By: Mark Fitzgerald
As CEO of troubled Sun-Times Media Group, Cyrus Freidheim in the past six months has ordered dozens of newsroom layoffs at its flagship Chicago daily and 70 community papers.
Wednesday night he said that wasn’t a good thing for democracy.
Staff reductions in newspaper newsrooms across the nation have left the press as “nowhere near as robust or strong a watchdog as it has been,” he said during a panel discussion at Columbia College in Chicago marking the 100th anniversary of the National Press Club.
“The free press really is the newsroom,” Freidheim added. “It is not technology. It’s really the newsroom.”
American democracy has flourished not simply because of a free press, but because the press is also “robust,” Freidheim said repeatedly. With the shrinking of newsrooms, “the way it’s going, we’re going to have a free press, but it’s not going to as robust a press as it has been.”
The Chicago Sun-Times and other Sun-Times Media Group papers have been damaged badly not only by the same economic forces buffeting all big-city papers, but also by systematic looting by former top executives including Conrad Black and F. David Radler, who are both serving federal fraud sentences, and by a circulation scandal.
At the Sun-Times group, Freidheim, a corporate turnaround specialist, has cut operating costs by $50 million this year through layoffs, outsourcing its circulation operations, and folding or consolidating several of its papers. The group is also exploring strategic options that include the sale of all or parts of the company.
During the National Press Club event, Freidheim was asked to compare the newspaper business to other industries he’s worked in as a consultant or executive.
“The only industry that comes close to newspapers is the airline industry,” Freidheim said. He said he recently spoke at Northwestern University and he and Glenn Tilton, chairman and CEO of troubled United Airlines, “had a debate over who had it worse.”
The most “shocking” aspect of the newspaper business, he added, was how deep and prolonged the current industry slump has been.
He also said that without the cuts and restructuring at the paper “the Sun-Times wouldn’t be there.”
“This is a great city that deserves two newspapers,” he said. “The problem is that three years ago somebody turned off the oxygen on the newspaper industry, and that oxygen is advertising revenues.”
Freidheim also spoke at length about the legal travails of Sun-Times rock critic Jim DeRogatis, who this week was ordered to testify in the child pornography trial of pop singer R. Kelly. From the start, the paper fought to keep the journalist off the witness stand, and only agreed to DeRogatis’ appearance at the trial when it was evident he could invoke his Fifth Amendment rights.
The press must “stare down” any attempt to drag journalists into court because of what they’ve reported, Freidheim said. “And I don’t think there’s anyone in the United States who wants journalists to lose those privileges because they realize there’s no way we would learn about what’s going on without them,” he added.