Saturday, October 30, 2010

Sun-Times Media Lays Off Exec Who Put Its Spin on Layoffs

Ironic, isn't it?

Sun-Times Media spokesperson Tammy Chase's job was to put the best light on Sun-Times Media's layoffs, big and small. This week, she got her own notice that the company could no longer afford her services.

Michael Miner of the Chicago Reader talked to her about her experiences:

At Sun-Times Media, "efficiencies" have recently been made right and left. About 50 drivers were laid off when the job of delivering the flagship Sun-Times was turned over completely to the Tribune in September. This month the Sun-Times laid off sports columnist-turned-features writer Carol Slezak and three editorial assistants. Across the 59 daily and weekly papers held by the company, jobs have vanished in editorial, advertising, marketing, and circulation. Last week the bell tolled again at the SouthtownStar, for two receptionists and two salesmen.
Tammy Chase (photo by Andre J. Jackson)

Efficiencies? "That was the general message the company wanted me to put out there," says Tammy Chase. "When you're a journalist you want to tell the whole story. Even if you're not dumping your notebook, you don't want to not cover something if it's really important. In PR you need to be truthful, but you can't say whatever. You need to project the message your company executives want to project. It's a different way of thinking."

After ten years with Sun-Times Media, four of them thinking like a spokesperson, Chase is packing up her desk this week. She's been laid off. It's something she was pretty sure was about to happen when she talked to the Orland Park Patch, and she got the official word a few days later. Sun-Times Media can no longer afford a corporate spokesman—CEO Jeremy Halbreich will now do that job himself.

When things got crazy at work, Chase says, she used to joke that she ought to write a book. If she ever does, I'll read it. She started out as a reporter at a tiny paper in Iowa, went on to Bloomberg, and joined the Sun-Times as a financial writer in 2000. The paper belonged to Hollinger International back then, and Conrad Black and David Radler ran it. Chase never met Black, but now and then she'd ride the elevator with Radler. "He was very tanned and surly looking," she says. If Radler even knew she worked for him he probably also knew she belonged to the Newspaper Guild; Radler, who despised unions, would have considered her a lower life form.

But in late 2006 Chase left the newsroom and the guild. By then Hollinger shareholders had turned on Black and Radler. Black was awaiting trial for fraud over noncompete payments he and Radler had pocketed as they sold off most of Hollinger. Radler had copped a plea and agreed to testify against Black. Nothing was left of mighty Hollinger but the Sun-Times Media Group, and the new CEO was Cyrus Freidheim, the guy who'd turned around the Chiquita banana company.

Chase was Lifestyles editor when Friedheim offered her the corporate job. "You know I edit stories about shoes," she told him. But Friedheim wanted a journalist who'd been around the Sun-Times awhile speaking for the company. Black's trial was a few months away and the calls were about to pour in.

"Shareholders at large were calling," Chase says, "asking, 'How much money do Conrad and his colleagues have out there, and how do we recover it?' We settled with David Radler—we got some money from that. So shareholders wanted to know—what about the other guys?" (Besides Black, two other Hollinger officers were accused of benefiting from the noncompete payments, though on a far smaller scale.)

And if Black got off, shareholders wanted to know, what would that mean for their shares? "A lot of investors were ticked off," says Chase. "They thought he owed the company and the shareholders a lot of money." That's a lot of money as in hundreds of millions of dollars. "You can't blame them for being grouchy," says Chase. "We had the trial. We owed the IRS money. Our potential liability had gotten up to—I think at one point it was $600 million. The investors were understandably worried."

And then there were all the calls from reporters covering Black and the trial. "From Britain. Canada, of course. I was getting hundreds of calls a week—about 50-50 investors to media. It was a shitstorm."

Black was convicted. Revenues plunged. The STMG staggered on, a company desperate to be bought that nobody wanted. "Nobody wanted to take on that IRS thing," says Chase. Early last year investors took over the board and Freidheim resigned, telling the Sun-Times on his way out the door, "If we did go into bankruptcy, that would not mean the end of the company."

What Chase was about to discover is that long before bankruptcy is declared, a company must begin to prepare for it. "We worked on this at least a month in advance," she says. "I'd covered United's bankruptcy as a reporter, and I'd say the restructuring adviser is so and so and the lawyer is so and so, and this happened in court today. But now I saw what the restructuring adviser actually does. It sets up shop and goes through the books. Three people were devoted full-time to this—'OK, here's the people whose bills we'll pay right away and these bills we'll address later.' You have to have people help you on this and these guys are experts."
Ms. Chase, I've been there, I know the feeling of being let go. It's happened to me twice. Good luck in the future.

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