Thursday, March 13, 2008

Former Sun-Times Writer Will Use Buy-Out to Fund Business

By Hal Conick

March 13, 2008

It’s been over a month since Howard Wolinsky took his buy-out from the Chicago Sun-Times. In the weeks since he left the paper, Wolinsky has only traveled to Chicago twice after being there most days for 27 years.

“I’m no longer a commuter” says Wolinsky, 60, who was taking a train back to his home in Flossmoor, Ill with his son David Wolinsky, who works in the same business his father does as the Chicago City Editor of the Onion’s AV Club.

The buy-out, which was worth nearly a years pay for Wolinsky, was handed down by the Sun-Times Media Group Inc. on January 25. Wolinsky had worked at the Sun-Times for the last 27 years as a reporter covering everything from the shooting of President Ronald Reagan to corporation scandals, health technology, and the internet.

Even though Wolinsky no longer travels to the Sun-Times building for a job, he is now working harder than ever before.

“I need two of me now,” says Wolinsky. “I didn’t know I was in such demand. I think that I’m working harder now than when I worked for the Sun-Times.

I’m turning work away- I’m getting so much work now that I’m giving some of it to others.”

Wolinsky now does his all of his writing through freelance work at places like the Chicago Tribune, Business Week, and internet ventures such as Skype’s webpage as their US blogger. He talks with great pride about his current writing ventures. “Right now I’m writing on genetic genealogy, and I have more coming on this.” says Wolinsky.

His decision on taking the buy-out was one that Wolinsky says has been considering for a while, as he also thought about it the last time the Sun-Times were buying out employees about a year and a half ago. But this time, something changed.

“I went to the Union meeting and went through a mental transformation,” says Wolinsky. “It felt like it was a good deal for me.”

“I took the buy-out and put it in the bank,” says Wolinsky. “Like I said in the piece I wrote for Gapers Block, the Sun-Times is my ‘angel investor’ in giving me the seed money to launch my own business.” Wolinsky says he will be starting his own writing business using, a domain he now owns.

The farewell piece that Wolinsky wrote for Gapers Block has put him in the spotlight. Since the article, titled “So Long Sun-Times”, came out, Wolinsky said that he has been invited to speak at Columbia University in Chicago and has even gotten reacquainted with some old friends via phone calls.

Dan Miller, former editor for Wolinsky at the Business section of the Sun-Times, said that he’s not surprised at all at Wolinsky’s plan to start his own business.

“He has a willingness to take risks and a large amount of self confidence in his own skill,” says Miller. “Put those together and you have a recipe for success.”

Miller, while optimistic about Wolinsky’s future, can’t say the same about the Sun-Times and his former section.

“[The cuts] will certainly hurt the quality [of the Business section] in the long run and the short run,” says Miller. “I don’t believe it could have been handled a different way due to the way we were losing money. There was no way to avoid it.”

Other than Wolinsky, the Sun-Times gave buy-outs to 12 employees age 55 and older, and laid off 17 other news room jobs in an effort for the newspaper to save money according to the Chicago Newspaper Guild.

The buy-out was only offered to employees 55 years and older, and gives two weeks of full payment for every year of work up two 50 weeks. Some health benefits were also offered with the package.

Wolinsky said that taking the buy-out made him feel like a burden had been lifted off of his chest after the period of time where the Sun-Times newsroom was unsure where and when the next series of cuts were going to come. He said while he felt good about taking it, others that work at the Sun-Times were a bit more conflicted about it.

“One woman I knew from the paper was apologetic for not taking the buy-out. Other people told me that they regretted not taking it,” says Wolinsky. “People do what they have to do” in regards to personal decisions made about taking a buy-out. “I did what I thought was right for me.”

Many have placed part of the blame for the cuts on the moving of news from print to the web. In his “So Long” entry on Gapers Block, Wolinsky laments the Sun-Times slow movement on the internet. He writes that the paper started off well, but never “completely understood or bought into what was coming, and so didn't follow through.”

Robert Reed, a business writer whose “Reedbiz” blog is featured on the Sun-Times website, joins in the opinion that the Sun-Times fell a few steps behind on the web.

“If the gang who were running the Sun-Times a few years ago [Referring to Conrad Black and David Radler] had properly invested in new technology and online staff, the Sun-Times would now have more than a fighting chance to make the necessary transition from print to online,” says Reed. “Now, it is playing catch-up - having to cut costs while reinventing itself all at once.”

Reinvention isn’t something that is lost on Howard Wolinsky, as he has done so himself many times over in his career at the Chicago Sun-Times. He now faces his greatest challenge as he tries to go from employed reporter to professional freelancer and self-made businessman.

“I got a years pay to go away,” says Wolinsky. “At this point, there’s nothing to lose.”

Dismantling of the old Sun-Times building