Chicago Papers See Troubled Future

 A little more than a century ago, Chicago boasted 11 daily English-language newspapers.

The fierce competition among them, immortalized in the 1928 play “The Front Page,” even turned bloody at times, and that drive to outdo one another led to 35 Pulitzer Prizes, journalism’s highest honor.

Today, only two major dailies remain in this city of 3 million, and both are in serious trouble from declining circulation, plummeting ad revenue and a new kind of competition that threatens to make newsprint itself obsolete.

Suddenly, “Stop the presses!” carries new meaning.

Even as the arrest of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich on federal corruption charges brought the latest and most luscious of scandals to the teeth of the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, questions were swirling about their futures.

How long can the smaller Sun-Times survive as its parent, Sun-Times Media Group Inc., loses money every quarter? And what of the dominant Tribune, whose parent Tribune Co. sought bankruptcy protection this month because of its crushing $13 billion debt?

Both papers are steeped in history, the Chicago Tribune’s most famous single edition trumpeting erroneously in 1948, “Dewey Defeats Truman.” The Tribune first published in 1847, while the Sun-Times, formed in a 1948 merger, has its roots in the Chicago Evening Journal in 1844, making it the city’s oldest continuously published daily.

“I think it’s great that Chicago still has two newspapers, and it would be a great disappointment to lose either of them,” said Tom Spees, 50, a health-information service director who was looking through a Sun-Times left by another customer at Merle’s coffee shop near a North Side “el” train station.

But at a downtown Starbucks sat the possible future of news — and the source of much of the newspaper industry’s troubles.

Michelle Kurlemann plugged her laptop computer into a wall outlet and thumbed away at her BlackBerry. The 24-year-old interior designer said the closing of either paper would be “really sad,” but she wasn’t reading one of them, not in print anyway.

“I get my news online, and when someone I know sees a good newspaper article, they message it to me,” Kurlemann said. “Still, I suppose that if the newspapers close, it’ll hurt things online, too.”

To newsprint addicts, those are sad words.

Even in the early 1970s, Chicago still had four major dailies — the others had either folded or been merged.

Their reporters had their own culture, including a rather flexible code of ethics.

Journalism schools didn’t teach young reporters to impersonate deputy coroners on the telephone; night editors provided that lesson. And in those days before cell phones, an enterprising reporter might carry a pay telephone mouthpiece in a coat pocket just in case someone “accidentally” broke one at a crucial police station.

That culture extended to matters of food and drink — primarily the latter.

A reporter might take a somewhat liquid lunch at the Boul Mich, or below street level at the Billy Goat Tavern. After work, one might have dry martinis with the movers and shakers at Riccardo’s, or head up to the old O’Rourke’s to talk up that unfinished novel over Guinness.

You could plot the next revolution with draft ale at Oxford’s Pub, or — if you’d abandoned all hope — you could usually join a Bond Court judge who was drowning himself in highballs at Siggy’s under the “el” tracks.

They’re all gone now, except for the Billy Goat, which has become an eight-location chain and sells souvenirs to tourists.

One long-gone saloon may best represent Chicago newspapering in all its gaudy glory.

In 1977, the Sun-Times actually bought a decrepit tavern, renamed it the Mirage, and ran it for four months, staffing it with its own disguised reporters and photographers. They documented the shenanigans of the various city inspectors who victimized small businesses with their bribe demands. The expense would be unthinkable today, as would the 25-installment series the paper ran on its stunt in 1978.