Honored and ousted—a life in journalism

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Jon Sall
  • Courtesy of Jon Sall
  • Jon Sall
Our story begins in New York in the fall of 1992.

The Irish singer Sinead O'Connor, appearing on Saturday Night Live, had just torn up a picture of the pope. She was protesting the sexual abuse of children by priests.

In response, the Tribune's Jeff MacNelly drew an editorial cartoon of priests watching the show. Three are indignant; the fourth is thinking, "Wonder what she’s doing Friday night." Chicago’s Joseph Cardinal Bernardin complained about that, asserting MacNelly’s cartoon "by innuendo, insults every good priest serving in the Archdiocese of Chicago." The Tribune backed up MacNelly and Bernardin dropped the subject.

Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper called O'Connor's act "a moment of truly great television." On getting a raft of complaints about Roeper's column, the Sun-Times hit upon a way to both make amends and milk the moment. They would run a picture of a prominent Catholic tearing up a picture of O'Connor tearing up the picture of the pope. What a visual coup this would be!

There was one hitch. As I wrote at the time, "They looked everywhere for a Catholic with a scrap of public stature willing to do such a damn fool thing." They had trouble finding such a Catholic, and in fact, they didn’t. They settled on Eric Bower, a former executive director of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights who'd left a voicemail calling Roeper a "bigot."

"I’ll do it. It’s nothing to me," said Bower. And so the pictures were taken—one of Bower tearing up a picture of O’Connor that the paper supplied him with, and a second, for good measure, of Bower putting another copy of the picture to the torch. It had to be soaked in lighter fluid before it would ignite.

The caption to the prominently displayed photo (page three) acknowledged that Bower was doing his ripping "at the suggestion of a photographer." But this was not accurate. As I also wrote, "The plot was hatched in the glass offices where the senior editors dwell. The photographer was so embarrassed to be a part of it he wouldn't let his name run under his picture."

Photographer Jon Sall says today, "I was the hapless new guy thrust into that ridiculous bit of overarching editorial enthusiasm. My photo editor didn’t want to do it either. But sorry! So off I went."

It's important to consider how long ago this was. In 1992 the Sun-Times was still two years away from being purchased by Conrad Black and David Radler, the Canadian press barons whose capers would eventually land both in prison. Thanks in part to their mismanagement, but also to the harsh winds that rose up a few years later to batter the industry, Black and Radler's mighty Hollinger Corporation wound up in the mid 2000's a bankrupt Chicago remnant known as the Sun-Times Media Group. In the last few years that company's been snatched from the grave twice: by a team of investors led by James Tyree, and, after Tyree died, by a new team of investors calling themselves Wrapports LLC and led by Michael Ferro. (Last May those new owners bought the Reader.) Under Ferro, bold plans have collided with a brutal economy. Some human sacrifice has been required.

Jon Sall had been at the Sun-Times three years when he took Eric Bower's picture, and he would stick it out there through all the tribulations that lay ahead. I'd written about a nadir of his career; there were many more high points. For instance, he tells me that in 1995 he became the first Sun-Times photographer to shoot with a digital camera. "I'd been a Mac geek going back to 1984," he says. "This was the marriage of my two loves—photography and computers. It was a brave new world."

And in 2007 he was asked by the Sun-Times Media Group to start up a new online video department for the company. "It's what I've been doing ever since," he says, "training all the photographers in the Sun-Times Media Group. There were at least 35 at the time, not that many anymore. And then I was also involved in setting up the video infrastructure for the Sun-Times Media website." This is the infrastructure that makes it possible for video advertising to migrate to the website, a vital source of new revenue. Sall says he also created a full-length documentary video on the election of Barack Obama in 2008 and another on his inauguration. "I'm told they made over $300,000 for Sun-Times Media," he says.

But money is only money. What honors have come Sall's way? Just last week, a multimedia story he collaborated on with entertainment reporter Dave Hoekstra won first place in the Associated Press's annual state competition. (Another one of their videos finished second.) And last Friday, another collaboration by Sall and Hoekstra—this one on gospel singer Mitty Collier—received a Lisagor Award from the Chicago Headline Club as top online feature story. Commented the judges, "Lovely piece on a very interesting subject. Really nice balance of multimedia sources."

But although Sun-Times Media bought three tables at the Lisagor dinner, Sall paid $200 out of his own pocket, and he and his wife sat with strangers. The reason for this is that on March 15, after 24 years at the Sun-Times, Sall lost his job.

The day before he'd spent a couple of hours training Sun-Times staff photographers in how to shoot short videos with cell phones. "I got a lot of compliments from my colleagues," says Sall, and when Jim Kirk, editor in chief of Sun-Times Media, called him into his office, Sall was expecting a word or two of praise.

"His only words were 'We have to take a walk to H.R.' I'd been around the Sun-Times long enough to know those are the words you don't want to hear," Sall tells me. "In the room with H.R., they said my position was eliminated. So I said, 'Can I go back to being a photographer?' And Jim said no. And I said, 'Can I take a reduction in salary and keep my position?' And he said no. And that was it. It was very cut-and-dried."

The question of severance didn't even come up. If Sall had still been in the Newspaper Guild he'd have been legally entitled to it, but he left the Guild in 2007 when he left the Sun-Times to take the job running online video for the parent company.

"I'm 47," he says. "I've worked for the Sun-Times [so to speak] half my life. I've been loyal through all the bullshit that's swirled around all the journalists every day. I tried to rise above that and do my job. Why I was singled out in the midst of all that, I have no idea."

Actually, he has. "They have been hiring some younger people," Sall allows. "Wrapports Interactive has hired three or four younger folks than I am to do interactive. And the Sun-Times has hired some young photographers who I hear are now doing some video."

I asked Kirk to comment on Sall's dismissal. He declined.

I wrote this story because I think it's still interesting when a Chicago journalist gets sacked and then wins a big award like a Lisagor. But we've seen it before. 2009 was a big year for layoffs and a big year for Lisagors that were awarded—so to speak—posthumously. Here's a first-person yarn from Melissa Isaacson of the Tribune. And here's a story I wrote about it happening at the Wednesday Journal's Skyline. The novel wrinkle in the Skyline episode is that the company paid for the writer to go to the dinner anyway. The boss, Dan Haley, sent me a long memo meditating on layoffs that shrugged off his largesse. "Seems more like using common sense and remembering the sorts of things your parents taught you about how to treat people," he told me.

So the news about Jon Sall isn't all that new. Furthermore, there's a danger here of making too much of the irony quotient. Sun-Times Media had Sall training photographers to shoot short videos because they value short videos as a key part of their multimedia presentation of breaking news. The videos he made with Hoekstra that just won awards run more than five minutes each. Sall speaks of these videos—which Hoekstra posted on his Sun-Times blog site—as experimental. He wanted to find out if long-form videos could attract advertising. "People don't want to watch a 30-second ad and then a 15-second video," he reasons, "but they might if then they can settle in for a five-minute video." He and Hoekstra "got little support or encouragement from our editors," he says. "We had a meeting with Jim Kirk last year looking for support to do more of this, and it seemed to be a good meeting, but when it came down to actually doing the pieces, we got some push-back."

So why should it matter if Sall did well something they didn't care if he did at all?

Sall, by the way, has spoken to a lawyer. She's told the company's lawyers that in light of her client's long years of service, even though he'd left the union some severance would be appropriate anyway.

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