Chicago’s daily newspapers now facing troubled futures

By F.N. D'Alessio

CHICAGO – A little more than a century ago, Chicago boasted 11 daily English-language newspapers.

The fierce competition among them, immortalized in the 1928 play “The Front Page,” even turned bloody at times, and that drive to outdo one another led to 35 Pulitzer Prizes, journalism’s highest honor.

Today, only two major dailies remain in this city of 3 million, and both are in serious trouble from declining circulation, plummeting ad revenue and a new kind of competition that threatens to make newsprint itself obsolete.

Suddenly, “Stop the presses!” carries new meaning.

Even as the arrest of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich on federal corruption charges brought the latest and most luscious of scandals to the teeth of the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, questions were swirling about their futures.

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How long can the smaller Sun-Times survive as its parent, Sun-Times Media Group Inc., loses money every quarter? And what of the dominant Tribune, whose parent Tribune Co. sought bankruptcy protection this month because of its crushing $13 billion debt?

Both papers are steeped in history, the Chicago Tribune’s most famous single edition trumpeting erroneously in 1948, “Dewey Defeats Truman.” The Tribune first published in 1847, while the Sun-Times, formed in a 1948 merger, has its roots in the Chicago Evening Journal in 1844, making it the city’s oldest continuously published daily.

“I think it’s great that Chicago still has two newspapers, and it would be a great disappointment to lose either of them,” said Tom Spees, 50, a health-information service director who was looking through a Sun-Times left by another customer at Merle’s coffee shop near a North Side “el” train station.

But at a downtown Starbucks sat the possible future of news – and the source of much of the newspaper industry’s troubles.

Michelle Kurlemann plugged her laptop computer into a wall outlet and thumbed away at her BlackBerry. The 24-year-old interior designer said the closing of either paper would be “really sad,” but she wasn’t reading one of them, not in print anyway.

“I get my news online, and when someone I know sees a good newspaper article, they message it to me,” Kurlemann said. “Still, I suppose that if the newspapers close, it’ll hurt things online, too.”

To newsprint addicts, those are sad words.

Even in the early 1970s, Chicago still had four major dailies – the others had either folded or been merged.

Their reporters had their own culture, including a rather flexible code of ethics.

Journalism schools didn’t teach young reporters to impersonate deputy coroners on the telephone; night editors provided that lesson. And in those days before cell phones, an enterprising reporter might carry a pay telephone mouthpiece in a coat pocket just in case someone “accidentally” broke one at a crucial police station.

That culture extended to matters of food and drink – primarily the latter.

A reporter might take a somewhat liquid lunch at the Boul Mich, or below street level at the Billy Goat Tavern. After work, one might have dry martinis with the movers and shakers at Riccardo’s, or head up to the old O’Rourke’s to talk up that unfinished novel over Guinness.

You could plot the next revolution with draft ale at Oxford’s Pub, or – if you’d abandoned all hope – you could usually join a Bond Court judge who was drowning himself in highballs at Siggy’s under the “el” tracks.

They’re all gone now, except for the Billy Goat, which has become an eight-location chain and sells souvenirs to tourists.

One long-gone saloon may best represent Chicago newspapering in all its gaudy glory.

In 1977, the Sun-Times actually bought a decrepit tavern, renamed it the Mirage, and ran it for four months, staffing it with its own disguised reporters and photographers. They documented the shenanigans of the various city inspectors who victimized small businesses with their bribe demands. The expense would be unthinkable today, and would the 25-installment series the paper ran on its stunt in 1978.

Thirty years later, both the Sun-Times and the Tribune are instead trying to produce and distribute news amid steep budget cuts. Both papers have eliminated dozens of newsroom jobs, and their printed editions have shrunk in size, meaning less room for news.

If a paper were to fold, the Sun-Times is the likely candidate, several analysts said.

The tabloid-size Sun-Times’ average weekday circulation has fallen 3.9 percent from last year, to 313,176, and its Sunday circulation has declined 4.5 percent, to 255,905.

Those declines actually were better than the industry average and not as steep as the Tribune’s 7.8 percent drop. But the broadsheet Tribune, with a higher proportion of sales from outside the city, still sold about 203,000 more newspapers than its rival on weekdays and 609,000 more on Sundays, despite a higher newsstand price.

Neither paper was willing to concede.

Gary Weitman, a spokesman for Tribune Co., said the Tribune newspaper remains economically viable, and the Dec. 8 bankruptcy filing by the parent company didn’t suggest otherwise.

“The Sun-Times is in a more dire situation than the Tribune,” he said.

Sun-Times spokeswoman Tammy Chase agreed Chicago’s second-largest paper faces serious financial challenges. But she said the Sun-Times is doing everything it can to stay afloat, including slashing costs by about $50 million in 2008.

“We’re not giving up,” she said. “We’re not waving the white flag.”

Sun-Times Media Group executives have pointed out that the company’s $168 million third-quarter loss this year wasn’t as large as last year’s.

Some analysts and former journalists trace some of the Sun-Times’ problems to former owner Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp. acquired it in 1984 and forcibly reversed its traditional liberal political stance, thereby losing many of its top writers, including legendary columnist Mike Royko.

In 1993, Murdoch sold the Sun-Times to Hollinger International, whose then-chief executive, Lord Conrad Black, was convicted in 2007 of siphoning millions of dollars from the Sun-Times and its other newspaper holdings.

News Corp. spokesman Jack Horner declined comment.

For a while under Hollinger, the Sun-Times had a 10 percent to 12 percent operating profit margin, better than second papers in most cities.

Hollinger’s biggest move was to create the Sun-Times Media Group by buying up 70 suburban and neighborhood newspapers, more than a dozen of which are dailies. Some of those are profitable, and some newspaper analysts envision the Sun-Times company shutting down the namesake paper and keeping the suburban ones.

That wouldn’t be acceptable to Michael Miner, the senior editor of the Chicago Reader, a free alternative weekly, where he reports on local journalism.

“It they were to fold, it would be a devastating loss to the city,” said Miner, who worked as a reporter at the Sun-Times from 1970 to 1978. “It would be tragic on its own terms to have only one voice left. And then consider that that voice would be the Tribune, which is in precarious shape itself.”

Associated Press Writer Michael Tarm contributed to this story.