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First Thing We Do, Let's Kill All the Columnists

Could less star power and more depth save the Sun-Times?

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There's an old saying in the newspaper business, and if there isn't there should be: keep your reporters close to your market and your ad staff closer.

I was having a conversation the other day with someone I've turned to for years for smart analysis of the Sun-Times Media Group. He thinks this cluster of about five dozen regional titles made a big mistake a few years ago when it centralized its ad operations downtown. He believes the decision makers were simply too remote from the suburban Main Streets most of these titles serve. The change was later reversed; but if my source is right the papers paid a lasting price, and any price at all was more than they could afford. Ad sales are down everywhere this year, but the drop at the Sun-Times Media Group is far greater than industry averages—in local retail for the first six months of this year, it was roughly double.

Though the group's editorial operations haven't been centralized, something along those lines could be in the works. Prospective owner James Tyree is demanding Chicago Newspaper Guild concessions (pdf) (rejected by the union after the print deadline for this column) that would let the group establish some sort of "universal media desk," which could assign work to anyone anywhere, regardless of where the work originated or where the workers were nominally based, and regardless of lines of union jurisdiction. This might be a way of squeezing a little more efficiency from a staff stretched harrowingly thin, or, as commenters on my blog have suggested, of trimming a few Sun-Times copy editors and their union wages. But it's no substitute for what the media group really needs—more boots on the ground where the news is made.

And yet: "Our business plan is predicated on our becoming increasingly local local local," says interim CEO Jeremy Halbreich. "As we've converted some of our papers recently to a tabloid format we've increased the local content by 25 or 30 percent more than before the conversion."

Local, he says, is "where we see not just our papers but all metro newspapers. That represents a very difficult cultural shift for a lot of metro newspapers."

If the group's downtown flagship (where I worked in the 70s) has already put that shift behind it, that's about all the battered Sun-Times has going for it. But last week's bid for the media group by Tyree made it permissible to think of the Sun-Times as having a future, and I asked Halbreich what it might be.

"Today, on an average day, you get a pretty good sense of what's going on in the Chicago area," Halbreich said. "I don't feel that way when I pick up an average issue of the Tribune. It's a wonderful newspaper, but local local is clearly our strength."

Local local is the only kind of reporting today's Sun-Times can originate, but it's not really a strength—it's one of the more modest weaknesses. I leaf through the Tribune first each morning and read full-blown accounts of local stories that I'll often find postage-stamp-size versions of in the Sun-Times. Some days photography looks like the Sun-Times's hamburger helper, filling out a diminished news hole that can't be filled with local stories because there are too few reporters to write them. Each day the Sun-Times asks for my indulgence. It hopes I'll forgive it for everything that isn't there because I'm grateful for what is: some good investigative pieces, plus the musings of writers we're encouraged to think of as Chicago institutions—or as the Sun-Times likes to boast, it's got "columnists you've actually heard of."

"I think one of the great strengths of our paper is that we have managed to retain an incredible stable of very well known local writers who have large followings," said Halbreich. Not just columnists, either. Fran Spielman, for one, "is the finest reporter at City Hall. She's a celebrity reporter, in my mind—she's that good."

Journalists who don't get their pictures in the paper alongside their stories tend to both envy and suspect the ones who do, believing those pictures fatten their paychecks, win them better tables in restaurants, and turn them into commodities. I like to believe celebrity journalists would benefit if freed from the obligation to do a turn every day or two; the guy I was kicking around ideas about the media group with likes to believe the Sun-Times would benefit if it got out from under their often bloated salaries. His idea is for the paper to "go the way of becoming almost like an urban daily magazine on newsprint and de-emphasize the personalities. That's a mismatch. Give them the opportunity to become writers without their mugs in the paper, and if it doesn't work sweep them out." The Sun-Times, in his view, would do better "hiring a dozen to 18 outstanding writers and investigators who could write once a week or twice a month. That would add immeasurably more to the quality of the newspaper.

"The Sun-Times has to radically change. They could put together a pretty smart 48-to-52-page daily paper and get small space ads, a handful of big retail ads, and an audience that might go from 300,000 to 200,000—but there might be a market there."

Or there might not be. Thanks to Craigslist, the Sun-Times lost most of its classifieds. Thanks to RedEye, it lost most of its commuters. Neither is expected back. I'm a sucker for the idea that when nothing else works, try quality.

I can't get out of my head the notion touted by the American Press Institute's Newspaper Next project that newspapers need to become a "new kind of local information and connection utility." Utilities tend to be monopolies, which doesn't make that the most likely description of what we'll see Chicago's number-two daily become tomorrow. That's fine with me. My problem with the API's general prescription is that newspapers have been utilities all along. The last great die-off of American dailies eliminated the evening papers about half a century ago, and the notorious 20 percent profit margins the morning papers began ringing up were only possible because most of them were now the only dailies in town. As utilities do, they guarded their franchises, trying to remain everyone's good neighbor, friendly and unprovocative. I worry that in the process of getting back on their feet newspapers will now try so hard to become the local lovable, all-encompassing information provider that they'll totally forget they have another job to do—which is to speak truth to power, if necessary spitting in its eye.

I was attracted to an article in the September-October Columbia Journalism Review by the headline on the cover, "How Journalism Can Regain Its Relevance" (not available online). Journalism might have lost everything else, I thought, but not its relevance. The author, Brent Cunningham, who's CJR's managing editor, made me think again. He believes the press blundered down the primrose path during the fat years, embracing the easier job of "straightforward record keeping . . . tell us what our leaders say; tell us what happened today" and forsaking the harder.

The job it chose became entirely too easy, as the press was "catered to by a public-relations apparatus that permeates every public and private institution, emitting an endless stream of incremental developments and story frames and pegs that keep deadline-driven reporters busy, busy, busy." And, Cunningham continues, "This equation leaves far too little room for the press's other, more important role: investigator, explainer, and, I would add, arbiter of our national conversation—the roles, in other words, that will not be filled in any comprehensive way by the swelling ranks of amateur or part-time journalists."

About those deadlines Cunningham speaks of—reporters have always been driven by them. Before joining the Sun-Times, when I was a Saint Louis bureau reporter for UPI, we called what we did meeting "a deadline every minute," and I envied newspaper reporters whose deadlines came just once or twice a day, giving them time to actually think about what they were writing.

Today, thanks to the rapacious Internet, there's a deadline every second. Web sites no one ever visits delight in beating other equally obscure sites by trivial margins on breaking local stories of no significance, fuming when aggregators deny them credit. The demand for constantly new news far exceeds the capacity of Official Newsmakers, madmen, God, and even sports to provide it. Every incremental development is divided and subdivided and regurgitated, and this process doesn't make people informed—it makes them numb.

Agreed, the press needs a new business model. Equally, it needs what Cunningham calls "a new mission," which might be saving the news from itself. The mission of turning newspapers into Web-focused informational utilities is a possibility Cunningham doesn't reject because he doesn't consider it. Instead, he proposes this: "The nation needs someone to help initiate and lead the discussion of what kind of place America will be in the twenty-first century."

It's a lofty idea flattering journalism's self-regard, but not necessarily wrong for doing so. "Such a mission," Cunningham goes on, "would mean radically realigning a newspaper's resources and priorities toward the goal of broadening the discourse on important issues —even if it required narrowing the scope of what it covers. The press would have to pay less attention, for instance, to breaking, event-driven news and more to sustained coverage of ideas and—crucially—solutions."

How neatly this dovetails with the mess the Sun-Times finds itself in! It already pays less attention to breaking news—with its staff it has no choice. But what a boon it would be for writers like Michael Sneed and Richard Roeper if their new orders were to inquire and reflect instead of to fill a weekly quota of star turns. Cunningham's advice to the press is to embrace the new social media but assert itself as the leader of this "cultural conversation." He writes, "The marriage of all this connectivity with an activist mission of public-service journalism could cut through the layers of banality that clog not just the mainstream media but also the rest of our sprawling information environment."

The press needs a better survival strategy than trying to glom onto a bigger slice of that banality. Cunningham's directive to investigate, explain, and arbitrate captures pretty well, I think, the role Tribune's claiming for itself—though when the Tribune stands tall for Chicago I feel it sneaking peeks at itself in the mirror. Anyway, the Sun-Times needs to find a way of its own to turn less into more. At the moment, less is just less.

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