Thursday, May 10, 2012

Bigger and bigger offers us less and less; are we on eve of (news) destruction?

What happens when they all print the same copy?

I can recall a moment a couple of decades ago when I was chatting with my colleagues at the now-defunct City News Bureau of Chicago.

The topic was the fact that the Chicago Sun-Times ownership back then seemed eager to bolster the company by buying up more and more publications – particularly in the suburban areas.

“A BLOB EATING everything in its path,” was how one colleague phrased it, and it is a phrase that has managed to stick in my mind throughout the years.

It also was the phrase that popped into my brain Wednesday when I learned of the fact that the Sun-Times has another acquisition in mind. Crain’s Chicago Business used its website to report that the Sun-Times is on the verge of buying the Reader – that relic of the ‘60s (even though it wasn’t created until the early 1970s) that for many years was the publication of choice for people trying to find out how to entertain themselves during the weekend.

Because I can recall when that publication ran in four sections; three of which were detailed classified ad sections that could enable people to find all sorts of ways to amuse themselves – both legit and sordid.

Yes, I recall the days when Chicago police on vice details claimed one of the tools they used to bust escort services for prostitution was to check out who was advertising in the Reader.

THOSE DAYS ARE long-gone. The publication is rather skimpy these days. And any “edge” it ever had disappeared when the current owners (who call themselves Creative Loafing) took over a few years ago.

Now, it seems that the Reader will become a sister publication to the Sun-Times, along with other newspapers such as the Post-Tribune of Merrillville, Ind., and the Herald News of Joliet (just to name a couple).

I don’t pay as much attention to those publications as I used to, mainly because the current mentality that runs the Sun-Times is to treat the copy content of all those publications as one massive effort.

Which usually means that the best copy coming from the SouthtownStar newspaper or the Beacon-News of Aurora will wind up getting reprinted in the Chicago Sun-Times.

WHEN I DO pick up those suburban publications (occasionally, I just can’t resist), I am always amazed at the degree to which they are loaded with Sun-Times copy. How many different times can I read the stories of the long-time City Hall reporter Fran Spielman?

And the Chicago Cubs are an equally pathetic excuse for a baseball club no matter which paper’s pages I’m reading the same story in!

Which makes me think that the Reader is destined to wind up becoming yet another part of this copy-sharing initiative. That might benefit the Sun-Times if the weekend entertainment listings now being published in the Reader (which are still better than most anyone else is doing) wind up being used to bolster the Sun-Times’ weekend entertainment section.

To be honest, that section has become so scrawny as to offer little to read. But it will have the feel to me of offering one less publication to be worth checking out.

I’M SURE THERE is a business model one could throw in my face in which all of this makes sense, particularly since every time someone starts up talk about the Sun-Times being “sold,” it always winds up coming out that they’re looking to sell the complete package.

Anybody who had any interest in buying merely the News-Sun of Lake County (formerly of Waukegan) would have their bid pooh-pooh’ed – if not rudely ignored.

Perhaps it allows the Sun-Times people to configure their circulation figures in such a way that they could try claiming recently that they have surpassed the Chicago Tribune in readership (it takes a lot of fuzzy math to make that claim believable).

But to my mindset, it merely means one less publication – and I’m not sure the improvements to the bottom-line make it worth it.

CALL ME OLD-FASHIONED (or a crotchety old fart, or whatever). But the reason I got into the news business is because I am interested (even still) in creating content that is interesting.
Soon to lose identity?

I’m also silly enough, I guess, to believe that “interesting content” means real news about public policy and events – along with the occasional bit of fluff for levity (although I will forevermore detest animal stories, largely because I have written way too many in my lifetime).

We’re getting less and less these days, and it’s not so much that I think we get too much fluff. I think we get too little of anything, which ultimately is what makes these publications seem like we can get by without reading them. There are times when newspapers feel like they’re taking on the Internet mentality of “aggregating” its content from elsewhere – and thinking that someone else will always be there to provide that content/news copy.

Some two decades later, “the blob” continues to devour. Until the day comes when it has devoured everything, and will find itself starving to death.


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