Matt Storin's Story: Nine Months Running the Sun-Times
When Matt Storin looks back on his nine months as editor of the Sun-Times, he thinks of what might have come with enough time and enough money--neither of which he had.
"I refuse to believe there wasn't a way to enjoy a limited amount of success," Storin told us the other day. "After all," he went on, now speaking hypothetically, "if the Gannett chain had walked into Chicago and plunked 145 million dollars cash down on the table in 1986, and if Rupert was willing to sell to them, I think they'd have been pretty satisfied with the money they made the first year.
"The problem was," said Storin, "it was a leveraged buyout." Publisher Robert Page bought the Sun-Times from Rupert Murdoch two years ago with $145 million that wasn't his. Obliged to repay this strapping debt from revenues, Page decided to move the Sun-Times up scale. "I have only one request," Storin says Page told him when he hired him as editor. "Make it a great paper." The Sun-Times had been far from it under Murdoch.
Page "was chastened by the Murdoch experience," Storin explained. "He thought a lot of baggage was attached to that name, and he overestimated his ability to cast off that baggage. He himself had been the personal symbol of Murdoch when Murdoch owned the paper and he continued to be personally out front when he owned it. It was hard for some people to make the distinction.
"I don't think that was the major problem, but it was a factor," Storin said. "I'm sure we made some mistakes, but the problem is that in nine months it's impossible to turn a paper all the way around. But the pressures of the banks on the ownership of the Sun-Times didn't allow for a longer period of experimentation. They felt they had to go to quick-hit solutions."
That's when Storin quit. Since then, the Sun-Times has wandered an erratic path, sinking to the depths of publishing John Wayne Gacy's "love letters," rising to the heights of last week's series on preschool learning in Chicago. It has wooed readers by means as worn out as the Great Match-Up contest and as clever as the wraparound Monday sports section. It remains an indispensable Chicago paper. Circulation has picked up some.
"I will say that whatever differences I had with Bob, I had a minimum of editorial interference from him," Storin said. "Which may be why he exerted no particular efforts to get me to stay. Since then, I gather he's exerted much more influence" in the newsroom.
Storin spent most of his career with the Boston Globe, rising to managing editor before he resigned in 1986. He edited the Sun-Times from September 1986 to June 1987, when Page unreluctantly accepted his resignation. Jobless for several months, Storin heard that Maine Times, a weekly, was looking for an editor, applied, and got the job. He and his family have been there six months. He tells us he likes it. The pace is slower, the journalism purer, and he's back in New England, where his roots are.
"You know, in a way I was certainly an outsider in Chicago, and so I can look at the midwest and tell you there are great things about the midwest and not-so-great things about the midwest," Storin reflected. "To me, a lot of what's best about the midwest is embodied in Chicago: a relative level of civility, streets clean, people friendly, great civic pride. And yet there is diversity. And to me there was this great vitality in the city. You get in the suburbs and that's where the negative image of the midwest is really personified: closed, self-satisfied homogeneity. That's awfully unattractive when you try to cover it."
The Tribune is planting its future in suburbia, Storin observed, and he says the Tribune can have it. "Chicago is terribly viable, too," he said, "and I was sure with good management, and finding a way--it's not as if you can press one button and come up with a magic solution--that Chicago would support a second paper with some dignity and class and it always would be a second paper."
Maine Times, which Storin just put through a face-lifting, is an elegant-looking tabloid with a statewide paid circulation of about 20,000 (about a 30th of the Sun-Times's) and a staff of six writers. "There's nothing like us in Maine," Storin said. "We fill a niche as the conscience of the environmental movement and as a political forum." He wants the Times to be the paper "that anyone who has a notion to participate in public affairs in Maine--and they do have, because of the town meeting form of government--would feel they have to read because we're on the cutting edge."
He said he doesn't expect to return to daily journalism. "I'm falling in love with my way of life," he told us. "We've got a nice contemporary house on the [Kennebec] river. We have gardens. We're going to get a boat. I know I won't move our family anytime soon."
We wondered if Storin feels he left any sort of imprint on the Sun-Times. "Although there are some specific things that exist in the paper, like the way graphics are used on page one, and some of the types of stories they still choose to go after, I don't think in all honesty I probably left much," he replied. "I think I'm reasonably well thought of, but I don't think I'll go down as a giant in Sun-Times history.
"If I left anything it was a notion of what the paper perhaps could have become."
"A lot of artists feel at home on the miniature golf course," explains Mike O'Brien, who is one of them. "The artist's life is about making some object or picture that's an illusion, an alternate reality. And you have 18 alternate realities on a miniature golf course."
O'Brien, a sculptor, cooked up "Par Excellence!" the 18-hole course that opens next Saturday, July 16, at the School of the Art Institute's Gallery 2, on West Huron. Every hole was designed by an artist, six of them by members of an "organizing committee" O'Brien rounded up, the others by artists picked in a competition.
"Par Excellence!" can actually be played (for two bucks a round). "That was one of the things that I was looking for," says O'Brien. "There was some discussion of conceptual holes, unplayable holes--but I won people over to my side."
The creative process always makes a fascinating tale. We asked Daina Shobrys, the designer of the first hole, how she did it. "I looked at as many pictures of miniature golf places as I could for starters," she said. Pictures? "There actually exists this wonderful book on miniature golf courses with an Astroturf cover on it [Miniature Golf, by John Margolies, Abbeville Press]. Like it was reviewed in the paper or something. Total coincidence. And I sort of thought about the connections."
The successful golfer advances unswervingly toward a precise goal. So does the successful artist. Seizing the parallel, Shobrys placed her hole inside a photograph of the Art Institute. It is guarded by a bronze lion whose left front paw goes up and down--the lion's function, we gather, is to stand for institutional thinking. "The perception among artists," Shobrys explained, "is that they're always underappreciated, and the powers that be haven't realized what they're missing."
Shobrys acknowledges this point of view, however, only to trifle with it. "There are a lot of people who like conspiracy theories of how the world works," she went on. "And when you listen to these people you realize it's their own perception of how things work that are bollixing them up."
Shobrys's hole is your basic carom shot. To navigate it successfully, golfers must aim carefully at a reflection of the target, while steeling themselves against a mirror that looms alongside the tee and displays the golfers to themselves in all their pensive, egoistic glory.
"You see yourself, instead of where you want to go," we said, pretty sure we'd caught on. "Always a danger!"
"Yes, indeed," said Shobrys. "You can generalize on that one."
Thus hole one, christened by Shobrys Portrait of the Artist, turns out to be not a pedestrian par three but a bracing exploration of the uneasy interface between the reflective and ambitious selves.
"The simpler it is the better chance I have of understanding what I'm doing," Shobrys offered. "The simpler it is the better chance I have of other people understanding what I'm doing."
Now she asked a favor. "Can you write this about Art Parts, as opposed to about Daina Shobrys?" she wondered. "The stances Art Parts takes aren't necessarily what Daina Shobrys thinks."
Art Parts is Daina Shobrys and only Daina Shobrys. But Daina Shobrys is not only Art Parts. There is the other Daina Shobrys who visits her son's preschool teacher and is solid as a rock. Art Parts, meanwhile, is consistently wacky.
Consider the "Office of Aesthetic Appeals" that Art Parts opened in a Monadnock Building storefront a few years ago. The office was not manned, but the window displayed the Chicago Aesthetic Code and an extremely official-looking Style Permit designed for posting at job sites. A large, grim placard read: "DO YOU NEED A PERMIT?"
Some confusion apparently reigned as to whether the Office of Aesthetic Appeals was an actual arm of the Chicago Building Department created to police the city's booming construction industry for lapses of taste. The Building Department complained to the building manager, and Art Parts was sent packing.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Christopher Ayres.