Publisher in a Perfect Storm

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

Just as John Cruickshank is about to sit down and talk about his remarkable first 15 months as publisher of the Chicago Sun-Times, an executive pulls him aside for a quick conference. It’s something about City Hall, always an urgent subject in Mayor Richard M. Daley’s Chicago.

Cruickshank comes back grinning, and makes himself a cup of coffee. “You know, it’s always the same issues, whether you’re an assignment editor or a city editor or managing editor ? or a publisher,” he tells a visitor. “Sometimes I think the only difference is the number of zeros.”

He’s kidding, right? All the same issues? The challenges Cruickshank faces these days are a lot more difficult than, say, an assignment editor’s task of cajoling a senior reporter into making the cop-shop calls before he knocks off for the day. In fact, it’s safe to say that no other newspaper publisher in recent memory has faced so many thorny issues in so short a time as John Cruickshank has at the Sun-Times.

This is a newsroom-sider who was suddenly thrust into the publisher’s office because his predecessor, the dour F. David Radler, was forced to resign in a still unfolding financial scandal. The Sun-Times’ corporate owner, Hollinger International Inc., alleges that Radler, former CEO and controlling shareholder Conrad M. Black, and a few other top executives “looted” the company of $400 million, or fully 95% of the company’s profits between 1997 and 2003.

No sooner was Cruickshank behind the publisher’s desk then he discovered, as he went over the books, that the paper had been fraudulently overstating its circulation for the past eight years. Eventually the Sun-Times would confess to inflating sales by as much as 50,000 copies a day, and soon set aside $27 million to appease angry advertisers. At least the paper got credit for bringing the fraud to light.

While all this was going on, Cruickshank had to lead the move of the entire newspaper out of its old, unbeloved building along the Chicago River, which Hollinger had sold to developer Donald Trump.

Cruickshank was in his new digs a few blocks away for all of one week when fired-up Newspaper Guild members in the newsroom ? angry about a past contract that froze their wages while Radler and Black allegedly siphoned off millions ? set a strike deadline, and began boxing up their belongings as the clock ticked to noon on Oct. 20.

And just when that fire was doused with a contract the Guild could live with and calm returned to the newsroom, the New York Daily News swooped in and spirited away Editor in Chief Michael Cooke. Cruickshank, with the title of vice president of editorial, and Cooke, also a Canadian native, had arrived at the paper together in May of 2000 as sort of co-editors to replace Nigel Wade.

One more thing: Through much of this time, Hollinger was trying to unload the Sun-Times and the rest of its Chicago Group newspapers.

Harbor in the tempest

If any of this is getting to John Cruickshank, though, he sure doesn’t show it, people at the Sun-Times say.

“I’m always amazed that he comes in here with a smile on his face, always in a relatively good mood and you can talk to him, and yet think of everything he inherited,” says Barry Mechanic, vice president of operations. “Overall, though, we’re coming out of it, and a lot of it is due to him.”

Bob Mazzoni is a sports desk copy editor who last fall, as co-chair of the Guild unit, was preparing to take out on strike a newsroom spoiling for a fight. Cruickshank, he says, is “very good at bringing a tone of civility” in contentious situations. “He has a very calming effect, even on the most hotheaded people,” Mazzoni says.

Not long ago, Cruickshank was asked to give a talk about his short and tumultuous tenure as publisher. “I called it, ‘What to do when your hair is on fire’ ? because that’s what it’s been like for the past year,” he says with a laugh.

But Cruickshank has done much more in the year than simply keep his cool. He’s put a dysfunctional newspaper cluster on the path to better competitiveness and efficiency, and convinced corporate owners more comfortable with reducing head count to add bodies to Sun-Times newsroom.

“We’ve had a hell of a year journalistically,” a columnist tells a visitor who has ducked into his office to say hello.

The standout journalistic achievement was “Clout on Wheels.” In a series of reports and follow-ups over the past year, reporters Tim Novak and Steve Warmbir exposed corruption and waste in the city of Chicago’s Hired Truck Program. In the year since, some 16 criminal charges have been filed related to the program, with the first indictments coming just 72 hours after the series was published. The paper is taking credit for saving Chicago taxpayers more than $12 million in the last year. The series angered City Hall ? all the more so, perhaps, since it ran in a paper that has generally been supportive of Daley.

“The hardest thing for me to accept, personally, is that we had a great year journalistically ? as soon as I left the newsroom,” Cruickshank jokes. He does take a little credit for the revitalized newsroom: “I think there was an understanding that everything was permitted now.”

The Cruickshank redemption

When Cruickshank was named publisher in November 2003, it didn’t look like a job he’d be in for too long. New York investment bank Lazard LLC was busy shopping the tabloid in a process that ultimately led to the sale of the Daily Telegraph in London. But Cruickshank never acted like an “acting” publisher.

One of his first moves was to create the first marketing campaign for the Sun-Times since the beginning of the 1990s. He and Cooke reached back to the 1970s to resurrect the tabloid’s old tag line: “The Bright One.”

He also managed to shake some money out of Hollinger to hire about 10 journalists for a newsroom that had begun shrinking from nearly the moment he arrived from The Vancouver Sun, the British Columbia broadsheet where he had been editor in chief since 1995. Cruickshank’s journey to the Sun-Times started at a Canadian factory, he says: “It was sloth that drew me to journalism. I was working in a factory and my girlfriend was a reporter. The idea of being paid to sit around drinking coffee and reading newspapers was overwhelmingly appealing.” By the mid-1990s he was managing editor of The Globe and Mail, the Toronto-based national Canadian daily.

“Cooke and I arrived in May 2000 with great plans and a substantial staff,” Cruickshank says, “and then, the [help-wanted] ads were gone ? gone ? hundreds of millions in revenue disappeared.” Soon journalists started disappearing, too.

“The newsroom was whacked,” Ted Rilea, vice president of human resources and labor relations, says bluntly, “and he had to endure that. And I’ll tell you, the paper was not good during some of this time. I’m surprised we sold any copies sometimes.”

Still, the paper was gradually looking better. With no promotion budget, and with continuing reproduction problems on the new presses, Cruickshank and Cooke could not launch the splashy redesign former Editor in Chief Wade had planned. Instead, they fixed the paper one section at a time in a process they call the “stealth redesign.”

In a bad time, he won the trust of the newsroom, journalists say. “John Cruickshank was a very popular editor here, and when they moved him up to publisher he was applauded very strongly in the newsroom,” says Bob Mutter, a business desk copy editor and co-chair of the Sun-Times Guild unit.

The editors also fought a guerrilla war with the Chicago Tribune when the market-leader readied to launch its youth-oriented daily tabloid RedEye. Working feverishly, the newsroom created their own tab with the conveniently confusing name Red Streak.

“I didn’t want them coming into the tabloid market without us making them fight for it,” Cruickshank says. “I mean, they’ve got the goddamn broadsheet, they’ve got a TV station, they’ve got radio, they’ve got cable, they’ve got everything ? why do they want a tabloid too?”

The Tribune continues to push RedEye as it tries to get traction in the marketplace. Of its 80,000-copy press run, it sells about 15,000 and gives the rest away. Cruickshank, who once cheerfully said he would kill off Red Streak two minutes after RedEye folds, barely bothers with Red Streak. “We keep it around as an irritant to the Tribune, a stick in their eye,” he says. “We print a fraction of what we did at the start ? but we could print 100,000 a day if we had to.”

Ad-ding up the damage

A stick in the eye is just what advertisers believed they got when they learned of the extent of the Sun-Times’ circulation fraud. More than a dozen advertisers filed lawsuits charging consumer fraud, deceptive practices, and unjust enrichment, which were consolidated into a class-action suit. The court gave the Sun-Times permission to negotiate separately with some big advertisers ? and they hammered Cruickshank in meetings throughout last summer and fall.

“I’ll give him credit. He spent a lot of time going out with the vice president of advertising and met face-to-face with advertisers. And what he was getting from advertisers was exactly what I was getting from the Guild,” says Rilea, who headed the management team during the contentious union negotiations.

Cruickshank won’t be drawn into telling any war stories about these confrontations, though people say he’s got a good one to tell about Disney Studios. “They’re a great customer,” he deadpans. They’re tough negotiators, he adds, but then all the movie studios were pretty tough, and so were the car dealers.

“There was a tremendous feeling of betrayal and shock,” he says. And “some folks” he adds, are difficult. Not only are they demanding make-goods, Cruickshank says, but “they want to punish us in the process.”

Cruickshank discovered the circulation fraud when he noticed that revenues did not match up with the claimed number of copies sold, a disparity especially glaring because of a cover price increase. Cruickshank announced the fraud and kept advertisers informed as a Hollinger investigation untangled the circulation department schemes. These ranged from the simply paying distributors not to return unsold copies to the elaborate technique of attributing unsold copies to low-circulation Saturdays and then inventing press problems to claim those days as “elimination days” that, under ABC rules in effect then, were not counted in average daily circulation.

The paper earned some good will with advertisers with its openness, Cruickshank says. But its value as an advertising alternative to the Chicago Tribune is probably its true ace in the hole, he adds: “The regional and local advertisers really want us to stay around.”

All together now

Cruickshank, who turns 52 in April, can also take credit for the changes in Hollinger’s Chicago Group. He’s COO of the cluster, which reaches from the Illinois border with Wisconsin down into Indiana. The Chicago Group includes dailies in south suburban Chicago, Aurora, Elgin, Joliet, Waukegan, and suburban Gary, Ind., as well as about 90 non-dailies in the Pioneer Press and Lerner Newspapers groups that circulate in the fast-growing south and western suburbs of Chicago.

For his own inscrutable reasons, Cruickshank’s predecessor, David Radler, encouraged these dailies and weeklies to compete against each other for advertising and circulation. “If you were an ad person in Joliet, there wasn’t a lot of incentive to sell into the Daily Southtown [of south suburban Tinley Park, Ill.],” Cruickshank says.

With its publishers working at cross-purposes, the Chicago Group was essentially a cluster in name only. It was so disorganized that when Cruickshank asked for a list of its newspaper properties, nobody could produce one.

That’s changed now, Rilea observes. “He brought all the publishers from the Chicago Group together, and now just about every Monday, they’re [meeting] here,” he says. Salespeople now have incentives to sell any and all of the group’s papers.

In the past year, too, Cruickshank created new free-distribution and paid papers under the Sun flag while weeding out some Lerner papers that circulated in the very same communities as Pioneer titles. As it happens, the Chicago Group papers are already planted right in the path of Chicago’s growth, in areas such as the Fox River Valley. “You go down there one week, and it’s all cornfields,” Cruickshank says. “You go down the next week, and there are $350,000 homes.”

Competitors are already noticing the difference in the Sun-Times and its community papers. “The one thing we have seen is that the weeklies are becoming more a part of their strategy,” says John Rung, publisher of the Shaw family’s Northwest Herald in the far northwestern Chicago suburb of Crystal Lake. The Herald, a daily, and the Pioneer Press group have both opened offices just steps from each other in growing town Algonquin, Rung notes. “I think it’s going to be an effective strategy for them, and I would say we’re concerned about it,” he adds. “If you add up on paper everything they have ? it’s really staggering.”

Under Cruickshank, the Sun-Times and Chicago Group are also cooperating while competing with the Shaw newspapers and the Paddock family’s local heavyweight paper, the Daily Herald in Arlington Heights. To blunt the Chicago Tribune’s careerbuilder.com online help-wanted site, the tabloid and its suburban competitors created ChicagoJobs.com.

More recently, Cruickshank has turned to the task of rationalizing production of the many papers. The Chicago Group prints out of five plants, including the lines of rapidly aging presses at the Post-Tribune in Indiana. “It’s a matter of saying, let’s print papers on the presses where they make most sense,” says operations V.P. Mechanic. “We’re trying to look at whether five plants is truly necessary, but it also gets to be a distribution decision; you have to look at how it will affect deadlines. It’s not a trivial exercise to go through.”

Those questions even apply to the relatively new plant that produces the Sun-Times. The paper has finally put behind it the many problems it had starting up its new Goss Newsliner and transitioning to offset color printing. But the location of the plant just outside downtown Chicago means that the tabloid ? heavily dependent on single-copy sales ? cannot get copies to some outlying train stations in time to reach early morning commuters, Mechanic says.

Dealing with the union

The Sun-Times’ labor negotiations last year were played out in front of the Chicago public, and the anger on the other side of the table was easy to see. “There was so much emotion and hatred boiling over in the newsroom, and I just didn’t know how deep it ran and how [united] the newsroom was,” says management negotiator Rilea. “They wanted revenge, for lack of a better word.”

Feeling they had been “sold a bill of goods” on their last contract, Guild members were determined to make wage and benefits gains this time around, union leaders Mutter and Mazzoni say. “We used the term ‘the perfect storm,'” Mutter says. “We had everything going for us: an angry membership, a united membership. We got no media coverage in 2001. This time, we had tremendous media coverage.” Such famous Sun-Times figures as movie critic Roger Ebert wrote Cruickshank letters in which they promised to walk off their jobs if a contract settlement couldn’t be reached.

That crisis was settled with a three-year contract providing annual raises of 3% each year of the agreement plus a “signing bonus” of $1,675 for each employee, which was paid out in January.

It’s apparent that no hard feelings remain. In contrast to Radler ? who wasn’t even in Chicago often, and rarely went to the newsroom ? Cruickshank is a regular figure in the brand-new newsroom, which still has that new-car smell.

“I was delighted to see the end of 2004 because literally we were just running around trying to deal with crises,” Cruickshank says in his office overlooking a bend in the Chicago River. “Now I come in and think, wow, nobody’s shooting at me.”

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