By Mike Koetting September 13, 2022
I moved to Illinois in the mid-70s. I lived in Springfield and worked for, first, the Legislative Budget Office, and then the Executive Budget Office. I always read the Springfield paper—virtually a company newsletter at the time–but also kept loose track of both the Chicago dailies, the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun Times, which both had substantive Statehouse Bureaus, as did UPI and others. Later, I moved to Chicago, then to Boston for a couple of years. When I returned to Chicago in 1985, I became a religious reader of the Tribune. Every morning with my breakfast.
While I was a gone, the Tribune introduced a new columnist, Steve Chapman. I didn’t like him much. Too conservative Republican for my tastes. Still, I periodically read him.
The years marched on. Steve Chapman continued to write. I still didn’t agree with much, but I started reading him a little more regularly. Like George Wills, David Brooks and, later, Jonah Goldberg, they all wrote and thought well and I figured it was important to see what they were talking about and, from time to time, reflect on it.
The Tribune continued to change. The paper started in 1847 and was originally a liberal, abolitionist newspaper. But in 1911 Robert McCormick became editor and turned the paper sharply to the right, becoming an early voice of strident Republicanism, although by the time I started reading it, it was fairly centrist. Its business sense, however, had always been forward looking. It was one of the earliest cross-media companies, acquiring a radio station and later a television station. In the 1990s, it was one of the first newspapers to establish a website and develop an internet presence.
Foresight, however, did not protect against technology. The internet began to eat newspapers. Initially, more their advertisers than their readers.
Early after the turn of the century, the Tribune had its first major staff layoff and, in 2006, the Tribune Corporation was for sale. What followed was a dizzying period of buyouts, mergers, a bankruptcy and numerous additional staff reductions. To be honest, most of this didn’t seem to make any difference to the paper I read each morning.
Around the rest of the country, the implications were more drastic. Between 2005 and 2021, 2,200 newspapers shut down operation, slightly more than a quarter of all the country’s newspapers. Most of these were less than weeklies. Still, over the same period the number of daily papers dropped by about 13% to around 1275 dailies.
The question of readership is more complicated. The overall drop in readership has been much less drastic than the drop in revenue, but the nature of subscriptions has changed considerably. When print and digital subscriptions are combined, it is estimated that total readership has declined, but in total, at least since 2015, has not been particularly steep. However the total is buoyed by large growth in digital subscriptions, particularly from three papers—the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. It appears these three papers currently account for about one-third of all newspaper subscriptions (print and digital) in the country, with the Times alone accounting for about 20%, although the Times now has so many subsidiary publications and offerings, I can’t get a real apples-to-apples count. It is also the case that the Washington Post is currently experiencing financial troubles as subscribership isn’t growing as fast as costs. (The Post is owned by gazillionaire Jeff Bezos, who bought in 2011 after its last round of financial difficulties. He was one of several billionaires who bought papers.)
My own experience followed national trends. I continued to read the Tribune each morning, but about seven years ago I got hooked on a then free Washington Post daily newsletter and, a couple years later, started subscribing to the digital newspaper. But I looked on-line only after I had read the Tribune over breakfast. By this time, I had started to find Steve Chapman much more interesting. I don’t think he changed fundamental values. Rather the Republican Party had changed its fundamental values. We probably still differ on a lot. (I suspect he was instrumental in the Tribune endorsing Gary Johnson for president in 2016.) But concern about common enemies over-shadowed the latent disagreements and, in the identification of common enemies, it was easier to see where our values aligned.
In 2021, the Tribune sold itself to Alden Global Capital, a venture capital fund with a penchant for buying newspapers and gutting the newsrooms. Within two days, a massive round of buy-outs and layoffs ensued. Over the course of the next several weeks, all of the columnists and reporters whom I regularly followed left. Only Steve Chapman remained on a regular basis—as he had stopped being a Tribune employee in an earlier round of buy-outs and was a syndicated columnist appearing in many papers. Across the country, the number of people working at newspapers has dropped like a rock, from 71,640 in 2004 to 30,820 in 2020.
The experience of the Tribune is not unique. It is estimated that more than half of the daily newspapers are owned by financial corporations. The era of the locally owned newspaper with community ties and responsibilities is definitively over. It is hardly a surprise that people don’t have the same commitment to their local paper as was once the case. So, as noted earlier, more and more people are turning to digital sources that are big enough to provide a high-quality product. This works well for national news but it leaves local coverage adrift, which contributes significantly to the nationalization of our politics. It also contributes to the general lack of trust in government.
Since Alden bought the Tribune, it has gotten thinner and thinner. And an inordinate number of the remaining column inches are taken up with stories from suburban stringers on relatively narrow topics. And, to add insult to injury, If the White Sox game runs late (i.e. after 9 Chicago time) it won’t have game coverage. Unless there are some interesting wire-stories or a lot of obituaries, it doesn’t even last till the end of my breakfast. My serious newspaper time is on-line with the Washington Post.
About two weeks ago, my wife and I decided we’d had it. We subscribed to the digital Sun-Times, the other Chicago daily. (We each had to get our own subscription, but it was still considerably cheaper than the Tribune.) It has much better sports coverage and retains more active coverage of the city itself. It also has an unusual business model. It had gone through the same financial amusement park rides as the Tribune—successive financial crises and revolving door ownership. But earlier this year, it merged with the local National Public Radio affiliate. The deal required a substantial amount of philanthropic support, which as it now stands, will support the new entity for at least the next five years. We will see if that’s a viable financial model for the longer term.
I started looking to purchase a tablet so that I could switch my breakfast reading from the hard copy to all digital—the smart-phone is just too small for me to read while trying to eat. When I get that, our subscription to the Tribune will go to purely digital. (My wife has already made the switch. She also reads Politico and the Times headlines and we both read a digital newsletter on Illinois state politics.)
As it happened, the week I started my Sun-Times subscription, Steve Chapman announced his retirement after 41 years of writing a column. I don’t think it was accidental that his last column was on the threat to our democracy.
It was once assumed that the story of America was one of steady progress in steadily improving our grand experiment in rule by the people. But nothing in this world is guaranteed to last forever, not even the world’s oldest democracy. If it is going to survive, Americans will have to save it — or else be remembered for our failure.
I couldn’t agree more. Happy landings, Steve Chapman.