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Exit Interview

John Ambrosia on why he quit Pioneer Press and the Sun-Times Media Group

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"Why did I choose to leave?" says John Ambrosia. "I believe very deeply that ethics matter and truth matters, and I don't know if those things were always as honored as they should have been."

Ambrosia was editor in chief of the Pioneer Press chain of community papers from March 2005 through last October, and he had a rough ride there. He sees himself as something of a fall guy, and he's angry.

"Truthiness," he says. "There's a lot of that around the company. 'I don't care what the facts show. I don't care what the numbers show.' A lot of these folks would be at home in the Bush White House. I got tired of dealing with that. There were some elements of leadership in the company--if somebody came along and said they had magic beans to sell, they were buying."

The company is the Sun-Times Media Group, the collection of local daily and weekly newspapers that is what remains of Conrad Black's Hollinger empire. The Sun-Times is the floundering flagship, Pioneer Press the stricken cash cow. Circulation was already declining when publisher Larry Green brought in Ambrosia as editor, and despite Ambrosia's changes, it only dropped faster. A year ago Ambrosia took on some added publishing duties when Green was moved downtown into strategic planning for the media group. Nine months later media group COO John Cruickshank sent Green back to his old job, and Ambrosia decided it was time to quit.

It wasn't personal, he insists. He simply knew what was coming and didn't want to be part of it. Green had instructions to undo damage, but the only change Ambrosia believed would make a difference wasn't going to happen: spending more money on the product. "It doesn't do any good to rub dirt on a cut if penicillin's available and you don't want to pay for the penicillin," Ambrosia says. "It's been four months now, and I don't see any new investment in the newsroom."

Despite Cruickshank's attempts at strategic planning, says Ambrosia, in the troubled Sun-Times Media Group expediency ruled. He says he made layoffs at Pioneer Press that he later decided were ordered simply because they were a quick way of cutting overhead. Corporate thinking, he says, worked like this: "Let's do something for this quarter, for this week, and we'll sort it out later."

He wanted his bosses to deal in truth, to admit, "We cut staff, we cut expenditures in circulation and marketing, and because of that we're hurting. Our circulation is down. Our presence in the community is down. Our advertising is down." Instead, he says, they sent this message: "We know you have half or two-thirds of the staff you had 25 years ago, but we expect you to put the same product out." Even if you call bone fat it's still bone.

When I mentioned Ambrosia's resignation in Hot Type in December, I called him "extremely well liked" (drawing a contrast with Green) and quickly got e-mail telling me to dial it down. Someone obviously familiar with the company sent me anonymous e-mails tearing into Ambrosia for shifting Pioneer from a local to a "generic regional focus." This writer linked me to a commentary that Dan Haley, editor and publisher of Oak Park's Wednesday Journal, wrote last September about Pioneer's competing Oak Leaves.

"Something has happened to that newspaper in recent months. Something bad," Haley wrote. "Do you still subscribe? Do you read it? It is not a local newspaper anymore. Sure there are a few pages of local news upfront. But the rest of the 100 pages is filled with generic copy. . . . Business news out of Barrington. Education puffery out of Evanston. . . . The editorial page now carries opinions from the Sun-Times Media Group. Not a local opinion to be found." Haley said Cruickshank "had no choice but to deeply cut costs. But in the process he has overseen the gutting of what was once a decent chain, a very profitable chain of suburban weeklies."

That's the competition talking. When Green returned he polled 150 former readers who'd canceled their subscriptions in the first nine months of 2006. About 70 percent complained either that their Pioneer paper carried too little local news or that they didn't have enough time to read it--a polite way of saying that reading it didn't reward the time it took.

Ambrosia says Pioneer's first duty on his watch remained the age-old one of publishing each town's paper of record--one town, one paper had long been Pioneer's watchword. But he wanted those papers to widen their horizons. He believes that "to ignore the fact there's a symbiosis among suburbs is to ignore an important aspect of suburban life."

Some Pioneer reporters and editors welcomed this thinking. Others thought it was obtuse, believing that Pioneer readers wanted nothing more than hometown news--anything loftier was cod liver oil. In the late 90s the Doings chain of weekly papers in western Cook and Du Page counties had been folded into Pioneer, and when Pioneer offered buyouts a year ago the publisher and editor of those seven Doings papers--James Slonoff and Pamela Lannom, with 43 years of experience between them--both walked. To get their money they had to promise to bite their tongues. "The only thing I have to be careful of is not disparaging the former great, wonderful company I worked for," says Slonoff. To their amazement, they weren't asked to sign noncompete, no-raid agreements. So they hired away four Doings staffers and launched the weekly Hinsdalean. Its business cards say, "One Town. One Paper."

"Community newspapering isn't dead yet," says Slonoff. "Hinsdale's a town like other towns all across Chicago--a small town--and as much as they're all connected to the world, they want to know what's happening only in their town. People in this community are very receptive to having a newspaper just about themselves." After 17 issues he claims to be breaking even.

But Ambrosia says the big problem wasn't too little local coverage. It was too few staff. "If you isolate the papers that had the most cuts in staff, they had the greatest circulation drops," he says, offering to share his data with any Sun-Times Media Group shareholder who wants it. "If they think it's just a matter of moving a few stories around and that'll solve the problem, any of these folks can feel free to contact me."

Green admits that when Ambrosia came on "I promised him more staff than he ended up with. That's something I couldn't deliver on." Something else Ambrosia had too little of was autonomy, and before Green agreed to go back out to Glenview he got Cruickshank to give him a lot more than Ambrosia had.

Ambrosia says that under the vertical corporate structure Cruickshank introduced he had no real authority as publisher over anything but editorial--Pioneer's heads of marketing, advertising, and circulation reported to downtown, not him. Even some editorial content was dictated by downtown--such as the weekly editorial and frothy features like "Faith in Our Towns," a series of profiles of churches. The problem, says Ambrosia, was that he didn't have nearly enough staff to write 64 new profiles every week, one for each paper. "So we'd do three to six, and by nature they would have to be regional." Methodists got to read about a Presbyterian congregation three suburbs over.

Green has dumped the locally written editorials. He's dumped "Faith in Our Towns" and other Chicago-ordered features. He's told Ambrosia's successor, Jeff Wisser, to junk Ambrosia's regional strategy and flaunt local content. think local posters have gone up in Pioneer Press newsrooms. "Green, it seems, wants to move the focus back to where it once was," my anonymous correspondent observes. "But he refuses to add staff, so there's not much chance of any real change."

"A lot of people tried to talk me out of resigning," says Ambrosia. "When they were people in a position to move money in the budget I said I'll stay if you put half a million dollars back in the editorial budget--essentially what was chopped out in the last six or seven years, a significant portion of that in the last two years. I was told the money was simply not there."

He goes on, "I had to lay some people off last year, and it was the worst thing I ever had to do. . . . Somebody high up in the company told me the problem with Pioneer wasn't that we cut back but that the editors were lazy, and so forth, and nothing could be further from the truth. But that was a David Radler attitude."

Six years ago when Radler was running what's now the Sun-Times Media Group, Ambrosia was his vice president of niche publications, a marketing position. He says he quit because he couldn't stand Radler. But other execs who didn't like him stayed on. "Don't forget that a lot of the people who are in positions of authority right now were brought in or promoted by David Radler," Ambrosia says. "And David had what I felt was a very obnoxious management style. I don't care if he's state's evidence now--I saw a lot of it up close, and frankly it disgusted me." Radler's cooperating with the prosecution in Black's corruption trial, which starts in March. "When he left I had this assumption that with this ever present dark weight no longer hanging over them, people would not revert back to the way they managed when he was there. I don't think that happened. David's policy was to set manager against manager, having you quaking in your boots over your numbers, and frankly put your staff at the bottom of your priorities. If you internalized those ideas you actually begin to believe those are the priorities of the company."

"If that's aimed at me," says Green, a Radler survivor, "it sounds very unfair."

For more, see Michael Miner's blog at chicagoreader.com.

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