Thursday, March 01, 2012

So long again, Chicago Daily News

On March 4, 1978, the presses fell silent for the last time at the Chicago Daily News, an iconic and crusading newspaper that was unable to adapt to changing times. The following article, which originally appeared here in 2005, is reprinted as a reminder of what happens when a paper runs out of readers, revenues and ideas at the same time.

"It's fun being the publisher when things are going well," squeaked the young man who stumbled awkwardly to the top of a battered desk in the unusually silent newsroom of the Chicago Daily News. "But it's no fun today."

Swallowing a nervous giggle, Marshall Field V cleared his throat and read the assembled staff the short, typewritten death warrant of one of the most distinguished newspapers in American history.

An agonizing month later, on March 4, 1978, the Daily News signed off with the jaunty banner, "So long, Chicago."

The line was written by the late nightside copy desk chief, Tom Gavagan, a chain-smoking, working-class Irishman who seemed to own only two shirts -- one in burnt orange, the other in avocado green. The tears in Gav's eyes weren't from the smoke.

Although it happened 27 years ago, the story is worth telling today, because many of the zany, brainy people who made that paper sing aren't here to talk about it any more. They were my mentors, comrades and friends, and I cherish their memories.

But this isn't just ancient history. It is a valuable reminder to today's media companies of what happens when you run out of readers, revenues and ideas all at the same time.

The Daily News, like most afternoon newspapers, succumbed at the age of 102 to a declining audience and rising expenses.

Its readers had moved on. On to the suburbs, where delivery trucks couldn't reach them with a paper that didn't come off the press until afternoon. On to the sofa, where they favored Three's Company on television.

There were no home computers, no Internet, no iPods and no cellphones to get between our readers and us in 1978. Still, circulation dropped. The management was changed. Circulation dropped. We redesigned the paper. Circulation dropped. We tinkered with the product. Circulation dropped.

In the end, there was nothing left to do. Some 300 people lost their jobs, and Chicago lost a great newspaper.

The Daily News, in its best days, was a cutting-edge conscience in conservative Chicago, a husky, brawling town that wasn't always ready for reform. The paper stood fast against official incompetence and government corruption and stood tall for civil rights and the little guy. For years, the Daily News stubbornly held its price to a penny, so as to be affordable to laborers heading home from work.

It was one of the first newspapers to have foreign correspondents, to print photographs or to cover that new-fangled medium, radio. Its widely syndicated coverage won 13 Pulitzer Prizes, including three for meritorious public service.

The Daily News cultivated a limitless array of talent over a century, including Eugene Field, George Ade, Ben Hecht, Finley Peter Dunne, Carl Sandburg, Peter Lisagor, M.W. Newman, Lu Palmer, Lois Wille and our latter-day franchise player, Mike Royko.

The list is too long to print here. But the Daily News, in its classy way, printed the name of everyone working on the staff on the day the paper folded.

My name was on that list. It remains one of proudest, and saddest, moments of my life.


Blogger Razor_goto said...

What made the Daily fail? Kind of curious. What kind of lessons for today's company learn from its failure?

2:46 PM  
Blogger Joe_Zeppy said...

Hi Alan,

My dad owned the Humboldt News Agency on Grand and Hamlin and I helped him drop off those papers to newspaper boys on many afternoons for many years. It was the afternoon paper (I know you knew that).

But although my name wouldn't appear on any list, I share your memory. I'm pretty sure I have a copy of that issue somewhere amongst my dad's stuff from when he passed away.

Thanks for a great blog. Newsosaur is one of my favorites. Although I'm very into new media, I sure enjoy a long thorough read of a good newspaper.

8:54 PM  
Blogger ben said...

Alan - Thanks so much for the great reminder. I recognize many of the faces in the photo, and the Atex VDT's look so quaint competing for desk space with the typewriters.

Speaking of lost audience, I rode the airplane the other morning and noticed as I took my seat at the rear that ONE person (1) was reading the newspaper.

Sic transit gloria mundi!


9:08 PM  
Blogger Jerry said...

I grew up reading the Daily News, delivered it as a teenager, was a stringer while in college and a young reporter in DuPage County - and later worked for (gasp) the American. Working under Harry Romanoff was an education that can't be matched, but the Daily News motif remained - and remains - a part of my journalism soul

6:00 AM  
Blogger Kansan said...

Thanks for sharing, Alan.

6:22 AM  
Blogger Michele Chaboudy said...

Thanks for your perspective here. I was working for The Houston Post as VP Marketing on its last day, April 18, 1995, and I'll never forget the sadness from newcomers as well as those who had worked there for over 40 years. The next day was the Oklahoma City bombing with no one able to cover that from The Post.
Michele Chaboudy

2:37 PM  
Blogger Zhuxiu said...

I delivered the Daily News as a schoolboy on the West Side during the early 1950s. Then, after a seven-year stint in the Navy, began to work there as a "Communications Clerk" on the overnight shift from 1968 to 1972, when I left for graduate school.

2:57 PM  

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