would get a look inside Tribune Company, the pressures to increase profitability and stock value were intensifying. When the McCormick family trust expired in 1975, the stock would be automatically distributed to the individual heirs, instantly creating a number of unhappy New Yorkers who would want to cash in.

During the 1970s, Tribune Company's version of professional management took its flagship newspaper on a series of hundred-mile-an-hour U-turns. Budget cuts were often imposed only a few weeks after the launch of new and costly reader-building projects. New sections would be abruptly abandoned when they failed to produce instant circulation or advertising gains. Editorially, the newspaper was just as schizophrenic, still the old McCormick Tribune at heart but with a face-lift and a new wardrobe to suit advertising and circulation goals that seemed to change by the minute. This caused the newspaper to veer and tilt like an overloaded ocean liner in a storm, and it was not uncommon for people to fall off, some of them pushed while others jumped.

In the fall of 1976, I jumped at the opportunity to edit the Sentinel, the company's financially lucrative but editorially bankrupt monopoly-market newspaper in Orlando, Florida. Through most of the next decade and a half, my companion in the trenches was Charles T. Brumback, a product of Culver Military Academy, Princeton University, and 30 years of relatively union-free newspapering in Florida. Fifteen years my senior, he was my school of newspaper economics in the same way the Tennessean had been my education in journalism.

"If there is anything in this world I am an expert on," Brumback told me during an argument over newsprint usage in 1977, "it is columns of numbers. I've been looking at them all my life." The discussion, over how much newsprint should be devoted to columns of election vote results, was a harbinger of things to come. Basically, newspapering is a simple business. About three-fourths of all costs can be broadly characterized as either newsprint or labor. Any pursuit of cost reduction leads very quickly to the size of the newspaper or the size of the staff. Over the next 13 years, Brumback's dogged pursuit of cost reduction became legendary among Tribune Company employees, typifying a new style of newspaper management that would by 1990 be running the entire industry.

As president of the Sentinel, Brumback was known for blunt talk, baggy suits, and a habit of turning off the lights. With an engineer, Stanton Cook, at the top of Tribune Company as chairman and president, taking advice only from Don Reuben, the general counsel, and the company's financial officer, John Madigan, a stocks-and-bonds man, the accountant Brumback was a natural fit in the company hierarchy. He spoke the new company language. And he understood far better than I that this language included a new definition of "quality." Tribune Company was headed for public ownership as soon as its profitability reached the levels necessary to be termed a "quality" stock investment.

Upon my arrival in Orlando, Brumback made it clear that he considered me the expert on editorial matters, and I made with him what in retrospect turned out to be a Faustian bargain: let me decide what goes in the newspaper, what its editorial opinions will be, what time it goes to press and how it presents itself to the community, and I promise to run the tightest ship in the business. It was a deal designed to deliver both prizes and profits.

The papers we took over together--the Sentinel and, later, the Tribune itself--were both bloated with excess personnel, rife with waste, and technologically retarded. Promising Brumback big profits in Orlando was a no-brainer. Later in Chicago, where we made the same deal, it was harder.

During the next four years, Brumback and I increased the operating margins of the Orlando Sentinel from the mid-teens--then average for the industry--to the low twenties. That was then among the industry's best. Soon the Sentinel was contributing nearly as much money to the corporate bottom line as the Tribune, which was three and a half times its size. Furthermore, the newspaper's journalistic reputation had done an about-face in less than three years. One national newsweekly called us the most improved newspaper in the country, "most certainly in the top 15." Attracting the most interest was our pioneering of zoned local news and advertising, which targeted four suburban counties around Orlando. Then again, being successful with a monopoly newspaper in the mistake-proof, union-free environment of Orlando, Florida, did not require genius.

When we set our budget in Orlando, we worked from the assumption that we would have to surpass the previous year's profit by at least 15 percent, and by 20 or 25 percent if possible. This meant that no editorial improvement could be paid for without new advertising revenue. In short order I resorted to the tactic of lumping a financially lucrative advertising project with a costly editorial one, letting the profits of one underwrite the other.

This experience started me down a primrose path. Advertisers were never able to influence news judgments, story tone, or assignments, but the concept of marketing-driven editorial content--in the form of regular sections containing complementary news and advertising information--became a way of life.

Cook used to come to Orlando twice a year, accompanied by a squad of junior accountants--none of whom could hold Brumback's pencil. They would smile, kick the tires, pat a back or two, and then say the financial goals we had set were inadequate. Never had they exhibited any knowledge of the quality of the newspaper. But they had given me some stock options, which Brumback assured me would be valuable someday and should be considered evidence of corporate approval. Still, at the time I wanted to hear that I had done a good job, that I was a great newspaper editor--at least from him. No dice.

Brumback's record at the Sentinel so impressed the Tribune's top executives that in the fall of 1980 he was named president and chief executive officer of the flagship paper. Three months into 1981, with the Sentinel outearning the Tribune, Brumback showed up one Saturday carrying his Chicago staff's marketing plan. With a sheepish grin, he handed it to me to read.

"It's terrible," I said.

"I know," he replied. "The place is a mess. Why don't you come up and help me fix it?"

Up to this point, I had earned my pay, my recognition, and my promotions on journalistic achievement--reporting, writing, outworking other reporters and other newspapers in the conduct of journalism. Now I was being offered one of the top jobs in my profession--editor of the famous Chicago Tribune--for no other reason than my ability to produce increasingly respectable newspapers on the cheap.

At the time Brumback and I were plucked out of Orlando, the corporate view from the Tower was that our mission was urgent. Dying to go public, Cook was being told by Madigan and others that the Tribune's flagship business needed to be at least an "average" earner among newspapers, which was then 15 percent pretax on total revenues. It was doing only slightly more than half that in 1981. Tribune researchers--who spent as much time in the office of my predecessor, Max McCrohon, as his subeditors did--had all Chicagoland divided laterally into five strata, the top being "Quintile One" with the highest demographic profile and "Quintile Five" being the lowest. The Colonel's paper always had been the paper of the blue bloods on the North Shore and the upscale suburbanites of the northwest corridor. The complication was that the Tribune advertising department had deferred to the Sun-Times's argument that city circulation numbers were more important in the battle for retail advertising. So while the Tribune was designing tailored feature news sections for suburban Ones and Twos, its front page was dominated by a tabloid kind of city news coverage designed to battle the Sun-Times for street sales.

A notable characteristic of Tribune management at the time--panic--had been a staple all through the post-McCormick era. When combined with research, panic becomes a blueprint for disaster, which is what Brumback and I had been brought in to avert. At the time, disaster was believed imminent. And it had come to light on a new frontier--a weekly company "planning group" assembly of advertising, circulation, editorial, marketing, and production executives. In 1981, this group, a pioneer in corporate-style committee management of newspaper content, had heard that the most recent reader survey showed that for the very first time in its battle with the Sun-Times, the Tribune was losing ground in Quintile Two.

That survey result had gotten Brumback's attention as well. First of all, it was presented to him in a column of numbers, which he understood. And in his mind he combined it with another set of numbers he found equally disturbing--McCrohon's soaring editorial budget. McCrohon had been unable to show Brumback any plan for improving the Tribune without corresponding increases in staff and newsprint. Because Brumback knew someone who could do so--me--the combination cost McCrohon his job.

But not long after I assumed McCrohon's seat at the planning group table, it became apparent to me that my predecessor had been fired for nothing. Wherever there was a circulation gain by the Sun-Times in a suburb, there was a corresponding Tribune gain in an adjacent suburb farther out. The Sun-Times penetration in Quintile Two had increased only because Sun-Times readers in Quintile Three city neighborhoods were moving westward and taking their newspaper habit with them. The corresponding movement among Tribune readers was being reflected in higher incomes among Quintile Ones who were even farther west and were adding circulation numbers in areas where the Sun-Times had no home delivery distribution. The Sun-Times's "invasion of the suburbs" died that day on the planning group table, too late to save McCrohon's job.

But in properly analyzing the reader profile data, an interesting phenomenon popped up. On Sunday, nearly a half million people bought the Tribune who didn't read it daily. These included many daily Sun-Times readers, who either switched or bought both papers. The Sun-Times, in turn, sold fewer papers on Sunday than it did Thursday (its best day during the week), primarily to lower-income, inner-city readers, many of whom didn't buy it during the week. A change of strategy was in order. Winning the battle for Quintile Three inner-city readers should not be nearly as important to advertisers as the incredible advantage in reader quality the Tribune had on Sunday. When the Tribune increased Sunday printing capacity by opening a new $400 million offset-printing plant two years after Brumback and I arrived, we changed the marketing strategy, shifting news space, advertising, and marketing support into the one day when we had the greatest natural advantage. The Sun-Times responded, competitively as it always did, shifting its own resources away from its best circulation days and its best audience to its worst.

This was the beginning of the end of the battle for supremacy in the Chicago market. Within a year, with the Tribune dramatically widening its lead in advertising share, the Field family gave up and sold its newspaper to Rupert Murdoch. The paper lost its publisher, James Hoge, and its two best journalists, Mike Royko and Lois Wille, both of whom joined the Tribune. Brumback and I won by not fighting a circulation war but by recasting the battle as an advertiser-driven contest in quest of the highest-quality readers. We didn't hire more reporters, or include more news, or print any more newspapers. We just shifted available resources to a day when circulation and advertising rates were the highest to generate more revenue.

This strategy was not something forced on me. It was in fact my idea, the very best way I could see to live within the framework of my deal with Brumback. If I could defeat Jim Hoge and the Sun-Times, which the editors and publishers before me had been unable to do, then I would make the profits necessary to keep my end of the bargain and make Brumback a success. In turn, Brumback would keep his word, which was to let me decide what one of the most important newspapers in the country said in its news and opinion columns.

Newspaper publishers have always had to defend and endure invasions of their own privacy and the goring of their own oxen because their publications claim those practices as both constitutional rights and civic obligations. When as publisher of the St. Petersburg Times, Eugene Patterson was arrested for driving while under the influence, he ordered his newspaper to publish the story on the front page.

But when it came to negative publicity--or any publicity at all--concerning Tribune Company, the corporate skin was thin as tissue. One day in the mid-1980s, Larry Gunnels, now general counsel of Tribune Company, showed up in my office in a tizzy. He had just been ordered by John Madigan to stop Kristie Miller, the only descendant of the Colonel on the company board of directors and representative of the largest individual stockholder, from taking notes during the board meetings. "Tell her she can't do that," Madigan had ordered. "She's writing a book." God forbid a McCormick exercise freedom of speech.

To Tribune executives, reporters from other publications who wrote about the company were all potential assassins. But the reporters who most terrified the executive suite were those on their own payroll. Tribune Company journalists, particularly on the sports and entertainment beats, who found themselves having to write about their employer were constantly subjected to microscopic scrutiny for signs of hostility or disloyalty.

In my early days as editor of the Tribune, the Chicago Cubs (which had just been purchased by Tribune Company) were covered by a typically sharp-tongued, sartorially inelegant doubting Thomas of a reporter who found little to like in the swaggering style of the team's general manager, Dallas Green. Hardly a week passed without some complaint from the executive suite about the "tone" of Cubs coverage. Anything other than totally complimentary stories which portrayed the company as a paragon of both success and virtue had problems of "tone." These usually brought me a call or visit from one of the three executives--Cook, Brumback, and Madigan--who outranked me.

Tribune executive suite sensitivity to the Cubs was matched only by sensitivity to the federal government. Cook enjoyed a particularly cozy relationship with the Department of Defense. As Tribune publisher, he repeatedly accepted their invitations to inspect their bases, ride in their planes, and race over the terrain in their tanks in simulated combat. Hardware of any kind fascinated him. To make matters worse, he was constantly being harangued by two peers from corporate America whose wealth and social status stemmed from their control of huge military contractors--Lester Crown of General Dynamics and Robert Malott of FMC Corporation. Half the complaints from the publisher's office during my years as editor stemmed from objections by these two, or by the Pentagon itself. I never knew which. I responded by beefing up the Tribune's defense coverage, which became much admired, including prizewinning journalism on the procurement scandal involving General Dynamics, and the travails of FMC's controversial contribution to modern warfare, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle.

Finally, I hired a bright marine retiree from the office of the secretary of defense to cover military affairs. If Cook wanted military expertise, he could have it. The problem was, the marine colonel turned out to be one tough reporter, who often knew and reported what the Pentagon was not telling as well as what it wanted everybody to know. Almost from his first column, he became the source of a two-year running dispute between myself and the publisher over his credentials as a journalist. Cook seemed to think he "just isn't catching on," while I thought he was magnificent. I never had orders to fire him, but the suggestion was planted in my office at least once a month, for no other reason than the constant battering Cook was taking from Pentagon public affairs officers and their friends in the defense contracting business. I had the same kinds of problems with economic coverage while Cook served as president of the Chicago Federal Reserve Board, an absurd appointment for a newspaper publisher to accept.

In a sense, the situation at the Tribune was better than at most newspapers. My unique 13-year arrangement with Brumback, who had no interest in setting news or editorial policy, in effect granted me the publisher's power on policy--unless Cook, who actually held the title, expressed some special interest. Except for an order to reverse an editorial on telephone company regulation, I was able to fend off all direct corporate efforts to influence the Tribune's news and editorial policies. Bonuses, salary raises, and stock options beyond all reason and expectation were routinely lavish, and I came to recognize them as rewards for what they considered a job well done.

But the frequency of my resistance to the pressure to corporatize the company's flagship newspaper was not without cost. Differences of opinion about employee relations and the effect of the constant ratcheting of earnings from the Tribune and other newspaper properties set me apart from others at the top of Tribune Company. At the same time, there was unrest in the executive suite. Stan Cook would turn 65 in 1990, at which time he would have to retire from all his offices, save that of chairman. A power struggle soon developed between the two strongest contenders for his job, John Madigan and Charlie Brumback.

Madigan, who was 54 at the time and the second-ranking corporate executive, had expected to succeed Cook. But Tribune Company had never been run by anyone who had not previously been in charge of the Tribune itself. It also wasn't likely that the Tribune board of business executives would go for Madigan, an unproven manager, over Brumback, who had been the company's best cost cutter and profit maker in the 1980s. Yet Madigan had dismissed Brumback as a competitor because Charlie was only four years younger than Cook.

For me a choice between the two was no choice at all. I urged Brumback to make a run for it. He was reluctant to do so overtly, but it was clear he thought he had a chance--and he didn't discourage my offer to be his campaign manager. Fully aware of the risks and the consequences, I campaigned for Brumback with the few contacts I had on the board, including Cook. This included a speech to the board, which Cook had conveniently arranged for me, in which I extolled Brumback's business acumen, his value as my mentor in that regard, and his wisdom in leaving the editorial decisions to the journalists. In campaigning for Brumback, I made a point of citing his meticulous efforts to avoid all conflicts of interest. He once even ordered all Tribune executives to refrain from making political contributions. He was also unlike most corporate press moguls in that he kept a low profile and never flexed the newspaper's muscles for his personal gain. When he showed up in a city where the Tribune had people, cars, and equipment, he made his own arrangements and went his own way. If Brumback called a bureau or a reporter, it was just to show courtesy.

Naturally the journalist in me could not help but contrast this style with that of Madigan, who was notorious for using Tribune reporters as travel guides, translators, and facilitators in meeting heads of state or foreign dignitaries. The reporters didn't seem to mind. One even took the opportunity to ask him for a raise. But the editors in the Tower considered his actions a flagrant abuse of power. Madigan had never had an official connection to the newspaper, and there was no justification for his forays other than his personal comfort and enjoyment.

Among my complaints to Cook about Madigan was one I believed to be most revealing. It concerned the purchase of a fur coat for his wife from one of the Tribune's advertisers. An advertising salesman had told me that Madigan wanted to avoid paying Illinois sales tax and had asked that the coat be delivered to another company executive who maintained a residence in a neighboring state. He also told me that Larry Gunnels had firsthand knowledge of the matter, so one day in my office I asked Gunnels about it. He turned white and began to stammer. Finally, he said that he couldn't talk about the affairs of one client with another client. "Just don't ask me anything about Madigan," he pleaded.

But I knew that the executive had been asked to bring the coat to Madigan at the office. I also knew that Gunnels knew all about it. If the Tribune had had this kind of information on a Chicago politician or some other public figure, we'd have printed it. I wanted an explanation. Instead, Madigan fired Gunnels.

Meanwhile, as usual, Brumback was traveling a lower-profile, less treacherous, and more direct road to beating out Madigan--by delivering record-breaking profits to the bottom line. They were beautifully charted in color for presentation to the board in his year-end 1988 summary and his 1989-1991 forecast. But this time, the crown on Brumback's prodigious profit-making reputation would come at the expense of the editorial department and what remained of our personal relationship.

In his plan for 1989, advertising director Robert Holzkamp had surprised me by predicting for the first time in our history together (he had worked with me since our days at the Orlando Sentinel) that he could produce all the revenue I wanted to spend--and still beat our record 1988 profits. I had long ago quit anticipating a year in which I would not have to better the previous one. The only question was by how much. By this time, the Tribune was producing a 22 percent operating margin, and Holzkamp was confident that we could improve on that performance. I thought I had the budget process whipped. But at the final presentation, Brumback--also for the first time ever--said that he did not believe Holzkamp's optimistic forecast. A recession was certain, he said, and he sent us back to trim another few million from costs just in case. As the day neared for Brumback to take our budget plan to the corporate executives, we were still a million dollars short in cost reductions. Absolutely convinced that we would never need to do it, I told Brumback I would freeze editorial employment replacements for six months, thereby saving the equivalent of 10 to 15 full-time jobs--roughly $1 million. He accepted the offer and promised me the jobs could be filled if revenue held up the way Holzkamp and I thought it would.

On the way out of town to make a speech, I heard that an anticipated industrywide increase in the cost of newsprint, which we had figured on for 1989, had been rescinded. This meant a windfall for our budgeting process. Four or five million dollars would fall right to the bottom line. I never gave my ten jobs another thought. But when I returned, I learned that Brumback had put both the newsprint cost reduction and my jobs into his charts. These figures enabled him to promise to ratchet up profits even more--about two points on the operating margin--in a year when the rest of the newspaper industry was in recession. This addition made all of Brumback's chart lines the same in every category from 1982 to 1989--a perfect set of corporate guidelines on revenue, cost reduction, and productivity improvement. There was no chart on the editorial budget as a percentage of total revenue, but it would have shown the same consistent pattern--an inexorable decline.

Charlie won the succession battle that day, but he lost a good friend--and I lost the support I needed to keep running the Tribune. Clearly, once the battle with the Sun-Times had been won, there was no need for improving editorial quality. After all, that costs money.

What I didn't realize until after Brumback's promotion was that the Gunnels dispute had undermined the other half of my support base--with departing publisher Cook. After Madigan had decided Gunnels was inadequate as corporation counsel, I had made an effort to salvage him as a First Amendment lawyer. Great at preventive medicine, Gunnels had saved the company from dozens of lawsuits simply by teaching editors how to avoid attracting them in the first place. After his firing as general counsel, Cook and Brumback had agreed to let Gunnels remain as in-house legal adviser to the Tribune and other journalism properties.

But all this changed when Cook gave Madigan a consolation prize--Brumback's old job as president of the Tribune. As part of the deal, Cook also reneged on his promise to let Gunnels stay. Suddenly and without explanation, Gunnels was given notice to vacate his office and pick up his severance. After five years in the job, he was harshly and unceremoniously fired in a manner quite typical of corporate employee relations at the highest levels, where golden parachutes and stock option bonanzas at least cushion the fall. At these heights the employer-employee relationship that has become so impersonal at the lower echelons remains highly personal, even whimsical. Only the callous disregard for people remains the same. Within a year after Brumback succeeded Cook and Madigan succeeded Brumback, every department head Charlie had been responsible for hiring at the Chicago Tribune had been replaced. (Brumback took over from Cook as chairman of the board at the beginning of this year.)

Both Cook and Brumback said up front it was Madigan's decision to fire Gunnels. "John didn't feel comfortable with Larry anymore. He had been running his mouth about John's personal business," Cook told me. Brumback's explanation was that Madigan was concerned about the relationship between Gunnels and myself: "He didn't want you two sitting down there talking about him."

Madigan's first acts as my new boss were to send me the signals he wanted me to leave. Among the first things he asked me for was help in planning his family vacation to China and for contacts in New York and Washington for a family trip. He wanted an escort to the United Nations and a tour of important buildings in Washington, D.C. On his very first trip as head of the Tribune, he accepted a free airplane ride back to Chicago from Secretary of Transportation Sam Skinner, at taxpayer expense, for which I had to insist that the newspaper reimburse the government. Also it quickly became clear that the Tribune would be returning to the old way of making editorial policy, with politicians first pleading their cases in private to the ranking executive at social events or in one-on-one meetings, then coming to the editorial board as an afterthought. One day I came in to learn that an editorial board meeting with an elected official had been moved off the editorial floor to a conference room near Madigan's office, where the official had gone first.

The new corporate culture revealed itself most pointedly that October, when the Cubs reached the National League play-offs, causing the regular corporate free-for-all over who gets how many tickets and how good they are, including use of the company's private skybox. Even though it is not nearly the best place from which to watch a baseball game in Wrigley Field, Madigan considered a seat in the box a kind of corporate Krugerrand with which to reward loyalty and good behavior. He told me the editorial department had been allotted two of the precious box seats for the first playoff game and asked for nominations. Mine were Mike Royko and cartoonist Jeff MacNelly, two of the team's most avid fans and the newspaper's most valuable assets. MacNelly was fine, Madigan said, but he shook his head and turned up his nose at the suggestion of Royko, a journalist for whom he had nothing but disdain. "Not him," he said. "He doesn't like us. He doesn't even speak to me in the elevator."

To Madigan, famous journalists like Royko, MacNelly, and Ann Landers are celebrity assets no different from Geraldo Rivera and Joan Rivers, or the Cubs' multimillion-dollar ball players, whose fame and personal image are to be exploited for corporate gain. They are rolled out and exhibited like art treasures for the viewing pleasure of those to whom Tribune Company would like to sell something. Madigan's petulant attitude toward Royko is illustrative of corporate mentality. What the corporate brain trust cannot control it does not trust and cannot be comfortable with--until it's gone. Like Royko, I fell into that category.

There was no way for someone who had fought Madigan's ascent to power as vigorously and openly as I had to remain a power at the newspaper. But having had a long and successful stint at running it, I was content to let somebody else try. So when Madigan's promotion was announced in December 1988, I offered my resignation effective immediately or whenever Madigan thought it would most benefit the newspaper. My goal, however, was not to leave Tribune Company altogether. Whenever Madigan was ready to change editors, I told him, I would gladly move to Washington and write a regular political column, for either the Tribune's editorial page or the paper's syndicate. I left the choice to him.

Although we met daily and never had a cross word in the ten months of my reporting to him, I was summoned to Madigan's office just before Thanksgiving in 1989 and told that he had decided to accept my offer of resignation. The columnist deal was no longer an option. All he wanted to do was negotiate severance. That was a big matter with me, too, considering the devastation Brumback had wreaked on Tribune pension and health insurance plans in his zeal to cut costs wherever possible. Nearly 20 years' service, 13 among the highest paid executives, meant about $35,000 a year pension and no health benefits. So we had our lawyers fight over what I was due and how long I would agree not to compete against the Tribune. My lawyer won, mainly because Madigan wanted me out of Chicago quickly and there was enough money set aside in my long-term executive perk portfolio to pay for it. This amounted to about $1 million. It was a typical corporate divorce in that when a corporation is through with an executive, it is quite willing to part with the stockholders' money to get rid of him, even if his skills are still valuable to the company. The papers I designed and ran during my 13 years had made Tribune nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars--more money than any other newspapers they owned or operated during any comparable time in the company's history.

I spent a few minutes of my final day as editor of the Chicago Tribune with my longtime partner Charlie Brumback, defining the modern newspaper publisher. Among our conclusions were that it is no disqualification for the job never to have worked on a newspaper, set editorial policy, hired a reporter, written or executed a marketing strategy, explained the newspaper's news coverage to an angry group of readers, or managed a paper to profitability. However, not "acting and talking" like a corporate executive are disqualifications--at least they were in my case.

"You don't talk like us," Brumback said.

My eventual disqualification should have dawned on us all--myself included--that beautiful September Saturday in 1986 when the top executives of Tribune Company traveled to the Virginia coast to attend the commissioning of a nuclear submarine, the USS Chicago. Accompanied by our wives, Cook, Brumback, Madigan, and I took the corporate jet to Newport News, where the submarine had been built and where Tribune Company had just bought the only newspaper in town, the Daily Press.

After the ceremony, the entire crowd of more than a thousand was invited to tour the submarine, which could be boarded by only six or eight people at a time crossing a narrow walkway suspended above a canal. Naturally, Cook, the military hardware aficionado, wanted to tour the ship. But the schedule for the Tribune VIPs, prepared by our marketing department, called for us to visit our newly acquired newspaper property. The size of the crowd made it likely that the tour would go on for hours, so the Navy suggested we visit the newspaper and return, which we did in three long, black limousines.

Upon our return a couple of hours later, hundreds of Newport News residents were still gathered, patiently waiting to be escorted across the catwalk. It was plain to me that the new owners of the town's only newspaper were about to create an unfortunate image--that of exiting chauffeur-driven limousines and being escorted to the front of a line of people who had been waiting their turn all afternoon. Quietly I suggested to Brumback and our marketing people that under the circumstances we might want to go to the end of the line. No one in the party would hear of it. My reasoning had no standing in the world of the corporate executive. They looked at me as if I were a kook.

Thus it was that my wife and I stood at the rear of the crowd and watched the three highest-ranking Tribune Company executives--and then a second contingent of lower rank--get in front of their newspaper's readers. With corporatization has come an addiction to position and special privilege as entitlements. This is alien to the nature of newspapers. The press is not supposed to break in the front of the line; it is supposed to tell everyone who does.

From the forthcoming book Read All About It by James Squires. Copyright 1993 by James D. Squires. To be published by Times Books, a Division of Random House, Inc.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illusatration/John Figler.

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