Friday, October 9, 2009

It’s Alive!

It is a question I have read quite a bit in recent days whenever Internet-based commentary addresses the current situation at the Chicago Sun-Times – Why would anyone want to buy a newspaper?

The implication being that our society in Chicago would be better off with the remains of Marshall Field’s vision of a liberal alternative to the isolationist Chicago Tribune being a mere memory.

THIS TYPE OF talk usually comes from two types of people – isolationists who want to think that anything that isn’t as far to the right politically as they are is somehow out of touch with society, or those computer-oriented geeks who are so attached to their electronic devices that they just can’t comprehend the fact that a significant portion of the population finds enjoyment in those moments when we turn off the computers and other devices.

The rhetoric about letting the newspaper, along with its sister publications throughout the suburbs, die off came up again when it was learned that the Chicago Newspaper Guild members who represent reporter-types at the Sun-Times and three of the suburban newspapers (most of them are non-union, and the new management is determined to keep them that way) came up with a deal that could keep the publications open for the time being.

The Chicago Sun-Times will be alive on the Day of the Dead (Nov. 1). Let's hope they're still alive to cover Barack Obama's bid for re-election in 2012.

It seems that the initial “take it or leave it” deal put forth by the proposed buyer of the Sun-Times and its company (for a mere $5 million) was a negotiating ploy, and we can now see the unions were justified in rejecting it.

The deal that they ultimately accepted (although in all fairness, the Gary (Ind.) Newspaper Guild still has to vote on the issue come Friday) still requires some serious concessions by the unions.

NO ONE CAN say that these union members were somehow being selfish or thinking only of themselves, although I know those people in our society who want to believe that organized labor ought to be regarded as a criminal conspiracy will disagree.

The part of the deal, as it has been reported, that intrigues me the most is the portion related to the compensation cuts that previously were approved. The deal extends those cuts for three years (instead of permanently, as the original “take it or leave it” deal demanded).

Does this mean someone seriously envisions the newspapers being alive for three years? I hope so. It is more optimistic than the rhetoric put forth by people with an ideological axe who would see the death of another news organization as validation of their views about life.

As I’m sure you have figured out by now, I am a newspaper supporter to the point where I will publicly state that I find it to be a superior medium in some aspects when it comes to reporting detailed accounts of the news.

INK ON PAPER is easier on my eyes than reading off a computer screen or any type of device (I remember once attending a forum on the future of journalism on the Internet where one person made the statement that newspapers will remain until technology comes along that can duplicate paper – it hasn’t happened yet).

But what concerns me more is the fact that I have yet to see any Internet-oriented business model that even comes close to being able to support the kind of labor-intense situation needed to adequately cover news.

Too many sites that like to think they’re about news get by because they’re based on the idea that someone else is paying for the generation of copy.

Those sites that try to generate their own (such as the Chi-Town Daily News that only remains up and running due to the generosity of “volunteers” willing to write for free while the owners try to figure out a business model to stay alive for the long-term) learn quickly that they are no more successful than the so-called “19th Century journalism” of ink on paper.

BUT WHAT I’M interested in seeing is what becomes of these publications. Because what is really being purchased is the archives that could be turned into a resource – people have to pay to see those old stories when they’re doing research about news events of the past.

And they’re also paying for the skills of those reporter-types who felt like they were being put at risk of being left for dead with no compensation whatsoever (now, they’re looking at some severance) should the company wind up dying off anyway.

Some people like to point at the plight of real estate developer Sam Zell, who is on his way out of the Chicago Tribune and its company having failed in his attempt to bolster the company’s financial situation.

Of course, his “plan” appears to have been about nothing more than cutting, with no interest whatsoever in the actual product (the news) being produced.

THE KEY WILL be to see if the proposed buyers of the Sun-Times (who still need their purchase approved in court – the company is in bankruptcy) have a vision for trying to use that resource known as the newsroom to put out a product that will sell.

It is a valued resource, primarily because of its age and experience and legacy. Perhaps if some of these websites that like to snipe at newspapers can stick around for seven decades (roughly the age of the Sun-Times), they will over time develop the same value. They don’t have it yet.

Perhaps the Sun-Times’ new owners will be the ones who will come up with some way for the actual information to be produced in a way that will generate profits when the economy improves. My point is that this will take time.

Having that resource to use as the basis for developing a news report for use in the 21st Century – to me, that’s the answer to the question, “Why would anyone want to buy a newspaper?”


EDITOR’S NOTES: Dueling coverage of sorts of the Sun-Times News Group’s possible (,sun-times-sale-guild-union-agreement-100709.article) continued life is offered by the newspaper itself, its competition (,0,5547878,full.story) and a so-called neutral ( source.

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