Gone from the Sun-Times: Cheryl Reed

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The Sun-Times gets to dump another salary -- Cheryl Reed, the editorial page editor, has quit, and quite spectacularly.

A couple of weeks ago I heard that she'd turned in her resignation -- she couldn't have been a happy camper after layoffs cost her about half her staff. But she was talked out of it (by publisher Cyrus Freidheim himself), and  editor in chief Michael Cooke issued a memo telling the staff to ignore the rumors: "She's with us for the battle."

She's not. She quit again Friday, and today wrote her staff a memo that must have made Freidheim and Cooke wish they had just let her walk the first time. The memo:

"I am deeply troubled that the editorial board members were not allowed to address concerns raised about the Obama [February 1] and McCain [February 3] editorials, even though the endorsements were turned in more than two days before they were published. Instead, wholesale rewrites were done by people who aren't even on the board, including one person who is no longer employed by the paper. 

"I was not even told that a McCain rewrite had been commissioned nor was involved in the process. Yet, the former editorial board editor and another former board member were deemed appropriate for that task. Not only does this undermine my position but it devalues and patronizes the editorial board writers who wrote the original endorsements: an African-American, a Latino and two white women. (As you know, both endorsements were rewritten by white men.)

"The irony is that for the first time in history a woman and a black man are running for President, yet, at the Sun-Times our diversity is disregarded. This is absolutely antithetical to the vision and purpose of my hiring. It also severely damages the integrity of the board and makes a mockery of the editorial process. No other major newspaper that I know of condones editorials -- and certainly not endorsements -- to be written by anyone other than the editorial board members. There is a reason a curtain exists between editorial boards and the newsroom -- to preserve the ethics of the decisions made.

"These actions violate the agreements laid out last Monday that the editorial board would write the presidential endorsements. That is what Cyrus and Michael agreed to do if I stayed. I'm appalled that in a matter of days,  promises to value and support the editorial board were discarded. I know you are angry and demoralized, and I am embarrassed that I believed their assurances to be genuine.

"No matter how much Cyrus or Michael like the endorsements the end does not justify the means.

"I resigned on Friday. I believe today will be my last day. It's been a pleasure working with all of you."

Reed was right. Monday was her last day. She showed up, issued her memo, and was promptly told to go home. She's been replaced by columnist Tom McNamee.

Who wrote the editorials? The editorial board consisted of Reed and Kate Grossman, both white women; Deborah Douglas, who's black; Teresa Puente, a Latino, and Mike Danahey, a white man who's filling in temporarily on loan from the Sun-Times Media Group paper in Elgin. Who rewrote them? I'm not sure Reed actually knows. The former editorial board editor she cited could only be Steve Huntley, whom she replaced, and the former board member would be columnist Neil Steinberg. But I reached Steinberg and he said, "It wasn't me." I was also told by someone at the paper she was mistaken in her reference to someone "no longer employed by the paper."

A year ago Reed, then books editor, told Cooke and publisher John Cruickshank that if given the chance she wanted to blow up the editorial section. In July they told her to. "We are returning to our liberal, working-class roots," she said in a letter to readers, and though "liberal" was promptly amended to the safer "progressive," the Sun-Times continues to bill itself on the editorial page as the "progressive, independent conscience of the city." 

It's a wonderful role for a strong, vibrant daily without a care in the world other than setting the world straight. The layoffs throughout the Media Group have taken a palpable toll on its papers, though apparently they did what they were intended to do. On Monday Freidheim, who's the company's CEO, announced it had slashed costs by $50 million a year and was putting itself up for sale. Freidheim spoke of a "solid portfolio of publications and websites." The Sun-Times, however, looks like it's eight weeks into a hunger strike and has begun to hallucinate -- a regular new feature boasts the paper's been "on Chicago's side for 60 years" and wanders through time, reliving old campaigns.

UPDATE: Here's Cyrus Freidheim's staff memo responding to Cheryl Reed, as posted on Romenesko:

"Today, Cheryl Reed announced her resignation as Editorial Page Editor of the Chicago Sun-Times. We are sorry to see Cheryl leave us and we wish her well in her future endeavors.

"In light of concerns that Cheryl expressed to some of you (and, apparently, to others outside our company), we feel the need to set the record straight. The decisions by the Chicago Sun-Times editorial page to endorse Barack Obama and John McCain were made by the full editorial board. Parts of those endorsements were re-written by others. The effect of this editing was to strengthen the editorials, not to change the positions taken. No change was made to either editorial that changed the message of the endorsements. The changes made, in our judgment, deepened and strengthened the messages.

"In every newspaper in America (and elsewhere), the publisher and editor-in-chief have the responsibility to ensure that the editorial product that goes out in their names is of the highest quality and clarity. We will continue to be mindful of this responsibility.

"Unfortunately, Cheryl's assertions about agreements or representations made to her are just not accurate.

"Both Michael and I are deeply committed to diversity in the newsroom and elsewhere in our company. Our recent actions with respect to the reductions in force were driven in large measure by our desire to maintain a staff that represents all of Chicago."

 

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