Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Which dies first - Sun-Times or Trib?

When the Chicago Sun-Times recently renewed the contract of prominent sports columnist Jay Mariotti, many sports fans were upset at the thought of having to endure three more years of Mariotti’s often-acidic prose – particularly when it relates to the concept of Jerry Reinsdorf.

Yet my first reaction was to express a sense of wonder at the thought that the Sun-Times thinks it will still be publishing three years from now. Mariotti himself has said it is a guaranteed contract (he gets his money regardless of what happens to the newspaper), and the company’s CEO, Cyrus Freidheim Jr., has said there is enough money on hand to ensure the paper lasts another two or three years with the business status quo.

BEYOND THAT, HE’S promising nothing, unless serious changes take place in the current economic situation.

I bring this up because whenever people talk about dying newspapers and the concept of dueling newssheets becoming antiquated, they automatically assume it is the Sun-Times that will someday die off.

Long Live the Chicago Tribune! Col. McCormick’s newssheet of isolationism that tried to create the concept of “Chicagoland” as a separate nation apart from the elitist east coast will be the ultimate winner of the Great Chicago Newspaper War.

That is, unless it manages to die first.

Which of these newspaper nameplates will have a longer life?

IT IS WHAT I wonder every time I hear news accounts of business problems within Tribune Co. and the need for CEO Sam Zell to sell off yet more assets and let go more staff on the various newspapers he now owns. Officials let it be known Tuesday that about 60 Chicago Tribune editorial staffers will lose their jobs later this summer.

Most recently, the Los Angeles Times let about 250 people go, including about 150 members of the editorial staff who were producing the detailed product that allowed the newspaper to have dreams of being one of the best in the country (in reality, it falls short of the New York Times or Washington Post, as does the Tribune itself).

I keep hearing talk of the need for serious change within a year’s time if there is to be a long-term future for the Chicago Tribune and its sister newspapers. I couldn’t help but notice the Sun-Times earlier this year reporting that the Tribune Co. could default on its debts by the end of 2008.

So is it possible that the bloat of Tribune Co. will crush the Chicago Tribune, thereby leaving the Sun-Times as the newspaper war winner by default? It is no more ridiculous than the situations in Denver or Detroit, where recent accounts indicate the likelihood that the Detroit News and Rocky Mountain News will someday soon be the equivalent of Chicago Today – just a memory.

I’M SURE ANYBODY affiliated directly with Tribune Co. will snicker upon reading this and say I’m being ridiculous. They will claim the Tribune has so many editorial advantages over the Sun-Times that it can’t be expected to die.

Some will even cite as an advantage the recent scaling back and redesign of the Orlando Sentinel (a Tribune sister newspaper). Officials have said the Chicago Tribune will undergo a similar alteration at summer’s end.

A scaled back Tribune (seriously, they are talking about fewer pages, which they think will significantly reduce their printing costs) will be able to cope with the current economic situation and survive, while also still providing a forum for some of the detailed reporting on international and domestic events that the Tribune often offers.

The problem is one of perception. How many Tribune readers will be willing to accept a scaled-back product? It could be a case where a slimmer newspaper scares off the people who have been loyal readers to date, while doing nothing to attract the people who are not now (and maybe never will) read anything printed with ink on paper.

BY COMPARISON, THE Sun-Times has always been a scaled-back product.

Its readers often cite its smaller size as an advantage. Admittedly, it is an easier newspaper to read while riding a commuter train or as a passenger in a carpool (I hope nobody is trying to read while driving that car).

Chicago newspaper readers could have an easier time accepting a scrawny Sun-Times than they would a slimmer Tribune.

That actually is the problem with newspapers as a medium for disseminating the news – we readers expect more substance from a newspaper than we demand from a broadcast news program or even a website devoted to offering news and commentary.

WEBSITES CAN BE considered complete if they cover one issue particularly well, yet a newspaper is expected to provide the same detailed coverage of that issue along with detailed accounts of many other issues that are totally unrelated.

Municipal government, local business, culture, athletics. What website can cover City Hall, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the White Sox equally as well as any newsprint publication?

Any worthwhile newspaper had better be capable of doing them all well. Any paper that can’t do it isn’t worth my 50 (or 75) cents. In fact, it has me wondering if the Tribune on Sundays is worth the $1.99 they started charging last week.

I think my brother put it best when he said, “I’d better at least get 20 cents worth of better comics.”

WHICH NEWSPAPER DIES first will have nothing to do with the merits of what they are publishing, unless it becomes an issue that they are publishing so little that they are not worth reading at all.

Both of the Chicago metro newspapers come up with stories that are worth knowing about in order to fully comprehend the way things operate in the Second City. Personally, I wouldn’t trust any one newspaper to give me a full account of what is happening (and too many websites are so limited in their focus that they can’t be trusted by themselves to cover the world either).

There are times I wonder if Chicago would be better off if the old Daily News were still a newspaper (and not just the inspiration for the name of a Chicago-based website), giving us a third voice that tries to cover the entire metro region.

That ultimately is the problem if either the Tribune or Sun-Times dies off. It is true that the various suburban daily newspapers will continue to exist. They often do a more thorough job of covering their particular segment of the metropolitan area than either of the two downtown Chicago-based newspapers.

BUT THERE’S ALSO the problem that those papers can develop such a tunnel vision in thinking their particular region exists all by itself without ties to the rest of Chicago. They can miss the significance of issues that only a metro newspaper can capture.

Regardless of which newspaper goes first (and I would be thoroughly shocked if both were still publishing 10 years from now, even though back in the late 1980s I thought the Sun-Times wouldn’t live long enough to see the 21st Century), Chicago will lose something significant. At the very least, one of these papers won't get the joy of covering an Olympic games staged in its own home city.


EDITOR’S NOTES: Tribune Co. has its own ( financial problems that make the U.S. government look well managed.

Is this news account just an example of Sun-Times braggadocio (,CST-FIN-suntimes18w.article), or are things really that bad ( at the World's Greatest Newspaper?

Is The Detroit News ( destined for the journalistic scrapheap?

Is the Rocky Mountain News really doomed because it doesn’t contain the word “Denver” ( in its title? Or will the Denver Post’s ( lagging circulation bring it down?

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