Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The dawn of the dread

Is sale hope, doom for Sun-Times Media?

The last time my former employer was sold, it was cause for hope, even as it rankled the rank-and-file union members. They were the ones who bowed to James Tyree’s pressure to make a number of key contract concessions to ensure Tyree’s investment group would close on the purchase of the former Sun-Times News Group.

The sale came in what otherwise would have been the company’s final weeks — the company had been bleeding cash for years, despite round after round of cuts, and finally filed for bankruptcy in March 2009. What followed was disturbing to many, even frightening. First, our employee severance packages — that cushion each of us had believed we’d have if things got dire — were gutted. Later, they were eliminated altogether. Then came more intensive cost-cutting measures that included more layoffs, then furloughs, then pay cuts.

As the company continued to bleed money, there was a vicious back-and-forth between management and the unions — management trying to sell the concessions Tyree demanded as a condition of the sale. The unions were faced with surrendering terms they had spent years securing and the possibility of job losses, or refusing to cave and facing the certainty of job losses.

When the final union vote came in accepting the concessions, there was a near palpable sigh of collective relieve among the Sun-Times properties.

Instead of preserving the company’s remaining 1,800 or so jobs that Tyree said he thought he could save, the layoffs continued, and continued. Since Tyree’s group of investors purchased the company in late 2009, the company has laid off hundreds of workers.

Late Tuesday, the Chicago Tribune reported that Sun-Times Media is about to be sold again, with an announcement expected today.

It makes me wonder what those few of my former colleagues who remain are wondering.

For years, employees had been in denial, me included. “It couldn’t possibly get any worse,” was a common refrain starting toward the end of the Copley Newspapers era. Hollinger International purchased Copley’s northern Illinois holdings and the Sun-Times News Group developed from that melding. Copley did not know how to run a newspaper in a competitive market, we all knew. The owners of the Sun-Times, however, did.

We soon learned, however, that while Copley, as a company, had a soft spot (as far as corporations go) in its heart for its employees, Hollinger/Sun-Times News Group did not.

In fact, shortly before the sale to Hollinger, Xeroxed copies of an article featuring Conrad Black, in which he was quoted heavily about his disdain for journalists, began circulating around newsrooms of the Copley papers. So, we had some forewarning that the leader of this company was an intelligent but incredibly arrogant individual who appeared to hate the very people who were making him money.

But the common perception among the employees was that the new owner could not shut down community newspapers like The Courier-News in Elgin. The papers could, however, be run into the ground as the new owner cut every expense it could in the coming years.

Those first years was a time of ebb and flow. Sometimes, things seemed to go well, other times, not so much. We forged ahead trying to put out daily newspapers for a company that, from the newsroom perspective, seemed intent on putting obstacles in our path to prevent us from doing so. It became steadily more oppressive as the company took step after step to cripple our ability to put out a timely newspaper. Each step the company took in this regard — pulling deadlines back to unreasonably early hours, for example — cost us readers.

When I started at The Courier in late 1994, our Sunday circulation stood at close to 25,000. Today, it may be just a quarter of that figure — it’s difficult to say for certain because of some rules changes made by the Audit Bureau of Circulation.

I image those of my former colleagues still employed by Sun-Times Media will be waiting, anxiously, not eagerly, to see what details unfold today if the Trib story is correct. For those of us no longer with the company, it likely will be more a matter of passing interest or, as in my case, worrying for those who remain and what this change will mean to them.

I hope and pray that it will be good, just as I hoped and prayed the Tyree group’s purchase of the company would signal good things. If nothing else, it did ensure at least some people continued to work in those newsrooms, and that some remnant of the company’s suburban papers continued to publish.

The question I have is will the new owners be willing to make some bold moves to lead the company out of its cycle of financial failure, or will they be content to be caretakers of a beloved but dying family member?

In 2009, we hoped for the former and were told that is what we had. Then the amputations began, and it never improved.