To the editors:
On January 23 former Crain's Chicago Business senior editor Mark N. Hornung took over the post of editorial-pages editor at the Chicago Sun-Times. That gives Hornung ultimate control over the opinion content of the newspaper--including its Letters to the Editor, Personal View, and Saturday Forum sections, all of which had, until Hornung's arrival, anyway, been providing the public with what platforms they've had at the Sun-Times, however modest.
In the January 29 issue of the Reader ("Voice Transplant at the Sun-Times"), Hot Type columnist Michael Miner seemed to be wondering why Sam McKeel and Dennis Britton, the Sun-Times's publisher and executive editor, respectively, anointed Hornung. I can think of two reasons why they did it. And rest assured: neither of them has anything to do with Hornung's canard about believing "in most of the goals of postwar liberalism."
First, the Sun-Times is locked in a life-or-death struggle with the Chicago Tribune. Crain's Chicago Business reported on February 1 that the Sun-Times is desperately trying to expand its advertising base, particularly in its Sunday editions, which account for roughly 50 percent of the paper's total revenue, and which trail the Trib's Sunday circulation by as much as a 2-to-1 ratio. Worse, the Sun-Times has less than a 20 percent share of the market for Sunday ad revenue, again according to Crain's; it has only a 30 percent market share during the rest of the week. The Trib has a lock on virtually all of the rest.
Here, then, is the first reason behind the hiring of Mark Hornung: the Sun-Times is hoping to grab a greater share of the market for ads--all of Hornung's talk about the paper's politics being "populist, antielitist, [and] antibureaucratic" being but the bull of somebody eager to project the proper public image.
These comments lead directly to the second reason for the hiring of Mark Hornung: McKeel, Britton et alii must feel that Hornung is sufficiently popular with the regional business class to open the spigot on ad revenue, and to help cut into some of the Trib's business.
Of course at this point a rather troubling question raises its head: Will Hornung in fact be able to improve the Sun-Times's profile in the eyes of its potential sponsors?
Well, take a quick look at the six issues that Hornung told Miner he wanted to focus on: taxes, schools, public safety, race relations, economic development, and public health. Predictably, Hornung will on each of these issues advocate a position that is friendly to the special interests of the regional business class--and unfriendly to the great mass of people on whose behalf the Sun-Times had, until Hornung's arrival, anyway, been a coherent and consistent voice, especially when compared to the Trib. True, Hornung may dress up his service to the special interests in as cynical a fashion as he can find. That phony "populism" he told Miner about is a case in point. But the positions he advocates are constrained by the Sun-Times's business goals. Even if he wanted to (which I doubt very seriously he does), Hornung isn't about to cross real power.
People optimistic about the future of the Sun-Times under Mark Hornung ought to stop and consider Hornung's class biases as well as the institutional reality of the newspaper business. There is no doubt in my mind that the Sun-Times has just shifted rightward. And taken a turn for the worse.