The Murdoch Touch


I worked for the Chicago Sun-Times when Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. bought the paper in 1984, and so I have a feeling for the reporters at The Wall Street Journal who today are likely getting dozens of calls from long-lost acquaintances asking them how awful they feel. I felt like I was the car accident everybody could gawk at. Because Murdoch, particularly then, was mainly known for the New York Post, and that was before its outrageousness was seen as something special, funny almost. 

Mike Royko, the famed Sun-Times columnist, immediately quit and joined the Tribune (where he wrote columns referring to Murdoch as "The Alien") and went on Phil Donahue’s talk show, taped in Chicago, to proclaim that "No self-respecting fish would be wrapped in a Rupert Murdoch newspaper." That line got a lot of pick-up around the country, and Royko seemed particularly prescient when, within days, the rather subdued appearance of the Sun-Times shifted to huge headlines, weird narrow columns and a general down-scale appearance. 

Murdoch, it’s clear, didn’t understand Chicago, where, at least back then, it didn’t matter so much that Murdoch was (at the time) an Australian citizen as much as it did that he wasn’t a Chicagoan. Even average readers expected a level of news-worthiness,  where local hard news ruled. Murdoch papers are much more playful than that, so within the first few days, when the Sun-Times ran a photo of a Cary Grant on the front page, apparently only because he had grown a bushy beard, readers picked up the paper thinking he was dead. Reading that he had  simply grown a beard was like, what’s the big deal? Every day that the Sun-Times changed made Royko seem smarter than ever.

Though I bet most 2007 vingtage fish won’t mind being wrapped in the WSJ, I’m certain there will be unexpected changes. For God knows what reason, the Sun-Times contract with reporters allowed them to leave if new ownership took over, with one week’s pay for every six weeks they had worked. Consequently, the paper lost some of its best, veteran  reporters and lost others who just quit journalism. Many of those left behind were tense and uneasy, most of us not quite fitting in with the new style. It was not a happy place. But  it also became apparent that while the paper’s appearance and some of its emphasis changed, after a few celebrated stumbles, the Sun-Times was the same feisty paper,  just gaudier.  We never had our own Headless Man in Topless Bar headline, but as Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert argued, it would be nothing to be ashamed of. After all, he said, if there was a headless man’s corpse found in a topless bar, that would be the absolute perfect headline. 
–P.J. Bednarski