Thursday, February 4, 2016
"You'll be here forever"
I've been to a lot of newspaper staff meetings over the past 29 years, but today's was extraordinary.
In the wake of Sun-Times' owner Michael Ferro purchasing the largest single share of the Chicago Tribune's parent company for $44.4 million, the Sun-Times' staff gathered in the lunchroom and met the new chairman of our board, Bruce Sagan, who explained what the purchase means for us.
"The people involved in the last Sun-Times purchase believe in two newspapers," he said. "There it is, a second voice."
He said heading the Tribune removes Ferro from managing our paper's affairs.
"We don't talk to him except to complain about the quality of printing," he said—the Tribune prints and delivers the Sun-Times.
Ferro will now have a major role in running the Tribune.
"You made a mistake," Sagan said. "You educated him. He came here a rich guy who didn't know anything about journalism. The rich dabbler got the message from you."
The Tribune is $400 million in debt, Sagan said. The Sun-Times has no debt.
"They took the deal because they needed the money," said Sagan, the longtime publisher of the Hyde Park Herald, who used the money he made there to invest in the Financial Times, the New York Times, where he started the Chicago News Cooperative, and the Sun-Times. "If you are going to bet on something, better bet on us. They're in disarray. He left us a growing institution."
He said that this development gives us a renewed sense of mission.
"We now have a focus," he said. "The other guy's still the enemy. Our job is to create the other voice in town. We want to remain a brand that people trust."
Someone asked about our web site. Sagan said it was terrible. Publisher Jim Kirk said it would be fixed soon. Someone asked about the Sun-Times' future.
"If I have my way you'll be here forever," Sagan said.
Maybe you had to live under the sword of Damocles for a decade, watching the thread fray, to really understand the impact of those words. While optimism is typically misplaced in the newspaper business, I found Sagan's appearance somewhere between encouraging and stunning, like the Officer in White showing up at the end of Lord of the Flies, representing civilization and order returned. I was sitting nearby, and when the meeting ended, I couldn't resist shaking his hand.
"Where the hell have they been hiding you?" I said.