Sun-Times Sees Future: It's Black/Trib Puts Womanews in Its Place | Media | Chicago Reader

Sun-Times Sees Future: It's Black/Trib Puts Womanews in Its Place 

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Sun-Times Sees Future: It's Black

Scores of Sun-Times reporters woke up last Monday never having heard of the American Publishing Company of West Frankfort, Illinois.

Their ignorance soon ended. At a morning meeting around the loading docks, the cork came off a well-kept secret. As of the end of March the Sun-Times will be owned by American Publishing, a subsidiary of Hollinger Inc. of Vancouver, British Columbia, whose chairman and CEO is Conrad Black. Black's the man who once advised a Canadian royal commission that his experience with journalists "authorizes me to record that a very large number of them are ignorant, lazy, opinionated, intellectually dishonest, and inadequately supervised."

Black continued, "The profession is heavily cluttered with abrasive youngsters who substitute 'commitment' for insight, and to a lesser extent, with aged hacks toiling through a miasma of mounting decrepitude. Alcoholism is endemic in both groups."

In his 500-plus-page autobiography, A Life in Progress, published last year in Canada, Black halfheartedly argues that this 1969 testimony is usually repeated "out of context." The context seems to be this: "Although most journalists, like most people, are conscientious men and women doing their jobs as well as they can, many are possessed by envious frustration that they are chroniclers condemned forever to report on the sayings and doings of others."

In 1992 Black, who's 49, was described in the trade magazine NewsInc. as possessing "a searing ambition, which has spilled out onto the world stage." Hollinger already owns the Jerusalem Post, London's Daily Telegraph, more than 280 daily and weekly papers in the U.S., and various papers in Canada and Australia. His memoir bears the tone of an arrogant, self-amused rich kid who courts the powerful because he likes to mix with people almost as smart as he is. Describing lunch with Margaret Thatcher he recalls flattering the prime minister on her "revolution": "'What were the decapitation of Charles the First or the deposing of James the Second compared to what you have done?' She patted me indulgently on the forearm and said, 'That's very good. Do come back, won't you?'"

It's been reported that the last words to Black by a rich and sodden father before the old man fell to his death through a banister were "Life is hell, most people are bastards, and everything is bullshit." Perhaps Black took this as permission.

Black's people had been eyeing the Sun-Times for the last four years. When the deal was done he allowed himself to be represented here by his old friend David Radler, the CEO of Hollinger and chairman of American Publishing. The paper's staff stood around listening to Radler and the others in various degrees of bemusement, which turned on how long they'd been at the Sun-Times and how many other regimes they'd seen come and go. Black's reputation, to the extent one had penetrated Chicago, offered reason for hope and fear. On the one hand he despises unions; on the other he despises managerial fat.

A profile in the Vancouver Sun said this about him: "Black . . . is not a press baron in the business of allowing newspapers to die. But his prescription for survival often involves a scorched-earth policy with newspaper unions, the beheading of middle-level management, and the injection of new technologies with a resulting layoff of employees."

The dignitaries announcing the sale declared that the able management of the Sun-Times and the other Sun-Times Company properties will be left alone to continue its fine work. We see no reason to believe this. Sun-Times chairman Sam McKeel is of retirement age, and he's done what Leonard Shaykin brought him here from Philadelphia to do: put the business on its feet.

And here is Black on micromanagement: he learned his properties "could be successfully managed by recourse to careful and constant electronic monitoring of payroll, advertising and circulation, which had not been possible until recently, and by maintaining a flying squadron of fixer-counsellors, who travelled around between the centres on our airplane, encouraging, advising, imposing controls or conducting surgery, like frontier marshals."

Even in the early days Black practiced a brand of frontier management. He recalls 1969, when he, Radler, and a third partner bought a tiny, hideously unprofitable paper in Quebec, the Sherbrooke Record. They immediately fired 40 percent of the staff. "Demanned," the Record required copy from somewhere, and Black turned to himself. On his 25th birthday he published 6,000 words on the theme "A Year After Chicago, Homage to L.B.J." that assailed Norman Mailer as "the bedraggled warhorse of American blowhardism" and Bobby Kennedy as an "inimitable opportunist." Black illustrated his opus with a picture of himself, and Lyndon Johnson made sure it was entered into the Congressional Record.

Black acknowledges he and his partners "fiercely overmanaged" the Record. "When one reporter marched into David's office to present a petition of grievances, David fined him two cents, deducted from his weekly pay cheque, for wasting a sheet of paper."

Black goes on, "One scheme I struck upon for reducing salaries with an impeccable cover of good intentions was to hire a convict under a federal government bonded rehabilitation service, at a modest salary." The scheme didn't work because the new employee began kiting checks and soon lit out for New Brunswick. Further economies sprang from Black's "elastic compensation system," which involved sitting down with the reporters at the end of the week and discussing what they'd actually earned. "It was an outrageous system, of course," Black concedes, but whenever a reporter felt ready for greener pastures (a move that surely couldn't come too soon) "David and I gave them some of our stationery and told them to forge our names to any commendation they wanted to compose."

The result of these measures was "astronomical profits."

Two years before they bought it the Sherbrooke Record was losing nearly $10,000 a month, Black writes. Within a year it was making up to $15,000 a month. In 1981 Radler was asked by the Royal Commission on Newspapers what they'd contributed to journalism. He replied, "The three-man newsroom, and two of them sell ads."

But, writes Black, "he was not telling the whole story. David himself also devised a technique for utilizing the same page, simultaneously, for news and advertising, by jamming an entire page with country correspondence . . . and small stories without any pictures, and then selling a colour ad at half rates over it; e.g., 'Shop at Au Bon March,' in red ink. We experimented with this format, inching up the price to the advertiser by claiming he had thousands of guaranteed readers to whom this would be irresistible subliminal advertising, and so forth."

Much was said last Monday by Radler and others about the Sun-Times becoming the American "flagship" of the Hollinger empire. Whatever that means, we doubt it means the paper you spend a fortune for to do nothing with. A couple years ago Black almost had another flagship--the New York Daily News. The unions there made demands he wouldn't meet, and he backed off. NewsInc. discussed that near miss in terms of Black's ego as well as his finances, as "a platform for his ambitions that would be worth the cost of operation--to a point."

Black's ego is clearly a piece of work. His avocation isn't skiing--he broke both skis the first time down the hill and hasn't been back up since. It's war. He's an ardent student of Napoleon, and according to the Vancouver Sun knows the name and tonnage of every ship in the Spanish Armada. The maneuvers that broke the unions of the Daily Telegraph unfolded under the code name Operation Blackbird. A reviewer of A Life in Progress notes that Black becomes silly whenever he takes to writing like a nostalgic field marshal back on the farm: "I repaired to Paris to regroup."

When Black took over the Jerusalem Post the red ink there filled him with entitlement, and he shifted its political loyalties rightward from the Labor Party to the Likud. As long as the Sun-Times makes him money, predicts Harvey Enchin, media reporter for the Toronto Globe and Mail, Black'll leave its editorial product alone.

But it's a Democratic paper! Enchin said to Black after the sale was announced. Black replied, "You'll be perhaps astounded to hear this. But I have no problem with the Democrats. I think the Democrats are a great party. The great political hero of my youth was Roosevelt. I thought he was a true savior of capitalism."

Trib Puts Wommanews in Its Place

The sands are shifting at Womanews. This Sunday brings a new front-page design that will make the section look less like news, more like features. The page-one news briefs have already given way to columnist Barbara Brotman, who certainly can write wittily about many things beyond house and children but hasn't yet.

Founding editor Marjorie David was banished a few weeks ago to Tempo's night copy desk. Last week's issue carried samples of the gritty reporting that has distinguished Womanews since it was launched in 1991. But page one suggested a modest sea change: it touted inside features on comb research, thigh-high stockings, spring handbags, and seaweed, the friendly moisturizer.

"We're trying to have more of a sense of humor," Marla Krause, the new editor, told us. "I think it's been a little grim. We feel there's been a lot of women-as-victim stories. I don't mean those stories are not important, but we feel there's another side to news for and about women."

Womanews was invented by senior editor Colleen Dishon as "a mini paper within a newspaper--just for women . . . all women 18 to 65 and over." We're quoting a report made by Dishon herself after Womanews was up and running. She told us this week that women "wanted affirmation that they were more important than just mothers or wives. The news column was stories about ordinary women around the world. You got the idea ordinary women could make a difference."

Dishon told us Womanews was immediately successful, read by 71 percent of all women subscribers and kept around longer than any part of the paper but the TV guide. The section is being changed on orders of features editor Owen Youngman. "I thought it was maybe grimly determined sometimes," Youngman says. "The tone might have been a tad more in that direction than I would have liked."

Youngman can't be expected to surrender his authority. But he's exercising it over the one part of the paper where men's feelings weren't part of the mix in the first place.

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