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WHY WOULD ANYONE GO ON STRIKE AT A DEATH-ROW CHICAGO NEWSPAPER?
In a blast of foolishness, a delusional columnist is leading the labor charge against the nonprofit media company that has breathed oxygen — and stay-alive money — into the long-beleaguered Sun-Times
What you need to know about Neil Steinberg, if absolutely nothing else, is that he’s an unrivaled tool in a media industry overrun by tools. I knew this early on at the Chicago Sun-Times, where he acted up during a staff meeting and prompted an ordinarily well-behaved assistant sports editor, Athan Atsales, to call him an “asshole.”
I was reminded later when he regularly made his way toward our ESPN studio, on the other side of a large newsroom from his office, and hovered near me and our on-site producer before daily tapings of “Around The Horn.” The producer, as annoyed as I was, suggested an idea to make Steinberg scram and leave an otherwise quiet area. It involved using my firmest voice possible — “Get the f— out of here, Neil,” I believe I said — before his drinking buddy, the editor-in-chief, rushed over and ushered him away.
So when Steinberg slips into deep delusion and leads a labor uprising, against the owners who’ve saved his long-beleaguered newspaper from death, I hope his stance isn’t shared by the smattering of staffers who remain on payroll. Because if Sun-Times union members stage a strike against Chicago Public Media after four-plus months of futile negotiations, the picketers should walk straight into the river and never come back. There wouldn’t be a paper if they returned.
Need I remind Steinberg, a news columnist, that readership numbers have plunged into the abyss amid the tragic demise of U.S. print media? Once a vibrant, ballsy tabloid with nationally recognized sports coverage, which I helped lead and maintain for 17 years, the Sun-Times has lost more than 80 percent of its daily circulation since the late-2000s — 350,000 draining to about 57,000. The massive decline erodes all leverage for him and other would-be strikers, not that they’ve been helped much by years of mismanagement. Thanks to a conga line of madcap owners ranging from jailbirds to a plumbers union, who refused to pump meaningful money into a long-clumsy digital initiative, the paper had only 28,000 website subscribers as of last year. This forced management to abandon a paywall and rely on readers to donate money and keep the operation on life support.
The plan is not sustainable in Chicago, where people who grew up with two papers dueling in a healthy war — Tribune vs. Sun-Times — lost interest long ago in the shallow, softened content of both outlets. The Tribune is owned by a hedge fund, Alden Global Capital, that sucks every possible dollar from its newspaper acquisitions and might kill off all of them. The Sun-Times is owned by a nonprofit company, parent of public radio station WBEZ, that funds local journalism via philanthropic backing — including millions raised in conjunction with CPM’s acquisition of the paper last January. Of course, “nonprofit” is code for agreeing to compromise hard-hitting coverage to serve, when urgent, the investors’ interests. One prominent subsidizer is the Pritzker Traubert Foundation, which means readers can forget about any necessary scrutiny of Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker — who might run for President of the United States at some point — and the Pritzker family, the country’s ninth-wealthiest. Why do you think the Sun-Times has irresponsibly ignored demands to cover, much less investigate, two ugly workplace scandals and lawsuits involving the Chicago White Sox? Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, too, has leveraged his influence over the paper. Another local big-shot, Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz, gifted desperation largesse for years.
With significant money on hand, or so they say, a reader would be a fool to donate and become a Sun-Times “founding member.” A serious news operation, this is not. Last month, I was among those who received a series of emails — first from CEO Nykia Wright, then from executive editor Jennifer Kho, then from someone else — pleading for donations. Seems their database still had my information after previous contributions — to a Sun-Times charity fund supporting children and Letters to Santa programs. Now, they wanted me to help keep the paper alive.
My first instinct was to ask them, “What the hell happened to the million dollars in guaranteed salary I gave back?” I’d predicted doom for the Sun-Times when I left the paper, of my own volition in 2008, executing an out-clause in a recently signed deal after my Beijing Olympics content wasn’t posted online for several hours at a time. Why continue at a failing outfit that wasn’t trying to compete in the digital age? A few months later, after signing a long-term contract with an online site, I appeared on HBO’s “Real Sports” and forecasted the decline of print.
“Jay, what am I going to do at breakfast?” asked sports media legend Frank Deford, host of the segment, shaking a physical copy of that day’s Sun-Times on a Wrigleyville rooftop. “Since I’m a child, I get up in the morning, eat breakfast …”
“Keep that around for Frank Deford, then,” I told him. “Eighty to 90 percent of your mission has to be the Internet. … There’s always going to be a place for that, but it’s got to be minimal in the future.”
The Sun-Times didn’t listen, losing 80-some percent of its support base. My email dialogue with Wright continued, suggesting she heed my advice on how to resuscitate sports coverage — fresh, tougher voices and more penetrating beat work — before soliciting my financial help again.
Still, somehow, Steinberg thinks he has leverage against the bosses who are affixing oxygen masks to a dying, begging operation. Chicago Public Media, which has created a co-newsroom where WBEZ and the Sun-Times share content, wants to minimize labor clout. WBEZ is represented by SAG-AFTRA; the Sun-Times by the Chicago Newspaper Guild. It’s fair, in a gloomy media environment, for CPM to expect Sun-Times union members to stand down if radio-side members ever go on strike. And vice versa. The company is trying to stay alive, too, and philanthropic foundations and other donors — such as local asset-management billionaire and Obama/Emanuel operative Michael Sacks — don’t have patience for labor shutdowns. Steinberg should be keeping a close eye on those power-hitters for column purposes, but he’ll never touch them. He just wants to fight his union battle, even if it kills the paper or results in permanent WBEZ bylines in the Sun-Times. Per Axios, the station’s union contract prohibits a “sympathy strike,” and already, one radio staffer says picket lines won’t be crossed if the Sun-Times strikes.
Our Friend Neil is on the warpath anyway, believing he’s essential to the process when, obviously, hundreds of thousands of lost customers didn’t think he was a reason to keep reading. “First,” he tweeted last week, “even if for some unfathomable reason the Chicago Newspaper Guild agreed to this provision, I would never go along. I wasn’t in a union for 35 years to start being a scab now. And second, we would never agree to this, and it is worrisome that CPM thought we might.”
He is trying to appeal to those who decry union-busting. Good luck with that in 2022, at THAT paper in THIS business. Years ago, the same Guild supported me, if only because it had little choice. An editor in bed with outside influences was trying to fire me, without cause, and, along with my attorney, I calculated I was owed a fortune in overtime pay as the only full-time sports columnist. I continued and wrote my column there for the next decade and a half, just as I watched in amusement when another editor-in-chief “resigned” after he forearm-shivered me in his office, as witnessed by a Guild rep sitting nearby in the newsroom.
But mostly, the union didn’t care when corruption — conflicts of interest protecting sports figures I was trying to cover — spilled into the newsroom. Or when I had to play peacemaker in public settings and calm down Sun-Times writers in foul moods. Or when copy editors openly badmouthed staffers. Nor did the Guild care about Steinberg’s routine visits to our studio, where a national television show was being produced with nearly a million viewers waiting each day. The place was a nuthouse. I refused to waste another minute of my otherwise great life fighting a newspaper survival battle, which was futile with so many crackpots and losers in the house.
To this day, I take no glee in being right about the crash of the Chicago Sun-Times, or the steady exodus of editors, publishers and owners who ruined the place. But I’m considerably better off watching this ongoing crisis from 2,000 miles away, by the sand and the surf, where I worry that good people might lose their jobs.
And kind of hope an asshole loses his.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.