Put a frog in hot water and it will jump out. Put it in cool water, turn on the heat and it will remain motionless, slowly cooking to death.
This analogy may go some distance in answering a question readers no doubt must have by now, that being, “Are you daft? Why didn’t you seek employment elsewhere?” Others did, with alarming frequency. One woman lasted 9 days. The record was a young man who was trained on Monday, left for lunch on Tuesday and never returned. Assuming he was working nights or on some special project, it was several days before anyone knew he had quit.
I passed on several different job offers over the years. The most serious was at the Santa Monica Evening-Outlook where I was offered the job of city editor, a lateral move at the time, but far away from the inanity of the Courier News. But not far enough because it also was a Copley paper, just as poorly run, by people with a goat-cheese-and-sun-dried-tomatoes kind of goofiness. I weighed their offer for a while _ about 3 ½ hours actually, while I was stuck in rush hour traffic on I-5. Less than a decade later, the paper closed.
Despite the threat to your opinion of my sanity, I do not regret passing on that or any of the other opportunities that you feel I may have squandered. I’m glad I stayed, through the lunacy, the embarrassment, the poor management, two terminations and countless other insults real and imagined.
Four of us that I recall, all stayed 30 years and all passed on other jobs; Paul Harth, the most dedicated and loyal city editor in the newspaper business; Marty O’Mara, the most dependable and capable copy desk chief I have ever known and, Nick Petersen, whose adaptability made him indispensible. All three remain at the tatters of the Sun Times Media Group, still working 9-10 hour days with a pride that only someone who has been there could understand. God bless them.
Our curious devotion can be explained perhaps, by Stockholm syndrome in which the captive begins to identify with the captors, early on-set dementia, benzene in the water, hypnosis, psychological dissociation or just low expectations. But we really liked working there. I met some of the best journalists I have ever known at the Elgin Daily Courier News (the name it should have had all these years). I got to be part of my community, a part of history if I can allow myself a little self-aggrandizing. Elgin was and still is a vibrant, dynamic and damn interesting place.
I lived here, worked here, sent my son to school here, volunteered in Little League, Pee Wee Football and the YMCA. I chaired the city’s Parks and Recreation advisory committee, wrote 1,500 columns, won column-writing and news reporting awards and watched the evolution of an entire industry first-hand. What more would I have done elsewhere?
One of my best friends worked at a factory for 30 years, rising to a mid-level manager position. He told me his days _ all 30 years of them _ went like this: “It’s 7:30 a.m. and in an hour and a half, I’ll get my 15-minute break and then it won’t be long until it’s lunchtime. After lunch, I just have to make it until 5 and then this day is over. Tomorrow is Wednesday and then the week is more than half done. When this week is over, it will only be three weeks until we get Memorial Day off. Then it will be summer and I can use one of my two weeks vacation,” etc.
I cannot imagine spending my life like that and thank God I did not.
Peggy Kirby was not just a nice person, but an excellent boss as well. And when she called me late in 2000, 11 months after I had been laid off, I had an idea what she wanted.
The northern Illinois Copley newspaper group had been sold to Hollinger Inc., owners of the Chicago Sun Times, and newspapers in Tinley Park and Gary, Ind. Peggy had somehow survived as publisher of the Courier News and at lunch, she told me she had the authority to hire me back as managing editor.
The whole consolidation was being dismantled; the bozo who had been the editorial vice president and the whole clown college he hired were being terminated. We would be our own newspaper again.
That was the good news. The bad news was that circulation had fallen another 20 percent to 15,000 in the year I had been gone and we weren’t making any money. We could hire our own people, provided they didn’t expect a living wage.
Over the next few years, we rebuilt the Courier News the best we could with the limited resources and stripped down product. Circulation reached 17,000 when Hollinger summarily fired Peggy. David Radler, who along with Conrad Black became notorious felons for looting the company, had an acquaintance with a female publisher to whom he apparently owed a favor. Peggy was canned and the new publisher arrived, a gentle enough soul with no orders other than to do her best with the admonition that she should treat every dollar she spent as if it were her own. (Hollinger’s miserly ways were notorious: Jerry Strader, the new president of the northern Illinois group, unscrewed every other light bulb at the Plainfield plant to save money. Once a week he would put on shorts, his bony, hairless legs shining in the afternoon sun, and mow the law around the building to save the $200 the landscaper charged.)
Meanwhile the Hollinger empire collapsed as revelations about Conrad’s lavish lifestyle funded by the proceeds from his newpapers began to surface.
Conrad Black was a man extremely comfortable with his own greatness. When the Hollinger board asked him to repay the company for having used Hollinger proceeds to take his wife and friends on an expensive South Seas trip, he replied simply, “No such outcome is possible.”
His wife was paid $400,000 annually by the Sun-Times as a “consultant,” even though she had never set foot in the building. Lavish birthday parties funded by the company, trips to exotic locales, and other conduct too egregious to ignore earned him a few years of free room and board, courtesy of the United States government.
Radler did some easy time at a low security prison for ratting out his former business partner. Our publisher summarized the episode perfectly; “David loved money and Conrad loved power. Together they were a dangerous combination.”
The Hollinger board threw both of them out and brought in a succession of well-meaning but woefully inadequate individuals to try to restore the operation to some semblance of dignity. They failed. (As an example, President John Cruikshank approved renaming the company the Sun-Times News Group, whose acronym of STiNG did not resonate with the marketing group in light of the company’s recent history.)
But there we were, still the Courier News, still a community newspaper with a staff of about 30, a circulation of 17,000 and still out-circulating the Daily Herald 2-1 in Elgin.
But issues were surfacing outside the newspaper industry, and within it as well, which generated dark clouds on the horizon. We had no idea how severe the storm would be.(To be continued)