Newman on leaving Sun-Times: ‘It’s been kind of a wild ride’

During the three years Craig Newman was managing editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, he oversaw so many buyouts and layoffs, including the headline-making ouster of the entire 28-member photography staff in 2013, that when asked he couldn’t come up with an exact number for how many staffers had left while he was leading the newsroom.

But he will no doubt remember this day in August. In announcements on Facebook and Twitter on Tuesday, the 44-year-old Newman said it was his last day at the city’s second-largest daily. “Time for some day drinking,” he wrote in a public Facebook post. “Today was my last at the Chicago Sun-Times. It was mostly a good run.”

Newman, who joined the paper in 2003 as deputy design editor, declined to tell me whether his departure was voluntary, only that he had known since late last week that Tuesday would be his final day at the paper.

“It’s been kind of a wild ride,” Newman said in an interview. “I’ve been at the forefront of the changing landscape of news media. I’ve gotten to see and experiment with a lot of things happening in our industry.”

In a statement to Poynter’s Ben Mullin, which Mullin posted on Twitter, Sun-Times Publisher and Editor in Chief Jim Kirk said Newman approached him several months ago about leaving to pursue new endeavors. Newman agreed to stay through most of the summer, Kirk said in the statement.

Newman told me he did not know whether he would be replaced. Kirk did not return a a voice message left for him at the paper or respond to a message on Twitter.

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The Sun-Times has been struggling to keep its foothold in the city since filing for bankruptcy protection in March 2009. Chicago financier James Tyree rescued the paper in October of that year, agreeing to assume $20 million in debt as part of the purchase. Tyree died suddenly in 2011, once again putting the future of the scrappy working class paper in question. Later that year, under the name Wrapports LLC, Michael Ferro and a group of wealthy Chicago investors bought the Sun-Times Media Group.*

That didn’t stem the staff reductions. Or the changes taking place inside the paper.

Last October, Wrapports sold the group’s 32 suburban weeklies and six daily newspapers to the Tribune Publishing Co. Its remaining holdings include the Sun-Times and the Chicago Reader. The Wrapports website on Tuesday was temporarily disabled by its owner.

Bob Mazzoni, a long-time Sun-Times copy editor and the paper’s co-chair for the Chicago News Guild, said the newsroom has lost about 30 employees through layoffs and buyouts in the past three years. The number includes both union and non-union employees, he said, adding that he didn’t have time for a longer conversation about Newman or the leadership at the paper.

“With the staffing we have these days, we’re all working pretty consistently from the start of our shifts to the end of them,” he wrote in an email.

Chicago journalists responded on social media to Newman’s departure with accolades and sympathy. He was portrayed by some as the stoic captain of a ship that hit the iceberg but hadn’t yet sunk, against all odds.

Marcus Gilmer, former digital editor at the Sun-Times and now assistant real-time news editor at Mashable in San Francisco, said the paper is struggling to maintain a digital foothold, something Newman championed and fought for.

“He was smart and he could see the landscape around him,” Gilmer said. “All these things he had built, a blog network, breaking news site, all these things he had hoped to build, that was all taken away. He deserved better. It’s an amazing talented newsroom, and he worked well with them but the leadership, I think they let him down in the way they treated him and the way his work was treated.”

Andrew Huff, editor and publisher of Gaper’s Block, a Chicago web publication, said Newman took the blame for the paper’s troubled digital transformation, including a newspaper website he called “one of the most user unfriendly nationwide.”

“He’s well respected,” Huff said. “He piloted through some difficult transitions. As the paper moved toward being more digitally focused he was out in front and was very visible on Twitter and very reachable by Twitter. It’s relatively rare for someone that high up in the hierarchy to be so responsive.”

Scott Smith, editorial director for TouchVision TV and author of the Our Man in Chicago blog, said Newman’s departure is a huge loss to the paper.

“One of the last protectors of what the Sun-Times has stood for in the past is no longer there,” Smith said. “That’s not to say there aren’t solid journalists there. But what it means is there aren’t enough people there to stand in front of the moving train and bring it to a stop.”

Newman told me he wasn’t sure what he would do next.

“My wife and I have been talking about this for a while now, what do you do on that day when the Sun-Times isn’t there for you anymore?” he said. “I just don’t know. I’ve been in newspapers for more than 25 years now. I love them. I love what they mean. I want to stay in journalism somehow. It’s what I know.”

* Correction: This story originally misspelled Michael Ferro’s last name.

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Jackie Spinner is CJR’s correspondent for Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin. She is an assistant journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former staff writer for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.