Friday, March 04, 2011

So long again, Chicago Daily News

"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 33 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. I am republishing this post, originally written in 2005, in their honor.

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 Unknown said...

I didn't see this the first time, but worth repeating. Hard to believe it has been 33 years since CDN closed up. Thanks for the memory, though bittersweet.

6:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Add Sydney J. Harris to the list of reporters and columnnists. He was "required reading" in college...Illinois Wesleyan in Bloomington, Illinois

6:15 PM  
Blogger Bruce Wood said...

Why didn't they move delivery to AM?

6:28 PM  
Blogger Newsosaur said...

Company could not move CDN to AM cycle because it already published the Chicago Sun-Times.

8:06 PM  
Blogger Barbara Selvin said...

I'm going to share this with the students in my class on the changing news industry @stonybrook.

8:28 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...


Thanks for bringing a tear to my eye and joy to my soul for reminding us what "It" was like being a member of the Greatest Estate.


10:16 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

So where are you on this picture? We know you were younger!


12:47 PM  
Blogger Mr Max said...

So it wasn't the Evil Internet.

The product was not keeping up with the readers needs.

Nothing changes.

6:33 AM  
Blogger Mr Max said...

So it wasn't the Evil Internet.

The Newspaper didn't keep up with it's readers.

Biggest issue, Delivery method and timing.

some things never change.

6:35 AM  
Blogger Robert H. Heath said...

Alan -

Great piece.

What's your view on the demise of the afternoon daily, which obviously took place long before Al Gore invented the internet?

1) Shrinking of manufacturing labor force?
2) Flight to the suburbs?
3) Competition with television evening news?
4) Other?

I've heard all cited, but haven't really seen any data-intensive analysis on the topic.


12:47 PM  
Blogger David Elliott said...

Alan, thanks for the photo and its long ribbon of attached memories. Field and his executives lacked vision. Had they folded the CDN and CS-T together, the S-T as a bannered pull-out tab inside a full-page Daily News, the combo published on mornings, they could have united their readerships, sliced duplication costs and hammered the mighty Tribune 24/7, esp. in the suburbs coveted by upscale advertisers. The result would have been ultra-Chicago and a great experiment in sibling survival. But probably not a life-saver for today's bottom line, which races to new bottoms.
Best to all....David Elliott, in San Diego

4:45 PM  

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