Paul Pham, Sun-Times Media's vice president for business operations, asked to meet with the Reader's general manager, Mary Jo Madden, last Friday afternoon to discuss the next budget. Madden spent most of Friday working on projections; but when she sat down with Pham at 4 PM the budget was no longer the agenda. Pham told Madden the company had decided to eliminate her position. Friday was Madden's last day, though she was allowed back into the Reader offices Saturday to collect her things.
Madden was the Reader's staff leading symbol of continuity and institutional cohesion. She joined the Reader as classifieds editor in 1977 and rose to operations director, her title but not her duties changing when Creative Loafing, while it owned the Reader, decided to rename her general manager. For years Madden oversaw the administrative needs of the paper, reporting directly to the publisher. As there was no publisher after the Reader was purchased by Sun-Times Media (outgoing Creative Loafing Inc. group publisher Alison Draper stayed on to manage the first several weeks of the transition but then went home to Dallas), Madden coordinated this paper's August move from the old Reader building at 11 E. Illinois to the Sun-Times Media suite at 350 N. Orleans.
Now she's gone. Pham notified the Reader staff of her departure in a maddening e-mail that began, "With mixed feelings, I'd like to announce that Mary Jo Madden will no longer be with the Chicago Reader." As he went on to hail Madden as a "great partner to me" who had earned "our respect and gratitude," I wondered what the upside of those "mixed feelings" could be. I'd have asked him, but Pham hasn't returned my phone calls.
Pham's e-mail was also disconcerting in its description of the reorganization of Madden's administrative duties. "As a result of Mary Jo's departure, we will reorganize and integrate some activities to better align with our overall business priorities," he wrote, blurring cause and effect. It was as if Madden had simply up and left, forcing Sun-Times Media to make adjustments on the fly.
Here were those adjustments:
The classified ad salespeople who had reported to Madden would now report to Gladys Arroyo, Sun-Times Media's regional vice president of central and west local markets.
The assistant operations manager, finance, who had reported to Madden would now report to Sally Roth, Sun-Times Media's senior director of client financial and billing services.
The assistant operations manager, sales, and the advertising coordinator, who had reported to Madden would now report to Kristin Hauge, Sun-Times Media's director of ad operations.
And the printing and distribution of the Reader, which Madden had overseen, would now be overseen by Dan Opat, Sun-Times Media's director of printing and distribution.
"All these changes will allow us to better align our resources and move forward growing our business," Pham wrote.
In short, Reader responsibilities that had been Madden's alone would now be shared by four Sun-Times Media executives. Administratively, the paper was being broken up and parceled out. Hopes held by the Reader staff when they moved in with Sun-Times Media, that they'd be allowed to continue to operate as a discrete entity, now seemed more distant. Yet the Reader turns a small profit and it would be hard to name another Sun-Times Media property that can make the same claim.
No thanks to Pham, but I now have some idea of the company's thinking behind Madden's dismissal. As Sun-Times Media saw it, Madden had a lot of "back office" responsibilities that overlapped with the assignments of the various Sun-Times Media executives. Those responsibilities had been bundled together in the first place only because the Reader was such a small operation; now that it was part of a much bigger corporation, turning those jobs over to people already doing them with the other Sun-Times Media properties would save money and improve efficiency. In a brutal business climate, expenses must be reduced wherever they can be.
At the invitation of editor Mara Shalhoup, Jim Kirk, chief of editorial operations at Sun-Times Media, met Monday with the Reader's editorial staff. I wasn't there, but I've heard from a couple of people who were. The company's not trying to move in on your paper, Kirk said. But by minimizing production and operations expenses, it'll be in a better position to bolster content. Is our editorial budget going to increase? he was then asked. Kirk didn't give a simple answer, but it sounded like "not now."