Her column, that is. The Sun-Times didn't want the personal finance column she'd been writing for the paper for the past 25 years, for $50 a column in the early days but eventually for a comfortable living wage. Savage says Michael Ferro, chairman of the investment group that owns Sun-Times Media, said to her a while back when they ran into each other socially, "You're a very expensive woman."
Savage's column hasn't appeared in the Sun-Times in about a month now, and on Tuesday Crain's Chicago Business took note.
An ad from Fifth Third Bank that for the past few years had run close to her column and, in effect, underwrote it, was discontinued, Crain's reported, and that was the kiss of death. Savage says she volunteered to help find a new sponsor. "I said, 'Tell me who in the sales department I'm supposed to deal with. I will do whatever I can to help you sell advertising. I asked for a week. Ultimately, [editor in chief] Jim Kirk said to me, 'Don't bother. You're not going to get anywhere anyway.'"
Says Kirk, "She writes a great personal finance column, and I think in a different era when papers could be all things to all people and people didn't have access to personal finance information anywhere else, that kind of information was great to have in the paper." But in this era it's easy to come by online. "If someone, theoretically, is looking for personal finance on the web," Kirk went on, "will they come to the Chicago Sun-Times first? Are they going to come to the Chicago Tribune first? I don't think so."
So why pay to offer it?
The Sun-Times was Savage's base, the paper she was identified with when she appeared on television and the website that—until the other day, when she moved it—housed her website. But her column also ran in other, smaller papers, and she'll go on writing it for distribution by Creators Syndicate. In theory, the Sun-Times could pick up her column from the syndicate and run it again, this time for a relative song. But Kirk doesn't seem interested in that, and Savage recoiled from the thought. Or the syndicate could now offer her to the Tribune. It's a sign of how remote Savage has felt from the rough and tumble of syndication that she hadn't considered that possibility until I mentioned it to her. Creators Syndicate played no part in her recent conversations with the Sun-Times, and no one there knew she'd been dropped until I told them.
Rick Newcombe, the son of a former Sun-Times exec, is the founder and CEO of Creators, but his son Jack runs it day-to-day.
"The reason my son has taken over as president," Rick Newcombe tells me, is that his whole background is digital. "We're focused on all kinds of new business opportunities. I want to talk to Terry about doing e-books of her columns and audio books. It's just so easy, and there are so many opportunities with digital. If we stay frozen in our mindset with print all of us will go under."
He sounded like Michael Ferro when he said that. So it seemed odd that Newcombe, who admits to being a 20th-century mind treading water in the 21st century, was the one thinking out loud about finding new ways to monetize Savage digitally.
The Crain's article also mentioned that another veteran Sun-Times columnist, Neil Steinberg, has been cut back from four to one day a week. Crain's suggests that this had something to do with a recent Steinberg column on acquiring a Bentley from a "friend" who runs a timeshare operation in luxury cars so he could arrive in style at a party in Palatine. Kirk objected to the story as a shameless commercial plug.
I wasn't bothered. I find it easy to forgive a story that tells you something interesting you didn't already know, and I had no idea there were operations that timeshared Bentleys. But what's important here is that sensible editors like Kirk who think a writer went over the line normally handle the situation by saying so. It's something that happens—that probably has happened to every columnist trying to pump out four columns a week.
"One thing missing in the paper is really strong reads about very interesting things and people in Chicago," says Kirk. "He's a master at that when headed in the right direction. But did we need a column from him four days a week? I didn't think we did. I told him to write a column one day a week, and then write big takeouts [long features]—maybe labeled, to make them a destination."
This may be a vision that Steinberg has not bought into wholeheartedly. In an exchange of e-mails Wednesday, we cordially discussed other matters, but he didn't want to say anything about Kirk and his column. One e-mail explained, "No hard feelings Mike, but I don't trust you here. You can quote me on that—I did not decline to talk about this, I said, quote, 'I don't trust you enough to talk to you.'"