Tuesday, March 04, 2014

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.

"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 35 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 Harmiclir said...

Thanks, Mr. Mutter, for sharing this with all of us.

5:26 PM  
Blogger Michele Chaboudy said...

Your piece brings back memories when I had to tell my staff at The Houston Post on April 15, 2005, that this was the last day the presses would run. Reasons were different but emotion on that day was not. Very sad. Although I had been there two years, there were several who had served for over 40 years.
Michele Chaboudy
former VP Marketing for The Post

6:51 PM  
Blogger Oliver Wiest said...

I loved that paper and learned from it as I flailed away with no training on a small paper on the prairie. I hated to see it go.

7:08 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Am posting this again. sorry for repeat:

There is never a discussion that maybe the quality of the writing and relevance of the narrative is what put print in jeopardy. investigative reporting, the romantic longing historical journalism, may not be what the culture needs to reclaim democracy and the common good.

Enough blaming the internet, suburbs, ADHD, sound bite. when the profession take a harder look.

8:39 AM  
Blogger policywonk said...

I got my start in journalism while still in college as a part-time editorial assistant to Irv Kupcinet at the Sun-Times, courtesy of feature editor Bob Zonka, who was teaching me newswriting at Columbia College at the time. Some time shortly threafter, Zonka returned from a brief vacation to discover that he'd been replaced. The Sun-Times management couldn't wait until he got back. That was my first taste of the duplicity of the Field regime.

By the time I got back from grad school at Mizzou three years later, the Sun-Times wasn't hiring anyone straight out of school anymore, and City News Bureau had frozen up while I was away, with nobody rotating through the beats anymore or moving to the daily papers. I should have seen the writing on the wall then, because ever since, I've seen a market in decline in Chicago, with jobs constantly lost. The internet was just the final insult.

I am also reminded that but a few years later, Marshall Field V told his staff at the Sun-TImes that he would never, ever "sell the Sun-Times to Rupert Murdoch or anyone like him" -- and then proceeded to do exactly that about a month later. And the Sun-Times staff had to hear about it from a Tribune reporter who had been at a meeting of one of the business clubs at the city when Field first mentioned it. I have damned his name ever since, and I feel sorry for those staffers who are left. But they're still doing a better job than the Trib, where the managing editor headed an afternoon entertainment handout for commuters before becoming the ME. Seriously.

8:41 PM  

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