Democracy Soup

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Chicago Sun-Times bankruptcy reminds us that great journalists are casualties of their bosses’ mistakes

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Originally published on BuzzFlash.com on Tue, 03/31/2009 – 10:16am

There are some who cheer as some of these daily newspapers are biting the dust. The backlash against the MSM, especially among our readers, is enormous. After all, we have a weekly award where we celebrate the ineptness of the MSM.

But unfortunately, many of those who are suffering from newspapers’ lack of accountability are innocent victims. No newspaper has suffered unnecessarily more than the Chicago Sun-Times.

The Chicago Sun-Times has filed for bankruptcy. But the Sun-Times isn’t where it is because of a lack of accountability or because of the severe recession. The name Conrad Black has a lot to do with where the Sun-Times ended up.

The list of sins by Black and his henchmen — and the board that ignored all the warning signs — are too numerous to list here. But think of it this way, the Sun-Times Media Group has no bank debt. But as the Chicago Sun-Times itself put it, “The IRS has said Sun-Times Media Group owes up to $608 million in back taxes and penalties from past business practices by its former controlling owner, Conrad Black, now imprisoned for theft from corporate coffers.”

Stripped of everything but the bare essentials for years, and sometimes having even less than that, the Chicago Sun-Times was the more aggressive of the daily newspapers in Chicago. They have run well-researched, extensive investigations into the seedy nature of Chicago politics.

But the paper, despite new management, is thinner than Keira Knightley. Circulation scandals on top of its other problems haven’t helped.

I should point out that I know a few of the Sun-Times people personally. They are the kind of journalists you would be proud of. They don’t worry about what their bosses think about what they do. You could argue that while they were being robbed blind, they didn’t meddle in what their reporters were doing, and it showed positively in the pages.

The Chicago Tribune is what it is, and I know a lot of people there as well. But the Tribune has always focused on the suburbs, and the Sun-Times focused on the city. If the inevitable possibly happens, and the Tribune gets to be the only game in town, I don’t think they will be prepared to cover the city in the way the Sun-Times could. Dinosaur is too easy to use as an analogy, but the Tribune hasn’t traditionally been mobile or aggressive, especially when it comes to covering the city itself.

For those in Denver and Seattle, two long-time two-newspaper cities until recently, readers divided themselves into “Denver Post” people and “Rocky Mountain News” people; P-I readers vs. Times readers. In Chicago, people literally are Trib people and Sun-Times people.

Those who are “Rocky Mountain News” people and P-I people in Seattle know what withdrawal means. But the current division of resources of the Chicago daily newspapers within Chicago vs. its suburbs will mean a lack of coverage in the city of the third-largest city in the country.

While we live in one of the more aggressive TV markets in the country, their punches against those in power are light. The attitude has been “well that’s the way Chicago/Cook County/state politics are, nothing we can do about it.”

I recently attended a newspaper forum on the future of newspapers in Chicago. The early part of the discussion focused on whether there would be a newspaper in Chicago. I offered up in the Q&A portion that we would have a newspaper in Chicago, though it may not be the Tribune (huge bank debt, thanks Sam Zell) or the Sun-Times (being robbed blind, thanks Conrad Black). But that newspaper has to cover the city and hold accountable the many failings of our politicians. And has to have the money and resources to get that done.

We saw in the forum that there are several online outlets trying to pick up what the Tribune and Sun-Times have left behind. It’s a start, but there is so much more that needs to be done.

If you think this is an obituary for the Sun-Times, perhaps it is. But I can tell you that this paper will literally go out fighting. Many great journalists who toil for newspapers, large and small, have either been told to leave or are hanging by a thread. As one daily newspaper journalist I know said recently, “I am thankful I have a job.” Even though it can’t be easy to sit under the role-reversing Sword of Damocles, these people will work until the last breath to provide great journalism.

Those in our profession do take a bad rap for the sins of those in power. But in the trenches, there are people who do really good work that don’t deserve this fate.

Are we doomed to go without two- or one-newspaper cities?

Newspapers are having problems, but cutting content isn’t the way to go

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Written by democracysoup

March 31, 2009 at 10:16 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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