By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News
If Edwin Eisendrath believes he’s working from a blank slate in designing a new kind of revenue stream for his Chicago Sun-Times, then his first office at the paper is as good a place to start.
The standard-sized workplace where Eisendrath talked extensively about his Sun-Times plans was almost empty of furnishings – except for a framed black-and-white wall photo that hearkens back to the golden age of newspapers. The oldie-but-goodie displays Ronald Reagan and first wife Jane Wyman coming off a train in Chicago, in the familiar celebrity pose common for 1940s media.
“That’s when he was a Democrat,” Eisendrath mused, looking at The Gipper.
Politics, personality and the media’s future intermingle freely when Eisendrath, 59, went in-depth as certainly the last, and as yet-undetermined best, hope for keeping the Sun-Times going. He provided more perspective than the almost-daily bulletin-style media accounts of his ownership group’s frantic attempts to keep the struggling tabloid away from Chicago Tribune parent company tronc.
Eisendrath, now sporting the title of Sun-Times chief executive officer as its first Jewish owner, is an unlikely media mogul. Although he grew up in Lincoln Park reading the paper in its far more robust days, the only serious media involvement in the family was wife Jennifer Schulze’s former TV news days, culminating as news director at WGN. Eisendrath is a former 43rd Ward alderman and Dept. of Housing and Urban Development regional administrator who unsuccessfully ran for Congress against Sidney Yates and governor against Rod Blagojevich.
Experienced in teaching and international consulting above and beyond his foray into politics, Eisendrath did not cobble together an ownership group that includes his brother, John; the Chicago Federation of Labor, former WLS-TV anchor Linda Yu and other attorneys and business people, to make big bucks. The group raised some $11.2 million to cover Sun-Times operating costs, but the purchase price itself was just $1. Previous owner Wrapports talked about folding the paper if a sale to the Eisendrath group or tronc did not go through.
“I worry about our democracy, I really do,” Eisendrath said in an interview with Chicago Jewish News. “And news is an important part of how we tell ourselves who we are. I grew up on the Sun-Times. I worry about how news across the country has gotten away from that. What we hear about are celebrities and the easy things to cover, like crimes and fires.
“But we don’t tell our own story very well. This has been a very difficult last 10 years the country has had. We’ve had tough times since 9/11, economic tough times. I think about how people struggled, what they’ve lost and how they’ve fought back. I don’t see that story reflected in our news, our art, our literature.
“In the 1930s, John Steinbeck won a Nobel Prize for ‘Grapes of Wrath.” All of America shared in the struggles of all of America. After the more recent crash, people lost their homes, they lost their families and they had to start over and re-train. Americans are angry at the perceived elite. They feel they’ve been treated as invisible, that the hard work they do, someone else takes credit for. That’s dangerous in a democracy.”
Fewer media voices of strength and millions of blogs of un-vetted expertise and comprehension of current events have dotted the landscape in this era of hurt and anger. When Eisendrath heard of the Sun-Times’ flirtation with its demise, he ran into officials of the Chicago Federation of Labor possessing like-minded viewpoints.
“It was exciting to pull together a group of people to invest in this paper as broad as the economy of Chicago itself,” Eisendrath said. He told top Chicago media blogger Rob Feder the coming-together of the ownership group and last-second purchase of the Sun-Times was “bashert,” the Yiddish word for ‘meant to be.’
Eisendrath traces his own social awareness all the way back to fourth-grade teacher Lynn Martin at Francis Parker School.
“Later on, when I taught third and fourth grade, I realized something happens to kids at that age,” he said. “They start to be able to imagine the world. It was then that I began thinking about what we owe each other as people and as citizens. My parents, my grandparents, all the relatives that I knew cared about the community they lived in.”
Mother Susan Manilow’s grandfather, Michael Rosenberg, was one of the first commissioners of the Sanitary District. “He was deeply involved in Jewish life on the West Side,” said Eisendrath.
The Eisendrath side of the family had always been involved in the local arts scene. Going back three generations, the Eisendraths ran a tannery business amid a “polyglot of Jewish experiences” extending to the South Side. As in the immigrant generational journey, the family “sort of drifted” to a more secular Jewish identity.
“I think about my dad a lot. He would be very happy with this,” Eisendrath said of his father, once a vice president of the First National Bank of Chicago, who died in 2006.
“I learned an enormous amount from him. He was a negotiator. Many of his skills helped me put this deal together. Never give up. But you have to be creative in getting things done. He was enormously creative. Not only in the deal, but in the people you’re dealing with.
“Life is not a zero-sum game. We have to create value in everything we do. That is part of what we owe each other in the city.”
A Harvard alum, Eisendrath desired to teach. He taught in the Chicago Public Schools for more than five years. Some of his idealism was shattered when a 12-year-old was murdered outside his school, the A.N. Pritzker School. The incident stops Eisendrath in his verbal track for several seconds. Some 33 years later, the tragedy is still difficult to talk about.
“He bled to death while we were waiting for the ambulance,” he said. “That sent me into politics. A big chunk of my early politics was school reform. You couldn’t do that from inside the (teaching) system.”
After “knocking on an enormous amount of doors,” Eisendrath was elected 43rd Ward alderman in 1987. “I got stuff done for my community, but also got things done for the city,” he said. For example, Eisendrath wrote an ordinance creating planned manufacturing districts. “It created almost as much sales tax revenue as on Michigan Avenue,” he said.
After six years in the City Council, Eisendrath resigned in Oct. 1993 to join the Clinton Administration. He supervised public housing in the region. He worked with the Congressional Black Caucus to tear down the worst public housing in the country.
“Not all the promises we made at the time were kept and followed,” Eisendrath said. “But I met some of the families who moved from the Robert Taylor Homes to (downstate) Danville. They actually had a better life there.”
Despite Cabrini Green’s fearsome reputation, Eisendrath said the Taylor Homes and Stateway Gardens were the worst public-housing projects in the city. “I’d like to think it was not ill-intended,” he said. “Similar mistakes were made all over the country.”
After his federal service, Eisendrath was involved with an on-line university where he learned about new technologies benefiting education. In the process, he became an advocate of Chicago as a world-class city competing against the biggest names in the world.
“We’re competing against London, Rio, Moscow, Berlin and Shanghai,” he said. “To take this full circle, the only way we’re going to do this well is if we start to know ourselves a little better. I think that’s been lost.”
All along, Eisendrath was a news junkie. He would start on the front page, while brother John began at the back, on Sports – “we’d cross in the middle.” But he always thought he’d simply stay a media consumer.
“I never thought I’d be doing this, never, ever,” he said. “I’d do op-ed pieces, but this did not enter my mind.”
The Sun-Times traces its roots back to just before Pearl Harbor, when businessman Marshall Field III, scion of the blue-blooded retail family, founded the Chicago Sun as a liberal alternative to Col. Robert R. McCormick’s rock-ribbed Republican, anti-New Deal and isolationist Chicago Tribune.
Merging with the Chicago Times in 1947, the newspaper eventually grew into a healthy second morning paper in Chicago, sporting some 600,000 circulation daily at its peak. The tabloid was home to such all-time Jewish journalists as gossip king Irv Kupcinet; advice guru Ann Landers (Eppie Lederer); columnists Bob Greene, Roger Simon and Neil Steinberg; and dean of baseball writers Jerome Holtzman.
But a long, slow decline began when Teddy Field, half-brother of Marshall Field V, desired to cash in his share of the paper early in 1984 to finance his Hollywood producer’s career. Sensationalist media mogul Rupert Murdoch down-marketed the paper after he bought it, prompting columnist Mike Royko to defect to the Tribune.
A succession of owners eventually led to Canadian press baron Conrad Black. With Jewish right-hand man David Radler cutting costs running the Sun-Times, such as shutting the escalator, Black looted parent Hollinger Co. of multi-millions. Both served prison time, but the Sun-Times was seriously damaged just as the media landscape radically changed.
Pages upon pages of department store ads from downtown retailers that provided good profit margins disappeared as the 21st century began. Also moving into the ether were very profitable classified ads, which now had a low- or no-cost alternative in Craigslist and other on-line sites. The 2008 Great Recession provided another body blow. The Sun-Times went into bankruptcy. Crain’s Chicago Business recently reported the Wrapports ownership, founded by Michael Ferro before he jumped to take over the Tribune’s parent company, lost $80 million propping up the Sun-Times before projecting a shutdown without a sale.
“The newspaper industry has been through the worst 15 years imaginable,” Eisendrath conceded. “News itself has been through an enormous transformation. News consumption is up everywhere. Problem is that a lot of stuff frankly is untrustworthy. News is about building communities of people who trust where they’re getting news from. We’re engaged in community-building.
“The old revenue model is not working, so we will get a new revenue model. We have quite a few (ideas), so we’re beginning to get our arms around how we have to structure to go after them. You’re beginning to see examples in the new media companies. We are going to take incremental steps to de-risk the experiments and run them in ways we think will demonstrate to us and everyone where we can get the revenue.”
Eisendrath knows what he doesn’t know about media revenue. He said he has “really smart people” advising him. He also was in the process of putting together a corporate board with “really terrific people” on it.
“You can’t imagine the free counsel I’m getting from everywhere in the country,” he said. “Some of it is fabulous.”
Eisendrath does know the tone and focus he wants the Sun-Times to have.
“It’s not healthy to view everything as politics, he said. “And I don’t think everything is politics. Fixing a road is what a government does, but it isn’t usually politics. And I don’t care if the rich and powerful people…sometimes think they’re entitled to everything. I care what the rest of us think. We have to remind ourselves that what we do every day actually matters.
“Our relentless focus on the rich and powerful is an enormous mistake. The lives of regular working people matter. That has impact ranging on how the criminal justice system works to how the economy works to what we do in education. We have to start valuing our fellow citizens. If we do, we make some different decisions as a country, as a city, as a newspaper.”
The Sun-Times’ roots were liberal, moved to the center under two succeeding generations of Fields, and went right under Murdoch and Black. They now enter a brave new world under Eisendrath and Co.
“I’m not in this to push for one policy or another,” he said. “I think if we focus on everyday people, the politics will take care of itself and we will be what democracy has to be.”