Whither goeth the Chicago Tribune

  • Written by Charles Richards

 Remember the old saying, “The bigger they are, the harder they fall?” Or, referring to businesses, “The bigger, the dumber.”

  This column contains my personal memories of reading The Chicago Tribune for many years. Back in the 1950s and 60s, the Tribune was the dominant newspaper in Chicagoland. It actually printed every day on the front page “World’s Greatest Newspaper.” You will note that the first letter of each word is WGN, the designation of the Trib’s radio station and later WGN-TV. The Tribune was the darling of the Republicans, the conservatives and the wealthy. A lot of times those three designations applied to the same persons.
  The Chicago Sun-Times was the competing daily paper for the “working man” (i.e. the union member, blue collar worker and Democrat.) The Times was tabloid size, smaller than the “broadsheet” Tribune, also its circulation was markedy less than that of the Tribune.
  My earliest memory of the daily Tribune was the dominating two-inch high headline that ran at the top of page one. Also on page one was a big cartoon usually featuring excellent artwork and an appropriate caption. Inside each issue would be the editorial page, usually with a very clear conservative bias. There were lots of full page ads from stores like Marshall Fields. In short, the Tribune was a huge money-maker.

Our way or go away
  Like so many near-monopoly institutions, the culture of the majority of the employees in my personal experience was one of noticeable arrogance. In a phrase, their polices could be summed up as “Our way or go away.”
  Almost 40 years ago I spoke at a conference of weekly newspaper publishers and I listed the many times I had experiences in dealing with members of the Tribune staff. Then I concluded that someday this treatment of their customers could greatly harm the future success of The Tribune. And so I believe my warning ultimately came true, to some degree.
  Fast forward several decades. There erupted a major conflict between the handful of Tribune stock holders (many relatives of founder Col. Robert McCormick, a war hero and a wealthy man of strong opinions about Chicagoland, Illinois, Washington and the whole world.
  To solve the issue of letting this small number of stockholders cash in their stock holdings, the Tribune chose to “go public” meaning to sell shares on Wall Street. In my opinion this was the Trib’s first major mistake at least in my lifetime. (In fairness, I must confess that I don’t know of a better way to resolve the problem). As a point of local interest the Classified Advertising Manager Gil Paddock lived in Palos Heights, about a block from our family home. Upon retirement, instead of a gold watch, he was given one share of the original Tribune stock. Shortly after the firm went public, that single share was rumored to be worth one million dollars. In my opinion Mr. Paddock deserved that reward because about 60 percent of a daily newspaper’s income and profit comes from classified ads.

Radio Daze
  Later, in a shocking (to me) development, the top management of the paper was turned over, for the first time ever, to men whose primary experience had been in radio, not newspapers. In my personal opinion only, this marked the beginning of the decline of the once vaulted publication.
  Fast forward to more recent times. The Tribune converted from the old-fashioned “hot metal” production method to “offset lithography,” much as we did at my newspaper. This system was faster, cheaper, and produced a better appearance especially regarding photos. Newspapers had, for a number of year, been exempted from paying Illinois sales tax when buying presses. Unfortunately for the Tribune the exemption was not in place the year they bought the multi million dollar press line. I’m talking about a really huge amount of tax money. Over the years the Trib had accumulated a very large amount of debt which was not unusual for large, growing companies in all industries.

Debt is Evil
  I remember my Dad telling me that debt is evil, though sometimes a short-term necessary evil. His generation considered any bank loan rate above 3 percent was “usury” and that should be avoided at all times. He advised me to save up our income until we could buy printing machines with 100 percent down and NO monthly payments. I followed his advice and my company has been free of all forms of debt for almost 19 years.
  Most newspapers of all sizes and frequencies experienced “boom times” financially in the late 1990s through 9/11/2001. Changes in the business followed in short order. And these changed were not for the better!
  As the well-known philosopher on “Saturday Night Live” Roseanne Rosannadanna repeatedly stated, “Things will always go wrong. If its ain’t one thing, it’s something else.” How true her point proved to be when the internet burst on the U.S. main stage. Big daily newspaper were hurt the worst. Overnight they lost most of their classified ads and the accompanying revenue. Then the display auto and real estate advertising fled from newspapers to internet sites.

Free Falling
  It got even worse because circulation numbers began a free-fall as citizens got their news electronically at no direct cost to the viewer.
  Small local weekly mail-delivered papers suffered the least. But they did suffer. Why was that? Neighborhood newspapers cost only about $40 a year for a mail subscription or a dollar a week on the newsstands. Weeklies had a much more diverse adverting base and much less income came from classified ads, as little as 10 percent.
  But, most important, people truly wanted the very local news that they couldn’t find on the internet. Also local reporters knew their territories in depth. As cameras became instant and cheap, each reporter could double as a photographer, often using their cell phone. Furthermore color pictures became easier and cheaper to reproduce. The one thing parents like better than seeing their child’s name in a newspaper, is viewing their offspring in a color photo printed for all the town to see.

Hell under Zell
  Now back to the Chicago Tribune. The Tribune company was sold at the beginning of 2008. Investor Sam Zell was the buyer. About a year after Mr. Zell bought the Tribune, the entire company declared formal bankruptcy claiming $7.6 billion in assets and $13 billion in debt. Over 4,000 employees lost their jobs since the Zell purchase. Zell’s past experience had been in real estate, with none in newspapers. The Trib’s purchase of the Los Angeles Times proved to create more problems than solutions in my journalistic opinion.
  The Tribune Company emerged from bankruptcy after close to five years. In my opinion, today’s Tribune is a mere shadow of its former self. Most of my friends have cancelled their subscriptions, some moving to the Sun-Times, others to the Southtown Star, fewer to the many Internet sites. I am reminded of the TV show of my earlier mention, Saturday Night Live... still on, but barely worth watching.

Strange Approaches
  The Tribune, in recent years, tried some really strange approaches. One was printing two version’s each day, one tabloid and another broadsheet with identical content. Another project they put out was a really thin weekly stand-alone tabloid product called TribLocal which is free. It contains almost no local advertising and only a few local stories. Working in the newspaper business for over 40 years, I have absolutely no idea what prompted that publication.
  I sincerely believe everything in this column is true but I must admit that the happenings at the Trib may not be in perfect chronological order because all came only from my memory.
  I was recently asked on a local cable TV show, “Mr. Richards, how can your newspaper remain profitable when so many others are falling by the wayside?”

  I froze for a moment, fearing that my answer might be considered too egotistical. I finally responded with what I thought was a terrible answer. I said, “I guess it is simply because we (my staff and myself) know what we are doing.”
  Later my wife who is much smarter than me said “ there is nothing wrong with what you said because you spoke the truth.
  I told you she was smart!

CR 2About the author
Charles Richards was born in 1942. He began working weekends as a janitor at the Regional Building at 123rd and Harlem in Palos Heights. He began working summers in the print shop at age 16. He ultimately mastered every process in creating a newspaper. At Blue Island (now Eisenhower) High School he served as sports editor of the student newspaper. In 1960 he enrolled in the well-known Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia. In his senior year he took a summer internship at a weekly newspaper near the Lake of the Ozarks. In his final year at Mizzou he served as a reporter, then copy editor for the town daily, The Columbia Missiourian, while working toward his masters degree in business, Richards assisted in teaching copy editing to undergraduate journalism students.
  After graduation he returned to the family owned “Palos Regional” weekly community newspaper. There he spent four years selling display advertising to local businesses. He later managed the conversion of the printing process to offset lithography.
  When his father Carl retired in 1970 Charles bought the company. When The Regional began serving Orland Park, the paper’s name was changed to The Regional News.

  In 1986, Richards bought a neighboring weekly paper called the Worth Palos Reporter. Later the name was shortened to The Reporter Newspaper. The Regional, in the 1990s, was named the “Best Small Weekly in Illinois five times by five different panels of judges from five different states in contests sponsored by the Illinois Press Association.
  The Regional Printing Company specializes in printing high school and college student newspaper and college class schedules. The company employees 25 full time and 15 part-time staff members. The Palos Regional will celebrate its 74th anniversary in October. Its circulation is stable.
  When asked the reason for his successful career, Richards replied, “My grandfather was a newspaper publishers, my father was as well. I had the best possible education as well as on the job training. Failure was never an option he said. If I did fail, I would have no one to blame.” Now, in retirement, he is excited that his daughter Amy had taken the reins as Regional Publisher.