Why Sneed missed out on Sun-Times' biggest story

November 10, 2009

The entire north wall of the Sun-Times editorial department consists of offices occupied by columnists, critics and section editors. When I worked there, my favorite part of giving tours to friends was walking the full length of the building and pointing out familiar bylines and faces, one after the other, through the windows of their individual little sanctums.

I guess I didn't appreciate it at the time, but looking back, that really was a Murderers' Row of Chicago newspaper talent. In my mind, I can still go down the line and picture Richard Roeper, Mark Brown, Carol Marin, Mary Mitchell, Neil Steinberg, Mary Frey, Bill Zwecker, Phil Rosenthal, Elliott Harris, Terry Savage, Dan Miller, Sue Ontiveros, Dan Jedlicka and other star writers all tapping away at their keyboards or talking on the phone.

Unlike the hodgepodge of offices we had at the old Sun-Times Building (which was torn down in 2005 to build the gleaming new Trump Tower),‚ our leased digs several blocks west in the Apparel Center were built out to precise specifications.‚  Every columnist's office was identically equipped and furnished, and every office was exactly the same size. Except for one -- Michael Sneed's.

Sneed's office was more of a corner suite, with sweeping views of the city to the north and east. It was two offices, really, the bigger one for her and the smaller one for her full-time assistant (or "legman"), who helped her collect items for her column each day.

It's a feather in Sneed's cap that many of her legmen have gone on to fine careers of their own. Ben Goldberger is editor of the Chicago edition of the Huffington Post. Frank Main, Rummana Hussain and Dave Newbart are first-rate reporters for the Sun-Times. Annie Sweeney, another excellent reporter, was lured to the Tribune.

Sneed never spent much time in the office, but she always seemed to know what was going on in the upper echelons of the paper before the rest of us. That may be why she found it especially galling to be out of the loop just as the Sun-Times was going through the most momentous upheaval in its history.

Sidelined for most of October after surgery to remove a noncancerous nodule from her thyroid gland, Sneed missed out on the action surrounding the sale of the Sun-Times Media Group to the partnership headed by James Tyree.‚ "It was very, very frustrating for me to be away," Sneed said. "Very stressful."

So how does she feel about the paper's sale and its long-term prospects for survival?‚ "I can't speak for the staff, but I think the bottom line is they're relieved that they've got jobs," she said. "I started out when there were four newspapers in Chicago. In my lifetime, I've seen the City News Bureau go down and I've seen two newspapers go down. Here was the possibility that this paper, which is really a reporter's paper, could go down. The fact that these guys were willing to give it a second chance is terrific. Now we'll wait and see how it all works out."

Despite her vaunted connections, Sneed insists she knows none of the members of Tyree's investment group except for Rocky Wirtz, the real estate and liquor magnate who also owns the Blackhawks.

Sneed, 65, who joined the Sun-Times in 1986 after 18 years at the Tribune (except for a brief stint in City Hall as Jane Byrne's press secretary), views her job as "getting stories that nobody else can get." She likes to think of her column as "a tip sheet -- a scoop sheet -- my own private little newspaper. That's still the part that fascinates me."

For some, reading her column is an exercise in Machiavellian politics, where divining Sneed's sources and their motives is half the fun. For others, it's a throwback to when newspaper gossip columns and the inane celebrity tidbits they contained mattered a lot more than they do now.

Regardless of why they read her, Sneed seems perfectly happy to keep grinding out her five columns a week for the foreseeable future. "I've been in journalism 43 years," she said. "It's still in my blood."

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