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Printless in Chicago Obit for the "Front Page" City

Obit for the "Front Page" City

by MARTHA ROSENBERG

In Ben Hecht’s town it’s been a while since you boarded a bus or train at rush hour and met the "newsprint curtain." In its day, the wall of newspapers spread eagled in front of intent readers was such an institution, poet Allen Ginsberg satirized it by poking a hole in his paper and peering through.

Nor do most Chicagoans wake up anymore to the Chicago Tribune or Chicago Sun-Times with their cornflakes. Or end the day with the Chicago Daily News and a martini in their easy chair. (Who remembers easy chairs? Martinis?)

With its tail between its legs, the Tribune Company which own the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, other newspapers, WGN television and the Chicago Cubs, just went private under a $8.2 billion buyout engineered by local real estate tycoon Sam Zell.

Bedeviled by a $1 billion tax bill from buying Times Mirror and Los Angeles Times in 2000–it was a taxable sale not a restructuring says the IRS–the Tribune Company is now owned by an S-corp ESOP employee stock ownership plan which makes "selling for parts" difficult in the near future since it pays no corporate taxes.

Not that anyone’s happy. This month the Los Angeles Times lost its third editor since the sale, James O’Shea, a Tribune Company lifer. It also lost publisher Jeffrey Johnson and two editorial page editors since the Tribune takeover.

And why was outgoing Tribune Chairman and Chief Officer Dennis FitzSimons rewarded with a $17.7 million dollar severance package, many are asking? Not just $10.7 million but $4 million to cover his tax liabilities from the $10.7 million? What would he get if he left the paper profitable–his own island?

Things are even worse at the Chicago Sun-Times where Conrad Black and F. David Radler siphoned off millions in phony noncompete agreements they paid to themselves as officers of the parent company Hollinger International Inc., now Sun-Times Media Group, whose celebrity board featured Henry Kissinger, Richard Perle and former Illinois Gov. James Thompson. The pair are prison bound unless their appeals succeed.

In a perverse twist, the Chicago Sun-Times actually had to pay $17.4 million of Black’s legal fees–thank you Director & Officers insurance!–on top of losing $60 million of its shareholders’ money.

This month, Chicago’s "other" newspaper terminated 17 reporters, editors and newsroom staff after merging its suburban Daily Southtown and Star papers, shutting down three weeklies and farming out newspaper delivery to the Chicago Tribune failed to total the $50 million it is seeking to trim off its operating budget

The Chicago Reader, considered the granddaddy of free weeklies, is even struggling after three decades of seeming imperviousness to newspaper vicissitudes.

In July the four-section quarter fold paper known for its long format articles was purchased by Florida based Creative Loafing, rapidly becoming a standard flat tabloid with one page articles that no longer jump and half the number of pages.

Asked about the shrinking size and staff–four top reporters were let go–editor Alison True and Publisher Mike Crystal both replied the pub had no choice.

Two free monthlies that were formerly newsprint, Today’s Chicago Woman and Conscious Choice, an environmental magazine, have survived by adopting a glossy look and generic content and reducing local focus and staff.

And while the Chicago Tribune’s five-year-old tabloid daily, Red Eye, passed out free at city "el" train stops, has found a readership, it had to dumb down content to two paragraph stories and celebrity "cellulite news" to do so.

Even Northwestern University’s Medill school of journalism is caving.

Dean John Lavine announced he’s considering adding "And Integrative Marketing" to the school’s name to a chorus of angry J-school students who will probably get jobs in integrative marketing.

Of course everyone knows the reason newspapers are circling the drain is the exodus of readers, advertisers and attention spans to the Internet.

But there’s also the greed monster Wall Street has created wherein a single digit profit margin is no longer enough reason to get out of bed in the morning.

And there’s a third reason.

When you board a Chicago bus or train at rush hour today, you see 30 cell phones held up to faces–not 30 newspapers.

Even if you’re a lone wolf carrying a Chicago Tribune or Sun-Times, just try to read it.

"Can you hear me now????"

"So I go to him."

"And he’s all … "

"And she’s like … "

MARTHA ROSENBERG is a Staff Cartoonist at the Evanston Roundtable. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe, Providence Journal. Arizona Republic, New Orleans Times-Picayune and other newspapers. She can be reached at: mrosenberg@evmark.org