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Media Circus

Goodbye, Jules

By Gadi Dechter | Posted 8/24/2005

In his farewell column to Baltimore readers last week, veteran Sun political commentator Jules Witcover vented his spleen at the “unnecessary and calamitous” war in Iraq, not his employer of 24 years.

“My principal regret in leaving this space in The Sun,” he wrote, “is that my readers in Baltimore will no longer read my views on what I consider the most critical crisis facing this country for the foreseeable future.”

But when asked to describe his feelings about the way his Sun career had ended, the voluble writer—who published three columns a week during the last presidential election—is terse: “Bitter.”

Witcover, 78, formally retired from the Sun staff in 2004, when he took a buyout from the newspaper’s corporate owner, the Chicago-based Tribune Co. He then accepted a one-year contract to continue the column with the hope, he says, that it would be automatically renewed for at least a second year.

Two months ago, Witcover received a letter by FedEx from Dale Cohen, the Sun’s vice president of human resources and legal affairs, informing the columnist that his contract would not be renewed. The formal letter included a single line of thanks: “‘We appreciate your many years of service to The Sun and its readers and wish you well in all of your future endeavors,’” Witcover says, reading the letter by phone from his Georgetown home.

“And that was that,” he says. “And I have never received a word from [Sun editor Tim] Franklin, by phone or anything, or from [editorial page editor] Dianne Donovan, from that point until now. So I think that gives you a fair idea of how I feel about them.”

Both Franklin and Donovan say that Witcover should have anticipated this day and that there was no intention to personally slight Witcover, who joined the Evening Sun in 1981, along with co-columnist Jack Germond. The pair began their collaboration in 1977 at The Washington Star; Germond retired four years ago. A Beltway insider since the 1960s, Witcover covered the 1972 presidential elections for the Los Angeles Times and the 1976 elections for The Washington Post. He has written 15 books.

“It should have been obvious to him from the contract that he signed that it was a one-year contract and that it was up for review and consideration,” Franklin says. “I have tremendous respect for Jules as a political journalist. As a political junkie myself, I’ve read him for a long time.” The editor adds, “I feel bad that he feels hurt, because he’s a good guy and has meant a lot to the paper over the years.”

Donovan said The Sun might decide to continue running Witcover’s column, which is syndicated by Tribune Media Services. “What we do periodically, and will be doing with Jules, is look at what we call the mix, the diversity of the op-ed page,” Donovan says. “We try to balance out liberal voices and conservative voices, ethnically diverse voices, female and male voices, and we may decide to continue Jules’ column through his syndication.”

Witcover’s column took an aggressively anti-war posture in recent years, but he says he has no reason to believe the decision to discontinue his Sun contract was a function of his opinions.

More likely, it was a simple business decision, he says. As a full-time staff writer, Witcover made just under $88,000 a year at the time of his buyout, he says. His contract last year was worth only $30,000, plus an $8,000 travel allowance.

Even so, carrying the column in syndication would cost The Sun far less than retaining him as a contract writer. Both Witcover and Tribune Media Services declined to say exactly how much he’s paid in syndication fees, but the columnist acknowledges that total income from all his other newspaper clients—which he says number around 25—add up to “far less” than the $30,000 The Sun paid him.

“Some papers get [the column] for as little as $5 a week,” he says.

Donovan says the paper intends to continue its relationships with the two other retired Sun journalists who still contribute opinion columns: former foreign editor G. Jefferson Price III and former deputy editorial page editor C. Fraser Smith.

For his part, Witcover says he has no intention of retiring his column and will be looking for “other sources of income,” just as soon as he returns from a two-week vacation in Bethany Beach, Del. His 16th book, a memoir titled, The Making of an Ink-Stained Wretch, will be published in October by the Johns Hopkins University Press.

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