Monday, March 03, 2008

So long again, Chicago Daily News

Thirty years ago, 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 on March 4, 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 Racoon said...

Thanks Alan for reminding me of a fine newspaper, one that shaped my formative years as I moved progressively from Buck Rogers in the comics section, through the sports as Luis Aparicio, Nellie Fox and the scrappy White Sox dislodged the hated Yankees from atop the American League -- and finally into adulthood, intently reading of the death of Martin Luther King, Robert F. Kennedy and then the memorable 1968 Democratic National Convention. I don't know what I would be today without that newspaper. Thank you for having been there.

8:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Less slackin', more bloggin'.

2:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I found an"OSCAR AWARD"for a Kenneth Starr. Dated 1955. For outstanding achievement,CHICAGO DAILY NEWS. A small,glass,water ball,on a black stand. In the water is a man walking,hands in each pance pocket. The right hand is holding a brief case. Any info on this?

1:51 PM  
Blogger BarbJ said...

I well remember the Chicago Daily News and a feature called NewsLady. Women were paid $25, I think, if their stories were published. I had two such stories printed in the newspaper in the late 60's and/or early 70s. Is it possible to get copies of these stories from archives somewhere or are they gone forever?

4:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do you have a list of women columnists from the 1950-1960 era?

7:08 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I own 2 of the last editions. great shape. Are the worth anything?

5:03 PM  

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