When columnists jump ship, newspapers spring leaks

December 7, 2009

David Greising tr

David Greising

What happens when a 49-year-old star columnist suddenly leaves the Chicago Tribune after more than a decade and jumps to a competitor? Well, that depends on which 49-year-old star columnist you're talking about.

Six weeks ago, award-winning columnist and chief business correspondent David Greising abruptly left the Tribune to join the upstart Chicago News Cooperative as general manager and deputy editor. But you never would have known it if you read the Tribune, which apparently did not deem Greising's departure newsworthy.

Compare that to last Friday, when sports columnist Rick Morrissey informed his bosses that he was leaving to join the Sun-Times and fill the slot that's been vacant since Jay Mariotti left in August 2008. Before the ink was dry on Morrissey's new contract, the Tribune announced the move to its staff and to its readers online, effectively scooping the Sun-Times' own story. It's highly unlikely the Sun-Times would have chosen to announce its biggest hiring coup in decades on a Friday night. That's normally when companies try to bury their bad news -- not trumpet their triumphs.

Without diminishing Morrissey's considerable talent, I would argue that Greising's departure represents a greater loss to the Tribune. His impeccable reporting and astute coverage of business issues made Greising a must-read in the market, and his specialized contribution to the newspaper can hardly be replaced as easily -- if ever -- as that of any sports columnist.


Rick Morrisey

In Morrissey's case, the Tribune was doing more than trying to spoil whatever splashy announcement the Sun-Times might have had in mind for Sunday. It also was reacting to the latest salvo in an escalating sports war between the two newspapers.

It began Oct. 22 with a declaration by Mike Kellams, the Tribune's associate managing editor for sports, headlined: "Chicago Tribune goes after Sun-Times with retooled sports section." In outlining plans for a re-launch of his product, Kellams wrote:

"The conventional wisdom among some in Chicago has been that our pals across the way have the better sports section. We've all heard it. [Former Tribune sports editor] Dan [McGrath] and I sat in meetings where people in our own building parroted that to our faces. Pardon the Hoosier in me rising up, but that's bull shit. You know it. I know it. . . . This is a great time to re-energize ourselves and our presence. The S-T is in transition. I wish them luck but this is our moment to get in front and stay there."

What followed was the hiring of Sun-Times sports editor Stu Courtney as editor of the Tribune's chicagobreakingsports.com website and some aggressive marketing. Those shots from Tribune Tower prompted a response from Courtney's successor, Chris DeLuca, who wrote:

"At a time when the competition has informed its employees it's growing tired of its second-place status as a sports section in this city, an invigorated Chicago Sun-Times is ready to flex some muscle once again."

Another shot came last week when Dan McNeil, the midday host at CBS sports/talk WSCR-AM (670), moved his weekly column from the Sun-Times to the Tribune. But the Morrissey coup is the strongest indication yet that the Sun-Times is not willing to cede its sports franchise. (It's just unfortunate that DeLuca couldn't have been a bit more of a gracious winner Sunday, instead of gloating: “Consider this move a major victory for the good guys.”)

Despite its many troubles, the Sun-Times still managed to pick up a few notable Tribune contributors in recent years, including columnists Carol Marin and Cheryl Lavin. But it's been 23 years since the last big-time talent raid (under former publisher Robert Page) that brought Tribune heavyweights Michael Sneed and the late Ray Coffey and Steve Neal over to the Bright One.

As much fun as it is to watch and write about an old-fashioned Chicago newspaper war, it probably won't make any difference to either paper in the long run. The real competition isn't between the two of them anymore, but among all media scrambling for relevance and revenue. While the Morrissey move is a definite morale boost that shows real gumption by new Sun-Times owner Jim Tyree, it's not a game changer.

In today's Chicago media firmament, I see only four local broadcasters whose move from one station to another might have any genuine, immediate impact on the market: meteorologist Tom Skilling, news anchor Ron Magers, sportscaster Mark Giangreco and radio personality Eric Ferguson. Among newspaper writers, I daresay the list of those who'd take vast numbers of readers with them is even shorter.

When former Tribune TV critic Gary Deeb jumped to the Sun-Times in 1980, he boldly claimed he'd help boost the Sun-Times circulation enough eventually to overtake the Tribune. One year later, Deeb adjusted that estimate downward, claiming his presence would add 30,000 new readers to the Sun-Times. Two years after that, the Sun-Times was looking for a new TV critic.

Elsewhere on the media beat:

  • Reporter Ben Bradley came back to work at ABC-owned WLS-Channel 7 last week after a bout with H1N1 -- just in time to report on a dip in swine flu cases here and nationwide. That must have been little comfort to Bradley, who'd earlier told Facebook friends of "fever, night sweats and a throat so sore it makes drinking tea feel like I'm downing a dozen razor blades."
  • Neil Woulfe, former senior executive producer at Fox-owned WFLD-Channel 32, has been promoted to news director of RadarOnline.com. Woulfe joined the Los Angeles-based news and celebrity website as senior news editor last January after 17 years at Channel 32.
  • Funeral services will be held Monday for Marv Astrin, 84, a distinguished Chicago radio veteran whose five decades in local broadcasting and advertising included 21 years at Tribune Co.-owned news/talk WGN-AM (720), where he served as vice president and general manager. Mr. Astrin, who also was chief executive of the old WAIT-AM, retired in 1995 as senior account executive at CBS all-news WBBM-AM (780).
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