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Cyrus Freidheim in November, 2006, when he was named chief executive of the Sun-Times media group.
Cyrus Freidheim in November, 2006, when he was named chief executive of the Sun-Times media group.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times file

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Journey back to paper’s rocky past

A new book by Cyrus Freidheim, former Sun-Times CEO, recounts past hurdles.

I’ve only glimpsed the back of my neck once in the past year and a half. Once is plenty. It happened by accident in the fall of 2020, in a chair at Great Clips. I thought: Better prepare the barber for a shock.

“Spinal surgery. A C3-7 laminoplasty,” I said. “I’ve never summoned the courage to look at it.”

“Here, I can help with that,” the barber said cheerily, angling the handheld mirror so I could see.

Oh. It looked like somebody planted an ax in the back of my neck. Good thing I had to sit in the chair while my hair was cut. Even then, I was somewhat shaky walking away. Not a little-unsteady shaky. But I-hope-I-don’t-keel-over shaky. I never looked again.

Despite the jarring sight, it was still good to be reminded. There is a certain amazed pride in surviving an ordeal. I sometimes say to my wife, out of the blue: “I still can’t believe that happened.”

It’s a handy phrase when processing difficulties. Like nearly two years of COVID craziness, or the Jan. 6 insurrection. It doesn’t mean I doubt the reality — far too much of that already. Rather, it’s like a slow whistle of appreciation, almost awe. Wow, remember that? Did that really happen? Amazing.

That line came to mind reading Cyrus Freidheim’s new book, “Commit & Delivery: On the Frontlines of Management Consulting.”

Not a book I would typically pick up. A management guide, filtered through the soft focus of retirement. But its author used to be CEO of the Sun-Times and gave me a copy. “Commit & Delivery” shares Freidheim’s business wisdom culled at places like Chrysler, United Airlines and Amoco.

What stood out for me, of course, was Chapter Eight, “Catch a Falling Sun,” about his stint at the newspaper, which as we speak is preparing for its wedding to WBEZ, picking out china patterns and renting toile napkins. Or so I suppose. I never know what’s going on until I read it in Robert Feder’s column along with everybody else.

Freidheim points out the online world was only the third kick that newspapers received in the past century: first radio, then television, then the coupe de grace, Mr. Internet. The author arrives on the scene like a paramedic starting chest compression. He got rid of the corporate jet.

It isn’t that I forgot we had one, or that the Sun-Times was once on the hook to the IRS for $600 million. Or that two of our executives went to prison. But geez: I still can’t believe that happened.

Books such as this sink or swim on candor, and I could have used a bit more. I remember Freidheim being in hot water over his stint as CEO of Chiquita Brands International. Something about the company being accused of hiring Colombian terrorists to protect its banana plantations, and the families of those killed suing.

His banana chapter is certainly interesting: As CEO he goes from flying to Panama to huddle with the president, twice, to speeding through the countryside in the Philippines in an armored car escorted by guards during a civil war, to working undercover in a Kroger’s in Ohio to better understand the point-of-sale banana sale situation at a grocery store level.

A pity then that he sidestepped Colombia, because readers will certainly remember, and wonder. Nor does Freidheim even gum our old boss, Lord Conrad Black, whom he sees as “a respected historian, having published several well-regarded books.”

Well-regarded by Donald Trump maybe, who pardoned Black as a reward for his boot-licking hagiography. Myself, I would have gone with something closer to the CBC headline: “Conrad Black’s history of Canada: Arrogant, misinformed and disgraceful.”

Water under the bridge now.

This December marks the 80th birthday of our paper’s parent, the Chicago Sun, begun on Dec. 4, 1941, to counterbalance the isolationist Tribune and push American involvement in World War II, a purpose entirely mooted when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7.

The chips were stacked against us from the start, since we were three days old, battling our way out of the cradle. Yet here we are today, poised to merge and grow while Alden Capital is ripping the copper plumbing out of the Tribune and selling it for scrap. I still can’t believe that is happening.

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