Among America's major newspapers, the Chicago Sun-Times enjoys an unusual reputation for not reporting news. For instance, President Bush's decision to transfer national intelligence director John Negroponte to the number-two job at the State Department was the top story in the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times on January 4. The Sun-Times ignored it.
But that was national--OK, international--news. The Sun-Times earns its bones on the home front. One big local story these days is its own precarious health, and the Sun-Times has gamely tried to keep up with it. Last month the parent Sun-Times Media Group announced that its board had canceled the quarterly dividend. The corporate announcement cited a "significant shortfall in operating performance and cash flow due to ongoing weakness in the Chicago advertising market." The Sun-Times reported this decision in an easily overlooked business-section news brief--but the paper reported it.
Another Media Group paper, the Daily Southtown, went the Sun-Times one better, reminding its readers that former CEO Gordon Paris had said earlier that the company was considering what the Southtown called a "complete overhaul" of the flagship Sun-Times "amid a continuing steep decline in advertising and circulation revenue." The Sun-Times took a small step in that direction just last weekend, dropping its TV magazine.
Given this dire backdrop, the Sun-Times surely welcomed the bountiful Macy's Christmas advertising budget. For a solid week in mid-December the paper carried a thick red Macy's promotional band across the bottom of page one. Inside on some days were full-page Macy's ads designed to resemble news coverage--of Macy's shopping opportunities. Only a tiny notice at the bottom of each page, "Niche Advertising Supplement," identified it as an ad.
Editor in chief Michael Cooke told me it was "regrettable" and "awful" that those ads weren't better labeled. "But the fact they weren't was not part of a plot," he said. Some readers think there was a plot, one that involved the Sun-Times laying off a big local story--Macy's.
Like the Sun-Times, Macy's limped into the holidays. Federated Department Stores got off to a terrible start in Chicago by announcing it would turn Marshall Field's on State Street into a Macy's--along with all the other stores it had just bought from May Department Stores. The change struck tradition-minded Field's patrons as stupid and offensive--imagine the Tribune Company renaming the Los Angeles Times the Los Angeles Tribune. The Tribune Company has made more than its share of mistakes, but none that dumb.
How bad a Christmas Macy's suffered on State Street isn't clear, as Federated hasn't broken out sales figures by store. But on December 12--just two days after the Sun-Times began sporting that vivid Macy's slash across the front page (to Cooke that's proof he's not ruled by the ad department)--the Sun-Times reported that analysts were estimating sales at the former Field's stores and other newly renamed Macy's stores had dropped 11 to 30 percent from 2005 figures. A day later, on December 13, the Tribune told a similar story. "We're trying to find the people that were customers and didn't come back," Frank Guzzetta, chairman of Federated's new Macy's North division, told the Tribune.
Soon after the Marshall Field's name came off, I began hearing from lost customers Guzzetta didn't have a prayer of retrieving. They'd spent the Christmas shopping season leafleting outside the State Street store, hoping to stir up a massive boycott. In the beginning spokesman Mike Moran focused on the Tribune, complaining that the paper "cheered on the Macy's opening" and gave short shrift to the estimated 100 or so protesters outside the store on opening day. "This was an example of journalism entering the twilight zone," Moran e-mailed me.
At least the Tribune printed the protesters' letters. The Sun-Times didn't, Moran reported, and so the focus of his wrath shifted. "If you read the Sun-Times," he e-mailed me on January 8, "you would not know that people were unhappy with the arrival of Macy's and you would not know that sales were down and you would think that the change of leadership at the State Street store had nothing to do with any problems." He was overstating his case: Sun-Times business stories on November 3 and December 1 as well as the one on December 12 said sales were lousy.
But Moran was far from totally wrong. At various turns the Sun-Times pulled its punches when covering Macy's--or never punched at all.
For example, this month Macy's announced that a new manager was taking over the State Street store--the "change of leadership" Moran spoke of. On January 3 the Tribune ran the story on page one, under the headline "Macy's learning it's what's in a name." The backdrop to the change, the Tribune told its readers, was a weak Christmas, an estranged public, and a critical Wall Street. It quoted a retail consultant who lives across the street from the State Street store observing that "you could shoot a cannon through there most of the time."
The Sun-Times story--back in the business section--read like a personality profile of the new manager, Linda Piepho. Readers learned that she'd gone to Evanston Township High School and studied education and communications in college and that her mother had worked part-time at Field's on State Street. "I walked in the store," Piepho told the Sun-Times, "and said, 'Oh, my God. How lucky am I to be coming home to run this facility.'"
This heartwarming tale didn't hint that Piepho was coming home to trouble. And whereas the Tribune wrote neutrally that the old store manager was taking the newly created post of "regional vice president of corporate communications"--a title with a kicked-upstairs ring to it--the Sun-Times called the move a promotion.
As 2006 ended, both papers listed the year's top local business stories. The Macy's deal was "done in 2005," reported the Tribune, which ranked the Macy's saga second, "but local angst intensified this year when Federated rebranded the stores.... The disappearance of the Field's name and flood of unfamiliar merchandise were so traumatic for some Chicagoans it prompted them to cut up their new credit cards and boycott stores."
Sun-Times business editor Dan Miller topped his list with the Macy's story, which in his telling was all about Federated's "strategy to infuse new life into its recently acquired Marshall Field & Co. by spiffing up its infrastructure, reorganizing its merchandise and changing its name." Miller said Federated CEO Terry Lundgren "is determined not only to rejuvenate Field's (as Macy's) to its former splendor, but to demonstrate that the department store concept itself will play a central role in America's retail business." Macy's own PR department couldn't have given the transition a cheerier spin.
"Holiday sales fail to dazzle" said the headline to a retail wrap-up in the January 5 Tribune. "Holiday sales fail to heat up" was the headline to an AP story the same day in the Sun-Times. Both noted that Federated didn't release sales figures for the 400-plus stores (Field's included) that became Macy's stores in September. But the Tribune story was easily the tougher of the two, quoting a bond analyst slamming Federated for its "soft shoe" and calling its sales results an "enigma wrapped in a mystery."
Last week Jim McKay, who runs the pro-boycott Web site fieldsfanschicago.org, forwarded me copies of about a dozen letters to the Sun-Times that had been written in the previous few days. They assailed Miller's story and hammered the Sun-Times for what one letter (by Moran) called "slanted coverage."
A Mount Prospect woman threw Miller's words back at the Sun-Times, writing, "Federated knows nothing about Marshall Field's 'former splendor' or they'd know for one thing, they can't come into Chicago and shove something New York down our throats."
Michelle Stevens, who edits the letters page at the Sun-Times, told me on December 21 she wasn't publishing letters from Macy's boycotters because she hadn't gotten any. Perhaps more to the surprise than the delight of the protesters, she picked a letter out of the latest batch and published most of it in last Sunday's paper. Sharon Kalinoski of Romeoville called the Field's takeover and name change "quite possibly the biggest business blunder in the history of Chicago." It was one of the more temperate letters.
Cooke told me he gave no one instructions not to print critical letters. "Any suggestion that there's a mixture of church and state is nonsense," he said hotly. "If they're making the suggestion we shut up and voluntarily or otherwise gagged ourselves for the advertising, that's simply wrong. [Publisher John] Cruickshank would not accept that for a second. He would never pass [such instructions] on to me."
He continued, "The problem with the people with the placards is they're not getting enough attention, and they're pissed. I don't know where they come from. I don't know who they are. But 20 people with placards do not make a movement, do they?"
No, but they can make a point.
For more, see Michael Miner's blog at chicagoreader.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Murphy.