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Sun-Times Chairman Would Have Fired The Photographers Sooner

By Chuck Sudo in News on Oct 12, 2013 6:00PM

Chicago Sun-Times chairman Michael Ferro gave his first public interview to Chicago magazine since he bought the newspaper, and the portrait reporter Bryan Smith paints of Ferro is a complex one.

Ferro comes off as an ambitious man who remains committed to reviving the failing fortunes of the paper—even as he and his fellow investors continue to lose money. Whether Ferro's best interests and those of the Sun-Times' dovetail is another matter.

Ferro, who agreed to the interview only after Smith said the profile would run with or without Ferro’s cooperation, comes across as a brash, manic presence whose physical fidgeting is as constant and distracting as the endless stream of ideas he has to turn around the Sun-Times.

Instead of providing staff at the paper with a glimmer of hope, though, Ferro’s failures, public relations snafus, and seeming hubris have been another blow to a shell-shocked group still bearing the scars of the Conrad Black-David Radler Hollinger era.

One former editor who asked to remain anonymous said Ferro was “a fire hose of thoughts and ideas and opinions and expressions and unwarranted challenges to orthodoxies that didn’t need to be challenged.”

Smith talks to other critics of Ferro, notably Robert Feder who believes the Sun-Times is just another rich man’s toy.

“It’s clear that [Ferro] sees himself as some sort of visionary genius up there with Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg,” says Feder. “To me, it seems he just saw [the paper] as a platform for his gigantic ego and an incubator for his pet projects.”

Ferro does have his supporters in Sun-Times editor-in-chief Jim Kirk, investor John Canning, Jr. (a longtime partner of Ferro who had to convince him to buy the paper), Splash editor Susana Negovan, who said Ferro has been “a really incredible boss.”

In what will become another PR fiasco, Ferro was asked about the Sun-Times’ decision to fire its photography staff in May. Ferro defended the decision, as expected, but not in the most tactful manner.

“I am very sympathetic toward [the photographers]. If I were in their shoes, I would feel bad too. It would be like you’re a carriage driver and the cars come and you’re really upset that you can’t have your buggy whip and hit your horse anymore.”

In fact, Ferro says, the photographers should have been let go sooner. “I knew the photographers would be going from the day we took this paper over. We took a year and a half too long to do it. … I can tell you 100 percent before we bought this we had that cutlass ready.”

Smith also notes staff would buy into Ferro’s long-range plan (if he indeed has one) if Ferro simply treated them with respect like former chairman James Tyree, who died in March 2011.

He didn’t meddle in editorial decisions, current and former Sun-Times employees say. He trod lightly on turf with which he knew he was unfamiliar. Tyree won the rank and file’s fealty the old-fashioned way: by treating them with respect, by honoring their craft in word and in deed, and by simply being friendly.

“Jim Tyree was the real deal,” says Feder. “He never saw the Sun-Times as a steppingstone to greater glory. The guy wasn’t perfect, but there was never any doubt his heart was in the right place. All he wanted was to put the paper on sound financial footing and keep it going.

“With Ferro, on the other hand, it was clear from the start he had something else in mind. He showed no respect for the heritage or the legacy of the organization. I don’t think he gave a rat’s ass about the Sun-Times as a newspaper.”

Perhaps the most telling words in the profile come from Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg, who hedges his bets on an outright endorsement of Ferro.

"I think Michael Ferro has a vision. I think he’s taking us somewhere. Now whether you like where he’s taking you is a different matter.”