Tuesday, May 16, 2017

On the block


     Hmmm...this is a toughie.
    The prudent thing would be to stay silent. Say nothing about tronc, the parent company of the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, et al., entering into a deal to buy the Chicago Sun-Times, which was made public Monday afternoon.

    Best be mum. Safer. Hard to get in trouble that way. 
    Because saying anything is a lose-lose proposition.  And I have a cute little piece about the high cost of printer ink all ready to go...
    Nah, that stinks of cowardice.
    Lose-lose. No question about it. And I have no secret insider information. I'm a bystander too. 
     Being positive looks like sucking up to the new boss. Even when the new boss is really my old boss, Michael Ferro, who shed the Sun-Times—giving it away to a charity—so he could buy the Trib, seeing value in it that others missed, apparently. Remember how Gannett kept offering him more money, crying about his irresponsible stewardship all the while, even as they upped their offers, bidding against themselves while he waved them away?
    Kinda cool really. Maybe he'll buy Gannett next.
    But being negative also has risks. It's almost impossible to mention "tronc" and not observe it sounds like the name of a robot Muppet in a 1970s Sesame Street episode. I'm not sure that matters much in the upper echelons of finance. Most Sun-Times employees can spool out a variety of gripes about Ferro, though that does not make him unique in the pantheon of owners.  
     Not much of a risk to candor though. I can't honestly imagine he'd care. You need a pretty thick skin to own a newspaper. If the sale goes through—if the Justice Department allows it, and they blocked a past Trib deal— those cobbling together the transaction won't add a line to the complex contract purchasing, "All dunnage, office equipment, warrants and deeds belong to the Sun-Times ... except for Neil Steinberg. He gets the boot because he smirked at the corporate name on his hobby blog." 
     These big money guys, they're not china dolls.
     So fuck prudence, as I can say here, but not in the newspaper. Not yet anyway. I sometimes politely suggest we break that barrier because, well, it's coming, and we might as well be the first through the door. Imagine the attention. I've already crafted the lede to the column introducing obscenity. "Fuck this." Maybe I'll mention that to Michael next time I see him, assuming I ever do. 

    Would I prefer the paper not be bought? Sure. Change frightens me. Because I know how good I have it, how blessed I am. It's easy for me to me smug, now, because I'm not paddling around the frozen slurry with all the other folk—good, bad or indifferent—who got pitched over the side. I know it can make you bitter, like those former newsmen who gather every day at the end of Rob Feder's column, sticking up their thoughts about journalism, like dried boogers over a men's room urinal. One of my primary ambitions is to never be one of those guys.
     But change comes whether we want it or not. It's like Hemingway's line about how bankruptcy happens: "Two ways: Gradually and then suddenly."
    The Trib buying the Sun-Times is gradual and sudden. So. Enough throat clearing. To the heart of the matter. The Tribune and the Sun-Times joining together, the lion and the lamb, the suburban burgermeister and the scrappy city kid getting hitched.
    It isn't as if they're going to mash them both together and sell the thing as the Tribune-Sun-Times.  The two papers appeal to different demographics, and I imagine they'll be maintained as separate entities for the same reason Nabisco sells both Oreos and Fig Newtons. A blend would be gross. Killing one paper doesn't drive its readers to the other. There's no point in buying the thing if it won't remain a separate title. As it is, the Tribune already prints and delivers the Sun-Times. It won't rock your world if the Sun-Times marketing department cooks up Tribune promotions.
    That said, there will certainly be individual peril. Less job security, which is really sayin' something, and then there's the question of the union, on life support since 2009 but still there. Journalism has been on a race to the bottom, trying to find something hard to bounce up from in an attempt to regain the surface. The Tribune and the Sun-Times wrap their arms around each other, figuring they'll both float better that way.
    I'm ... what? Guardedly optimistic, a reaction that has to be a little colored by how I perceived the news. When I saw the publisher's email Monday I was momentarily confused. It began:
I wanted to update everyone on some developments in regard to the Sun-Times and other assets owned by Wrapports, LLC. We just issued a press release (attached) announcing that in tomorrow’s edition of the Sun-Times the newspaper will run an ad (also attached) that it is seeking a buyer that will continue to publish the newspaper.   
     I stopped there, confused. An ad seeking a buyer? That had a whiff of doomed desperation, like old Aunt Sadie putting her profile on Match.com. That'll never work. And the "that will continue to publish the newspaper" seemed to suggest there are buyers who won't. Why buy the thing if not to run it? It isn't as if we own land anymore.
     But I kept reading—always smart when you're in the understanding-stuff business.  It turns out there was more. The ad is just a bit of pro-forma legalistic throat clearing so tronc—which also sounds like the place in his little automobile where Inspector Clouseau stashes his luggage—can buy the Sun-Times. We are told there are no other suitors.
     So a specific purchaser, even the Tribune, came as a relief, compared to just angling around for anybody flipping through the paper to buy the place. There are worse people than the Tribune to buy you. Last I checked, Rupert Murdoch still owned newspapers. WGN was just purchased by Sinclair Broadcast Group, a low rent right wing broadcast group, kind of Hunts ketchup to Fox's Heinz. There are hells below this one. 
     Those still using old dance cards will decry the sale. What of the storied Trib v. Sun-Times rivalry? The Front Page. Rival reporters racing to be the first to a pay phone? They were like Field's and Carsons.
     Field's is gone, I should point out. I hate to be the one to tell you. The Daily News is gone. City News too. And Napoleon escaped from Elba.
     Nostalgia only gets you so far. The first obligation of a newspaper, the trick question in J-school went, is to stay in business. The past decade of newspapering have been a struggle to do that, a constant game of staffer musical chairs. The music stops and they yank a chair away. Fewer folks putting out a leaner product. Am I happy about it? No. I'd prefer we hire the photo staff back ... and a jazz critic and a medical reporter and a few kids to run get coffee. And Italian cookies. I love those. 
     I do not dread going back to work for Ferro. That will seem like toadyism, but screw it. He was always fair to me, and I can't resist the impulse to try to be fair to him in return. He seems to have a plan. Ferro obviously has something going on. In 2015 IBM paid a billion dollars for Merge Healthcare, that he rescued in 2008, netting him a cool $200 million. I can't even tell you what Merge Healthcare is—something about merging health and care. He seems to have mastered the hoover-up-money part of the online world, and never pushed me to write anything I found odious. If he wants to spend more of those millions being fire hosed at him on the Sun-Times, well, that's just fine. Somebody should. 
    The great Irish playwright Brendan Behan once said, "A change is as good as a rest." There really is no rest in daily journalism. But there certainly is change, whether we like it or not. What will it be like? We don't have to guess. All we have to do is wait and find out.



  1. Well today's column is a relief. Driving into work it sounded like the news reader said the Sun-Times will be purchased by Trump.

  2. Good point about being bought by the Trib. company isn't so bad compared to those who might close the paper down. Didn't think of that.

  3. As long as they don't mess with the patternless crossword.

  4. Dear God. I sure hope this works out for you and the rest of the Sun-Times employees.

    Capitalism is wonderful, as long as you're not one of the many, many people who get fucked over by it.

  5. What Scribe said.


  6. Me also.

    I do hope the two papers retain their separate editorial identities. The Tribune isn't entirely bad unless you are in the habit or reading the comments readers post at the end of articles. They do have columnists that offer a counterpoint of sorts to the Greek guy. And the Sun-Times, alternately, prints people like Mona Charen and John Stossel. But both sheets run stories from the AP, New York Times and Washington Post. And, thanks to the internet one can check out the Guardian and the Economist for a somewhat different point of view.

    But, having survived a few myself, I do sympathize with those apt to be affected by wrenching changes.


  7. I am sorry to see this merger happening. The Sun-Times has a fine tradition of raking muck, which the U.S. Attorney's office in Chicago then turns into public-corruption criminal prosecutions, as in the Hired Truck scandal. The Tribune has a tradition of being a voice for the one percent and the political powers that be. In other words, the Sun-Times has acted like a real member of the fourth estate while the Tribune has acted like a lap dog for the wealthy and powerful. But, Neil, as you suggested, the only thing constant in life is change. We have entered a new gilded age in which wealth and political power is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. All we as working people can do is to continue to live our own lives authentically and to tell the unvarnished truth, whether we are talking to newspaper readers, jurors, or our neighbors. I know that you will continue to do that, Neil, which is one reason I will maintain my subscription to the Sun-Times even after it becomes part of tronc. Keep up the good work!


Comments are vetted and posted at the discretion of the proprietor.