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Gather News and Bust the Union

Some lively suggestions for the Sun-Times Media Group from a lively former employee

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A couple weeks ago I reported on a chat I'd had with a savvy observer of the Sun-Times Media Group who wanted to remain nameless. His advice to the Sun-Times included this: "Go the way of becoming almost like an urban daily magazine on newsprint and de-emphasize the personalities. . . . Give them the opportunity to become writers without their mugs in the paper, and if it doesn't work sweep them out." For the money they made, he believed, the destitute Sun-Times 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."

It was just a thought, and it wasn't mine, though I certainly didn't ridicule the idea and the headline over my column, "First Thing We Do, Let's Kill All the Columnists," might have been construed as an endorsement. At any rate, the notion didn't sit well with blogger Mike Doyle at Chicago Carless, who wrote on his own site that I'd "committed a despicable act unworthy of a journalist" and on his Chicago Now site that I'd lost him with my "admission that he reads the print versions of both of Chicago's leading newspapers every day." For not reading them online, I revealed myself as too retro for Doyle to take seriously.

I guess I won't astonish Doyle by admitting I don't read him online either. Fortunately—because constructive criticism turns us all into better people—I caught up with his critique after getting a heads-up from my new pen pal, Jim Lynch. "Did you see that piece—can't remember where, but very recent where that guy took you apart for your last blog re/columnists etc?" Lynch e-mailed me.

Lynch has been e-mailing me a lot lately. Like my anonymous savant and lots of commenters on my blog, he has plenty to say about the Sun-Times Media Group, which is bankrupt and on the brink of oblivion but might be saved if its unionized employees—Newspaper Guild members in particular—agree to tear up their contracts and accept the draconian terms of financier James Tyree. If they don't, says Tyree, his investment group's $25 million bid for the STMG's newspapers and other assets will be taken off the table.

Lynch brings pretty impressive insider credentials to the task of weighing in on the STMG, and better yet, he's willing to say some of what he thinks for the record. At the moment he's living in Florida and out of work, but from February 2006 to June 2008 he was editor and publisher of the STMG's Naperville Sun, a tabloid published six days a week, and seven weekly Suns in nearby towns that he dismisses as "basically shoppers." Lynch's background is in down-market tabloids—as a senior editor not just at the New York Daily News but also at Rupert Murdoch's New York Post, and not just at the Post but also at supermarket titles such as the Star, Globe, and National Examiner.

When he arrived, Lynch tells me, the Naperville Sun "would lead the paper on stories like '400th Book Taken Out of Library Sets Record.'" This soon changed. An editor in a suburban STMG bureau tells me Lynch had "quite an impact" in Naperville, where he bought a house, and recalls in particular a front-page headline over the Naperville Sun's coverage of a massive proimmigration rally in downtown Chicago: "The Day the Lawns Weren't Mowed."

"He was trying to shoot some life into the Sun," said the editor. "It's a very interesting community, but not one to have a publisher like that." Actually, says Lynch, the Naperville Sun was gaining readers when nobody else in the media group was. But this performance wouldn't save him. STMG decided to centralize operations of its Fox Valley Publications subsidiary in Aurora, which, Lynch tells me, made his salary expendable. So he was out. (He says he lost so much money on his home in Naperville when he sold it that he basically worked there two years for nothing.)

I won't repeat in any detail the STMG war stories Lynch has been entertaining me with. They're partisan and subjective, and if Tyree heard them he might run for the hills. But as a Sun-Times alum happy to pass along any ideas that could possibly save my old paper and the rest of the media group, I will share the following e-mail from Lynch:

"What I'd tell Tyree:

"(a) He has to bust the unions—there's no way around it. It's just today's reality.

"(b) Why listen to the ideas of the same guys who were the architects of prior failed restructurings? These guys have been 'backing into profits' i.e. cost-cutting for better #s. I don't think they know another way to do it. Plus universal desks never work. Just ask Gannett and a lot of other places, though they'll never admit it.

"(c) Restore some sense of real newsgathering to the suburban pubs and make them stop leading with street fairs, weather stories and other nonsense. Give them hard news. There's plenty—no matter where you are. They've talked for ages about converting to tabs—so now they can really cross-sell—but give them some decent content. Forget about the journo prizes and focus on circ. I turned those #s around with a lot of hard work and giving people stuff they needed and wanted to read. It wasn't brain surgery. And if you play it straight—like I always did (and believe me I know how to play the other way, too, but never did)—you'll gain at least the respect of the community insiders. I think I did. But you have to talk and engage them—you just can't disembowel a whole operation and stick it in Aurora. For example, just the word 'Aurora' is anathema to Naperville people. They know what's going on, i.e. no hometown paper anymore.

"(d) I'd also tell him to reevaluate that delivery deal w/the Trib that Surkamer engineered. I had endless meetings with those guys—armed with all kinds of data etc. etc. never got a straight answer from any of them and it was clear they were mining our circ area for their own benefit, i.e. going after our non-subscribers.

"(e) Don't be so quick to rush into the latest web fad—there are, believe it or not, tons of people in the burbs who like print. You can't tell that to Lebolt—all talk—and as i write this he's probably dreaming up how to beam news directly into people's eyeballs.

"Just kidding."

As for all those Sun-Times columnists my first insider questioned, Lynch says this: "I could never understand why they had so many of them. Some fine—but take Roeper, a movie guy and all of a sudden he's writing about everything under the sun. Why? Who cares what he thinks re/politics or whatever. Steinberg: Constantly writing about himself, his family—what his last visit to Navy Pier was like etc. and his joke of the day etc. I mean, does anybody really care?"

My first footnote: The "same guys" are the media group's present managers—among them interim CEO Jeremy Halbreich and COO Rick Surkamer—who took an ax to expenses to keep the media group afloat while they looked for a buyer, taking such extreme measures as to turn distribution of their papers over to the Tribune. Now they're telling the unions on behalf of Tyree that to save the papers they must give him license to ax some more. Another important manager is Fred Lebolt, the Aurora-based president and publisher of Fox Valley Publications and STMG's vice president for "new media integration."

Fox Valley consists of dailies in Naperville, Aurora, Elgin, and Joliet, a dozen weeklies, and various Web sites—all overseen by a "universal media desk" in Aurora. "Though the mantra is local, local, local, a team in Aurora micromanages all the papers" is how a reporter at one of them describes the situation. And to the consternation of the Newspaper Guild, which has jurisdiction over some STMG papers but not others, Tyree has made it known that he wants to extend the concept of a universal desk to the entire group.

My second footnote: Roeper was writing about everything under the sun before he became a movie guy. And Neil Steinberg is my wife's favorite columnist, and I like him too.

Lynch tells me he hung "The Day the Lawns Weren't Mowed" headline on a local landscaper who gave his Mexican workers the day off with pay so they could go to the rally in Chicago. Yes, he says, the headline was "too subtle" and was in fact a desperate attempt to tie a local angle to a story that had nothing to do with Naperville. At the next day's news meeting, he says, "they crucified me." But live and learn. Fact is, he says, he shortened the stories in the Sun but insisted they cover real Naperville news, and as a result circulation stopped shrinking and actually grew a little.

But who cared? For most of the time he ran the Sun, says Lynch, he "could have printed the paper in Chinese on any given day without Orleans"—that would be STMG headquarters on North Orleans—"noticing it." He assumed that once he left, the Sun "would revert right back to the irrelevant and boring publication it was when I arrived"—and he thinks it did.

So his question to Tyree (and mine too) is this: do you understand that before you can take more money out of the suburban papers you need to put more money into them? Putting out a newspaper people actually want to read, Lynch says, "is labor intensive and requires people and real coverage. You can talk universal desks all you want . . . but you're not going to deliver the real local compelling comment people want. Just by the lack of people and resources you'll be left with superficial coverage—i.e. a throwaway paper. And why do that to the very pubs that keep the ST afloat?"   

For more coverage of the Sun-Times Media Group saga, see our blog.

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