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What Rupert Wrought: The Sun-Times Ten Years After

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Ten years ago the Antichrist came to Chicago. Rupert Murdoch took over the Sun-Times in January 1984, made it hideous overnight, and sold it two years later. Which may come as news to a few fastidious readers who flung down the paper when Murdoch arrived and never picked it up again. We still meet people who think he still owns it.

Murdoch's reputation and a fortuitous escape clause in the union contract drove Mike Royko and another five dozen editorial employees out the door. They were never really replaced: there were about 320 Newspaper Guild members at the Sun-Times when Murdoch took over, and today there are about 245. Recently, during a renovation of the editorial spaces, a 1983 staff schedule turned up--with assignments for some 30 more reporters than the Sun-Times has now.

"While Marshall Field [the previous owner] ran an operation that was loosely administered and some would say fat, because under Field the paper didn't focus on profit the way later managements have, nonetheless a difference of 30 to 33 reporters is significant," says Charles Nicodemus, a reporter who stayed. "The city editor and other editors freely and frequently bemoan the fact that they don't have the staff to cover the news the way they'd like to."

Just before Murdoch took over we wrote this: "Anyone in a position to is making other plans--two good reporters who took 'vacations' a couple weeks ago ran into each other trying out at Newsday. A description someone gave me of how desperate everyone has become suggested Saigon in April of 1975, when the communists were about to march through the gates and begin their reprisals. It might be more accurate to say a Masada mentality prevails--the staff would be happy to have Murdoch find only empty rooms and desolation. It's feared he'll gut the paper; the Sun-Times could be gutted before he arrives."

But for all the reporters and editors--especially the young, single, mobile ones--who marched out with their honor perched conspicuously atop their boxes, the Sun-Times was not gutted. Others stayed on, some for the best of reasons. Not because they were hacks, or idlers, or middle-aged parents with mortgages--but to defend the paper.

"You heard people leaving the paper say, 'Heh, I don't want it on my resume I worked for Rupert Murdoch,'" Nicodemus remembers. "And there was a corps of us fanatic enough about the survival of Chicago as a two-newspaper town who felt you had to stay to fight for the quality of the paper. The concept of Chicago as a Tribune town is frightening. I had a nibble from the Tribune and an offer from the AP. But I wasn't even returning phone calls. It never occurred to me to leave the Sun-Times."

Another reporter: "I can remember the day that the actual takeover happened, the look of the paper changed almost overnight. It was scary. Murdoch took a paper that was lovely to look at, graphically pretty, orderly, and coherent, and turned it into something ugly. I did not know we had such ugly typefaces at our disposal.

"He did two things right away: he changed the way the paper looked, and he changed the kind of stories we had in the paper. But what did not change and I think prevailed--a lot of good staffers remained at the Sun-Times. Harry Golden was still at City Hall. Basil [Talbott] was still the political editor. So the people doing the major work, the reporting, were the same. But you learned in about ten minutes, or three editions, what packaging does to a product. It can kill it."

The Sun-Times blew its civic credibility under Murdoch, because it was inky and ugly and hawked a numskull game called Wingo, because the editorial page veered right like a skidding truck, and because its leadership didn't have a clue about Chicago. The new publisher, Bob Page, had put in time here as a UPI executive, but the editors Murdoch threw into the breach were from out of town and out of country. Frank Devine, who finally took over, was a New Zealander.

"They didn't wait a minute to learn about the city," says a survivor. "They thought they knew it all. And if you look at their circulation, they didn't."

Yet awful as everything was, there was something exhilarating about it too. Murdoch had money to spend and spent it--he gave the Guild one of the most generous contracts in the paper's history. And his editors were sports. "These guys were great hands-on journalists," a reporter remembers. "They were in there working with their troops. They weren't sitting in their fancy offices--did you hear about Dennis's new private bathroom? Frank Devine periodically would take us to lunch. He'd say, what's the best restaurant in town? He'd sit there and drink wine and give toasts and say, 'I want you to know you people are the blood and guts making this paper go.' These guys"--meaning the present leadership--"are calling people in. They're taking byline counts. People are just terrified."

"I just loathed the Murdoch years," says a reporter, "but these were people who--it was visible--enjoyed putting out a newspaper. They enjoyed competing. They were out with the staff, and the staff responded. You never see Dennis Britton [today's editor] or Mark Nadler [executive editor] out with the staff."

Murdoch bought the Sun-Times and various other Field properties for $90 million. He sold everything but the Field Syndicate for $145 million to a group of investors headed by Bob Page and the syndicate to Hearst for another $23 million. He cleaned up. The paper's present owners have been trying to make a dent in that note ever since.

When Page took over, reporters were assigned to call various pillars of the community and solicit the testimonials hailing his civic spirit that flooded Page's first edition. Page cleaned up the typography and fired the senior layout editor--scapegoated him, actually--and showed off his fealty to high standards by hiring an editor from the tony Boston Globe and his moxie by hiring away Mike Sneed and Steve Neal from the Tribune. He joined half the boards in Chicago and made sure his paper let Chicago know it. "The plus side is Page toned it down " says the above survivor. "The minus is there seemed to be a new beat Page invented, and that was the Page beat."

"There was a lot of cronyism," radio and TV writer Robert Feder remembers. "There were the wild extravagances on his part while the product was made to suffer. He used the paper to promote his wife's career as a television personality, and anybody who wasn't good to his wife he tried to punish through the paper. Do you remember the famous piece she did with Mother Teresa?"

Prominently played, decorated by photos of the author herself transfigured by piety, Nancy Merrill Page's imagined account of a Christmas Day conversation between Mother Teresa and God swept torrents of shame through the city room. "In some ways I think the real evil happened under Bob Page," says a reporter. "He wanted to put out the paper for his personal benefit. The Murdoch guys just wanted to put out a good paper as they understood it."

Whoever put out the paper, and why, readers disappeared. In 1978, the year the Sun-Times and extinguished Daily News merged staffs and subscription lists, the Sun-Times reported. a daily circulation of 683,000. By 1984, Murdoch's first year, it was down to 649,000, and by '86, when Page took over, to 612,000. In '88, the year Page was sent packing by his investors, circulation was 579,000, and a year later, when Sam McKeel arrived from Knight-Ridder and restored competent management, it was 535,000. And that's where it still stood in '93.

Although the Sun-Times is better today than it was in 1984 by almost every measure, the past survives as a criticism. Today's Sun-Times is top-heavy by comparison, and to find an editor who even approximates Frank Devine's bonhomie it's necessary to look two ranks down. Managing editor Julia Wallace not only enjoys the company of working stiffs but frequently asks them what they think. Wallace, who joined the paper in '92, stepped into an evolution in progress and took it over; she spreads the gospel of brevity and design she learned at USA Today.

"It's all packaging," says a reporter. "She understands good stories and good writing, yet that's not exactly what we're about. Cant we do something sort of like this, but better? It's not the worst thing that's happened to us, but it Is not something reporters enjoy. There's an age group here that kind of resents it. The ones coming in don't seem to mind it so much."

The ones coming in anywhere, to anything, are always favored by the executives who summon them. They're the ones expected to carry out the latest strategy, which usually was concocted to undo the damage of earlier strategies carried out by earlier favorites. Some old hands like Feder think Britton is terrific, but there's a perception among others that he holds their willingness to work for Rupert Murdoch against them, that he underestimates them, just as he overestimates the depths to which the Sun-Times sank and the need to make amends. When Britton ordered universal sensitivity training because of one silly story about raccoons, then hired the trainer (did Ben Johnson report back that what this paper needs is me?), snickers disappeared up several sleeves.

We asked to talk with various Sun-Times managers such as McKeel and Britton about the Murdoch legacy. No one would, which suggests how alive it is. In the words of a spokesman, Murdoch is "old history." He is that, but he's also yesterday.

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