"The hostility when we came was like a marine barrage."
—Charles Wilson, acting editor, Chicago Sun-Times, February 24, 1984
Chicago's First Death of Journalism
The newspapers of Chicago have contradicted Marx, who said history repeats itself as farce. What we have today is the tragedy. We lived the farce in 1984.
At first it felt like tragedy, like being invaded and conquered. Marshall Field's brother Teddy wanted his money out of the family business so he could make movies. (Teddy's first: Revenge of the Nerds.) So Marshall Field sold the Sun-Times to Rupert Murdoch. "The Sun-Times is virtually headless," I wrote on January 20. [Jim] Hoge, the publisher, and Ralph Otwell, the editor, said their farewells as tears were shed all around, and they were gone." Mike Royko crossed the street to the Tribune, and so did Lois Wille, head of the editorial page, and others. The managing editor, the city editor, the executive sports editor, and four-fifths of the editorial board quit. In all, the newsroom would lose 65 staffers.
Hot Type columnist Neil Tesser wrote on January 27: "There were plenty of fence sitters until this past weekend, when Murdoch unveiled his concept of the new Sunday Sun-Times, which decided the issue for many. . . . It's a guaranteed collector's item: the official death knell of a decent paper. On the front page, no less than seven headlines crowded for space, including a plug for a double-page spread titled 'Proud to be Polish.' On page three, next to a skinny New York Post-styled story ('Liz quits drug unit') was an instant classic: 'Rabbi hit in "sex-slavery" suit.' . . . "
Circulation plunged. The Sun-Times introduced its Wingo game on page 5. Circulation soared. Tesser wrote that the Sun-Times staff had found a new hero, rewrite man Lloyd Green. A staffer told Tesser, "Lloyd is looked on with respect, like a martyr. As long as he's writing the Wingo page it means that none of us will be asked to do it."
The Tribune countered by publishing winning Wingo numbers in its own pages.
At the end of the year I marveled at what the Sun-Times had become:
There is the literature it has chosen to reprint, installments of such important books as: How to Marry a Good Man, and Swept Away: Why Women Fear Their Own Sexuality, and The Superwoman Syndrome, Women Coming of Age, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star (about child stars in Hollywood), and just this week Invasion of Privacy: Notes From a Celebrity Journalist.
There are the headlines: the historic "Rabbi Hit in 'Sex-Slavery' Suit," of course, and others that are more typical for being incomprehensible, such as "THE BIG ONE" (the indictment of Judge LeFevour) and "WHAM! WHACK!" (the city budget).
And the editorials:
On the second presidential debate: "Reagan was poised, eloquent, philosophical, with an unmistakable presidential presence. Mondale was repetitive, whiny, with a forced grin, almost a study in comic relief."
So why wasn't this a tragedy? Because Charley Wilson, the pugnacious little editor Murdoch sent in from London to right the ship, woke up at a quarter to six one morning, heard on the telly that the Kremlin's top man had just died, and immediately ordered the first extra edition Chicago had seen in at least 25 years, showing everyone that, WTF, he knew how to put out a newspaper. Because almost no one got fired (the Washington bureau chief, who'd offended the publisher's fiancee at the Gridiron Club dinner, was an exception), and a couple of people who'd bolted asked for, and were given, their jobs back.
Then again, the Sun-Times never recovered from Murdoch. He held the paper only two years and sold it to his publisher (in a highly leveraged deal that left it permanently cash poor), but a lot of Chicagoans still identified the Sun-Times with Murdoch ten or 20 years later. So maybe it was a tragedy. Just nothing like the slow death we see today.