Hollinger Sells Out--Will the Sun-Times Cash in?/Conventional Reporting | Media | Chicago Reader

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Hollinger Sells Out--Will the Sun-Times Cash in?/Conventional Reporting

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This may be about more than the money. Hollinger International is selling off all but one of its major Canadian newspapers, and it could be the deal that finally punches Conrad Black's ticket into Britain's House of Lords.

Black is Hollinger's chairman, and his $3.5 billion surrender of Hollinger dailies in Ottawa, Vancouver, Montreal, Edmonton, Calgary, and numerous smaller cities, plus half the ownership of Black's pride and joy, the National Post, means two things: (1) A corporation that controlled the majority of Canada's daily papers but was cursed with debt and a stock going nowhere will be newspaper poor but awash in money and buy recommendations. (2) The grandiloquent voice of the corporation's right-wing founder and leader will be substantially muted in his native land.

No doubt the Calgary Herald, which Black is getting rid of, will still be visited by labor strife from time to time. But will any future proprietor react as Black did this year when the Herald was struck and Bishop Frederick Henry wrote an essay critical of Black's treatment of the workers? Black, a convert to Catholicism, called Henry a "useful idiot," and told the city's Catholics, "If your jumped-up little twerp of a bishop thinks I'm not a very good Catholic, I think he's a prime candidate for an exorcism."

Black is being blackballed from the House of Lords by Canada's prime minister, Jean Chretien, because the National Post has consistently excoriated the Liberal government and Chretien despises him. But last week the Globe and Mail, the National Post's arch rival, commented gallantly: "The Liberal government is said to be ecstatic at the prospect that Mr. Black's influence will wane at the Post and be replaced by one less hostile to its interests. This is the ideal time, then, for Jean Chretien to wax magnanimous and stop blocking Mr. Black's appointment....It's time to encourage British Conservative Leader William Hague to renominate Mr. Black and Prime Minister Tony Blair to advise the Queen to make Black a peer. Consider it a going-away present."

Hollinger is selling off 149 daily and weekly newspapers, 85 trade publications, and various Internet properties to CanWest Global Communications, in a deal described by one of those newspapers, the Vancouver Sun, as "the latest in a host of North American mergers and acquisitions aimed at converging information from print, radio and television into one dominant Internet-based platform."

That's a thumbnail description of the future of journalism, which is being invented on the fly. As Israel Asper, executive chairman of CanWest, told reporters, "We don't intend to be one of the corpses lying beside the information highway."

But Hollinger sold CanWest only a half interest in the National Post, and Black, though he lives in London, will remain that paper's chairman for the next five years. This suggests something--as does the fact that earlier this year Canada's Thomson chain put every paper it owned up for sale except the Globe and Mail. Though in the new age newspapers could wind up as at best the tails that wag the media-platform dogs, some proprietors will hang on to some newspapers for the prestige.

Perhaps the dailies are becoming like big-league sports franchises--vanities. There are newspapers that, like the New York Yankees, will spend whatever it takes to stand out. There are others that, like the Pittsburgh Pirates, will operate on the cheap.

Which brings me to Conrad Black's American voice, the Sun-Times. For another $215 million, Hollinger is also shedding almost everything it owns in this country too, mostly small-town daily and weekly papers such as the ones in the Illinois towns of Mount Vernon, Shelbyville, Effingham, McLeansboro, and Centralia. The exceptions are the Sun-Times and Hollinger's other newspapers in and around Chicago. When I asked editor in chief Michael Cooke (who four months ago was running the tabloid Vancouver Province, a paper Hollinger's now shucking) what he made of Black's sell-off, he said, "I'm glad we've got $3 billion to spend." Will any of it be spent in Chicago? I wondered. "I don't know," he said.

Publisher David Radler's position has been that no one will pay what the Sun-Times is worth. Radler is president of Hollinger International, which--at least until the other day--clung to the heartening view that newspapers are worth plenty, that TV, not the inimitable daily, has much to fear from the on-line services that mimic it. "No one can predict when the collective wisdom will cease to regard newspaper companies as an endangered species," Black advised restive stockholders in this year's annual report. "Neurotic concern about the future of even well-managed companies in this industry will subside eventually."

Black extolled the Daily Telegraph as unassailably "the United Kingdom's preeminent broadsheet newspaper," and the two-year-old National Post--despite the millions of dollars it had lost--as "the most successful newspaper launch in the English-speaking world in a great many years" and a demonstration that "properly conceived, targeted, and edited, a newspaper is no less vital and commercially viable than it ever was." As for the Sun-Times, Black reported that the "laborious building up of this newspaper and its companion titles in South Chicago, Gary and the Chicago suburbs should continue to show steadily improving results."

The Sun-Times staff is still waiting for Hollinger to put its money where its faith is. Reporters and copy editors feel as stretched as an E string, and the new printing plant on South Ashland is, according to someone who's toured it, "the cheapest thing they could have built." A couple of weeks ago Editor & Publisher broke the story that the Sun-Times was months behind schedule in its conversion to offset printing because the six new Goss Newsliner presses on Ashland were so unreliable Hollinger had stopped paying for them. One cynical newsroom reaction was that this was merely the company finding another way to cut corners.

It wasn't. Goss Graphic Systems is a 115-year-old company with a distinguished tradition of building rock-solid presses and supporting them with technicians as reliable as Seabees. But for 27 years Goss was controlled by Rockwell International, an aerospace firm, and when it regained its independence in a leveraged buyout in 1996 it was in financial tatters. Last year it filed for bankruptcy in order to reorganize. Someone who knows Goss well tells me it's been "gutted" by layoffs and is "clearly still cash starved." (Goss refuses to comment.)

An immediate victim of the Sun-Times's printing problems is the paper's long-awaited redesign, specifically its architect, Ron Reason. Reason came on in 1998 as the design consultant chosen by former editor Nigel Wade, was later named an assistant managing editor, and set out to revamp the paper spiritually as well as cosmetically. "A great deal of the focus of my day-to-day and long-term goals is to be as forward thinking and positive as possible," he told me last May. "The one thing I've learned is that a redesign is 10 percent fonts and 80 to 90 percent leadership in management."

But as he spoke, his paper's leadership was changing. It seemed surprising in May that Hollinger would replace Wade with Cooke and "vice president of editorial" John Cruickshank before the redesigned paper Wade had been overseeing was introduced. It's not surprising now. The new design was predicated on the up-and-running new presses to do it justice, and Hollinger knew there was no way Reason's design would debut in September, when it was supposed to, or for months thereafter. That being the case, Wade's successors deserved an opportunity to put their own stamp on the paper's exterior.

"My read on things is that the Goss troubles have put the redesign on indefinite hold," Reason E-mailed me the other day. "There certainly is no initiative to put a major new look into place until that situation is resolved. (Some people have mistaken some recent tweaking with headline typography and size with 'the redesign.' But that's more a reflection of the new editors' news judgment than anything. The prototypes I've worked on had created a substantially different look for the paper.)"

I wondered if Chicago will ever see that look.

"John and Michael have remarked favorably in the past on the redesign work I've done so far," Reason responded, "but I sense they are fleshing out a new philosophy in the daily paper. If a redesign is greenlighted again, they may want to take a different visual direction than what I left them with. I don't know."

A new editorial philosophy?

"That's possible," says Cooke.

It's more than possible, say reporters who think the Sun-Times has become both more ingenious and more superficial since Cooke and Cruickshank took over, specializing in celebrities and brightly conceived one-day investigations. "We felt it was more important at this stage to work on issues and content," says Cruickshank. "It's our belief that redesigns succeed or fail on the content, not on the look. The look should echo--more than echo, should really mesh with--the content."

Reason likes Chicago and intends to remain based here, and he has plenty of other work to keep him busy. "My redesign of the Orlando Sentinel launches Sept. 5," he E-mailed me, "my work for the Dallas Morning News is ongoing, and I have a few other irons in the fire, some with bigger papers than the Sun-Times, some smaller."

If the choice of a design consultant had been Cooke and Cruickshank's in the first place, perhaps they would have chosen differently. Reason's friend Lucie Lacava of Montreal has worked with several Hollinger papers, including the Vancouver Sun, which until recently Cruickshank edited, and she created from scratch the design of the new National Post. The Post's design is, by general consensus, easily the best thing about that newspaper.

"Lucie is a real master of the basic building blocks of newspaper design," Cruickshank told a Canadian magazine after she revamped the Sun. Says Cooke, a founding editor of the National Post, "As a designer, she walks on water."

Lacava applied to Wade for the Sun-Times commission and didn't get it. But when Cooke and Cruickshank took over, they were given to handing Reason tear sheets from the National Post and asking him to do something on the same order. Lacava's beyond reach now. She's across the street, on assignment for the Chicago Tribune.

Conventional Reporting

After each night of last week's Republican Convention, which I haphazardly followed on Channel 11 because no other station available to me bothered to carry it, the several pundits Jim Lehrer had corralled weighed in on how the GOP had done. Always, it seemed, the party had done splendidly, its speakers hitting their spots and reading their lines with passion and sincerity, accomplishing what the GOP wanted accomplished.

But how could these veteran political observers have said anything else? As we bask in the glow of oratory, nothing is more loathsome than a talking head who tells us only an idiot would take it seriously, and by now the talking-head guild understands this. Satisfying our appetite for toothless perspicacity, the pundits could be criticized on only one count--in going on about tones set and messages delivered, they pretended that the convention was having an immediate effect on the nation that it could have only if the nation were watching it.

Which of course the nation wasn't. Even George W. Bush's acceptance speech, carried by every major network, CNN, and MSNBC, was watched by fewer than one in ten Americans. Last Saturday the New York Times carried a page-one article, "Watching, Listening, Hoping for a President." It was a nicely reported potboiler that offered the reactions of various voters to what they saw of the Republicans on TV. However idiosyncratic some of these reactions were (and therefore outside the careful guesswork of the talking heads), all were atypical in that they were a direct response to the event itself. The Times's Adam Nagourney would shrewdly observe a day later, "As recent interviews with the voting public have made clear, it's not how many were watching but who: the opinions of those who do watch filter down to the public at large."

Instead of talking about the convention, those PBS mavens could more forthrightly have talked about themselves talking about the convention. For whatever they said was helping to launch the convection currents of conventional wisdom that in the end provide the vast majority of the American public with what it thinks about what went on in Philadelphia.

News Bite

Hollinger International, still on the move in Chicago, has announced a partnership with Paddock Publications and the Chicago Automobile Trade Association to create a new Web site for car hunters--DriveChicago.com. Chumminess between Hollinger and Paddock is always noteworthy, as Paddock publishes the Daily Herald, which Hollinger would love to add to the Sun-Times, Daily Southtown, and its other local properties. In small ways involving local sports coverage, Hollinger papers and the Daily Herald have already been cooperating.

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