Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Newspaper bankruptcy gives joy to few

There are two types of people who will experience a moment of glee upon learning that the Bright One has joined the World’s Greatest Newspaper in bankruptcy court.

Some people who can’t handle the concept that not everybody on Planet Earth perceives issues exactly as they do will want to cackle and claim the Chicago Sun-Times is getting what it deserves for being “out of touch” with themselves.

THEN, THERE WILL be the competition.

Let’s not forget the way the Sun-Times intended to play up big the news back in December 2008 that the Tribune Co. had to file for bankruptcy protection to allow itself to restructure in hopes of surviving as a company.

By extension, that means the Chicago Tribune that had always been perceived as the fat, wealthy newspaper beat the scrappy, but impoverished Sun-Times to bankruptcy.

Had it not been for Rod Blagojevich getting busted by the feds the very same day (allowing the Tribune to legitimately play up a story unrelated to its financial struggles), we likely would have received day upon day of economic pontification over whose fault it was that the Tribune is a bankrupt newspaper.

NOW, ANYBODY AT the Sun-Times who was taking some joy out of the Tribune’s predicament ought to pipe down. Both of the surviving metropolitan newspapers of the Second City face bankruptcy, which will inspire the most sarcastic of our pundits to claim they are failed business entities that deserve to die.

Don’t think that competing newsrooms aren’t willing to rub it in. It is not limited exclusively to the downtown offices of the new newspapers.

I couldn’t help but notice the website Tuesday of the Times of Northwest Indiana, the Munster, Ind.-based newspaper that competes for local news in the area around Hammond and Gary, Ind., with the Post-Tribune of Merrillville.

The latter paper is owned by the Sun-Times News Group, which means they too are included. Hence, we got the headline “Post-Tribune parent company files for bankruptcy.”

AS FOR THE Tribune proper, they settled for an almost subdued “Chicago Sun-Times files for bankruptcy,” on top of a story that rehashed all the scandalous business activity engaged in during the years the newspaper was run by the Canadian (but wishes he were British) press baron Conrad Black.

Now I am the first to acknowledge that just because somebody filed for bankruptcy protections in court, it does not mean that the business itself (that of covering the news via the medium of a printed newspaper) is about to die off any day now.

For nearly 12 years, I worked in one form or another for the once-great wire service United Press International, which had already been in bankruptcy court when I started there in the early 1990s.

I used to be able to tell people that my job was to “help keep a bankrupt wire service alive,” and I wasn’t joking. But my point is that UPI survived its bankruptcy stint, and in fact is still in existence – even if in such a smaller form that a lot of the old-timers who once worked there like to pretend that the news service really “died” once they departed the scene.

UPI LIVES ON, and I expect both Chicago newspapers to continue publishing for the foreseeable future. The real trick is to figure what form they will take.

As far as the Tribune is concerned, I am not a subscriber. I pick the paper up at newsstands or drugstores or wherever I happen to be in the morning. That means I am getting used to seeing the tabloid format version of the newspaper.

And I must admit I am getting used to it. On the rare occasions during the week when I see a broadsheet version of the newspaper, it looks so bloated and awkward to deal with pages that big (even if they’re the smaller-scale version of broadsheet that exists now, compared to what they used to be).

I sense that this period is the adjustment to what the Tribune ultimately will become. If the newspaper were to ultimately die off, it likely would be because the powers that be just didn’t want to adjust to the new reality.

THAT NEW REALITY is the old reality for the Sun-Times, which has been a tabloid ever since the Chicago Sun and the Daily Times merged back in 1948. It is obvious that when it comes to producing a tabloid format newspaper these days in Chicago, the Sun-Times does it better.

But does that really matter?

It could be that the current economic conditions are what finally take down the paper, which for decades has had miserable luck in throwing off the perception that Rupert Murdoch (who was only here on the newspaper scene from 1984-86 before selling the paper so he could buy WFLD-TV) somehow still runs things.

And because the Sun-Times has so aggressively purchased a lot of the significant local newspapers in the outer Chicago suburbs in recent years, their fate is now intertwined.

THOSE SMALLER PUBLICATIONS theoretically should be able to cope better with current business conditions because they have smaller scale operations. They don’t cover as large an area, so they can get by with smaller staffs.

I used to think there was a chance that those suburban papers could wind up bolstering the Sun-Times, helping to prop it up even though those papers probably wished they could have thrown at least some of their profit margins back into their own publications. But could it be that the ghost of Conrad Black (which at times reeks of Rupert Murdoch) will be what drags down a dozen newsgathering organizations throughout the area?

It wouldn’t bother me if I thought anyone would rise up to replace them – even if they were computer-oriented geeks who prefer not to have to publish a physical product. But without all those little staffs and the two “big’ news staffs working downtown, there is going to be a lot less news reported that can be picked upon by various websites.

This is going to be an issue where most people will not realize how bad the problem is until it is too late to do anything about it. And the fact that yet another set of Chicago newspapers is in bankruptcy court is evidence that we’re another step toward that outcome.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Leave it to the Chicago Tribune to publish the memorandum that told (,0,1344385.story) Chicago Sun-Times employees they, too, now work for a bankrupt company.

1 comment:

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