CHICAGO - 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 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 $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.”
The Sun-Times and the Tribune are trying to produce and distribute news amid steep budget cuts. Both papers have eliminated dozens of newsroom jobs, and their printed editions have shrunk in size, meaning less room for news.
If a paper were to fold, the Sun-Times is the likely candidate, several analysts said.
The tabloid-size Sun-Times’ average weekday circulation has fallen 3.9 percent from last year, to 313,176, and its Sunday circulation has declined 4.5 percent, to 255,905.
Those declines actually were better than the industry average and not as steep as the Tribune’s 7.8 percent drop. But the broadsheet Tribune, with a higher proportion of sales from outside the city, still sold about 203,000 more newspapers than its rival on weekdays and 609,000 more on Sundays, despite a higher newsstand price.
Neither paper is willing to concede, though.
Gary Weitman, a spokesman for Tribune Co., said the Tribune newspaper remains economically viable, and the Dec. 8 bankruptcy filing by the parent company didn’t suggest otherwise.
“The Sun-Times is in a more dire situation than the Tribune,” he said.
Sun-Times spokeswoman Tammy Chase agreed that Chicago’s second-largest paper faces serious financial challenges. But she said the Sun-Times is doing everything it can to stay afloat, including slashing costs by about $50 million in 2008.
“We’re not giving up,” she said. “We’re not waving the white flag.”