Chicago newspapering enjoys a reputation on par with Chicago pizza - this is the place for the best. Ben Hecht, City News, the Mirage tavern sting. But while myriad pizzerias remain, pumping thier parmesan into the body politic, the half dozen Chicago papers that fought over candles5tick phones in The Front Page have been whittled down to just two: the Tribune and Sun-Times. Thake your pick - the lady or the tiger?
The Tribune, a broadsheet, is the favored paper of suburban escapees and the well-to-do of the city's north side. The Sun-Times is the underdog, a tabloid, easy to hold on trains and in the front seat of cabs. An unspoken truth, not even uttered in their respective newsrooms, is that the Tribune is white and the Sun-Times black, though both papers struggle against it, the Sun-Times grasping toward the suburbs, the Tribune tossing its money at the south side.
The Tribune owns the Cubs, TV and radio stations, other papers. The Sun-Times is the Ottoman Empire of Chicago papers, watched carefully for signs of impending mortality. It was removed from the death watch recently by an infusion of foreign capital, but it's still a union paper, so still vulnerable to the possibility of crippling strike. The difference between the two is easiest to see on Sunday, when the Tribune becomes such a behemoth that the Sun-Times acutally once tried to advertise its own scantness as an advantage, crying, "Less fluff, less filler!" as if you didn't want a paper to burden you with reading material.
With its giant broadsheet pages and advertising-swelled news hole, the Trib can become positively Proustian, producing blasts of unedited verbiage such as this recent whopper: "A simple way of viewing the response is that when people feel they aere doing well, they are reluctant to vote for change in the White House, even though incumbents in all political offices carry at least some level of taint because they are politicians, never beloved by American voters."
The irony of the Sun-Times, the more local paper, is that it's owned by a Napoleon-idolizing British aristocrat manque, Conrad Black, and edited by Aussie import Nigel Wade. Thus the Sun-Times is apt to run a lot of material from the London Telegraph, Wade's former paper, and short-staffedness forces it to run a ton of wire copy, even on some relatively local stories, such as the Illinois State Fair. It loses reporters at an alarming rate, and overworks and underutilizes the ones it keeps.
The Tribune, meanwhile, is famed for a Brobdingnagian bureaucracy that randomly packs writers off to new asignements in a system that smacks of the Trib's famously eccentric founder Colonel Robert McCormick, whose ghost has an uncanny way of showing up in the paper. Eternally suffering from an identity crisis, the paper's features section in recent months has been desperatly mining local angles from stories on haute couture and Hollywood. Some Tempo high points: A visit to a Lincoln Park apartment building where eight "real-life" twentysomethings live together, just like on "Friends." An interview with a "real" Cable Guy. And a story prompted by Independence Day on whether or not aliens could actually blow up the White House.
The Tribune's star columnist, the once-admired Mike Royko, has been undergoing a personal deterioration in print the past couple years, and rumor has it he's hanging on only until after the conventions, when he'll retire with whatever shreds of dignity he can scrape together. The main Sun-Times columnist, Richard Roeper, has been struggling to supplant his priapic, bright-lights-big-city persona with an aura of maturity. But he is still as apt to write nugatory columns about starlets and nightclubs as he is to address a significant issue or real person.
Other Sun-Times columnists quickly devolve from there. Cro-Magnon columnist Dennis Byrne, voice of the deeply-misunderstood suburban white male. Byrne has of late reassured us that society is not "unraveling" despite the recent nationwide outbreak of terrorism. His proof? That a friend of his son's is currently in Guinea-Bissau, "selflessly serving people he has never met." All is not lost!
Demonstrating the inexplicable irrationality one always finds at newspapers, the Tribune runs both sisters, Dear Abby and Ann Landers, and the Sun-Times has not one but three gossip columnists. One is the antediluvian Irv Kupcinet, whose column predates the founding of the newspaper in 1941. The second is the terminally upbeat Bill Zwecker. And then there's Mike Sneed, a former Tribune investigative reporter whose column is padded with terrible puns, endless self-referential drivel, and anachronistic bootlicking directed at her sources, notably 14th Ward alderman Ed Burke. A typical Sneed item begins with a subtle phrase like "Hahahaaaaaaaaaaa," and degenerates from there. And her politics hearken back to when the Chicago Police could spy on dissenters without reproach, as evidenced by this pre-convention "Sneedling": "Sneed hears that the Secret Service has set up an elaborate security system for the Dem Convention that overshadows anything it has done before. Translation: The protesters are coming!"
Sneed's Tribune heritage made her a golden calf at the Sun-Times, which viewed plucking a star out of the cosmos of its unacknowledged betters as a sign of affirmation - that conviction also explains the blowsy, irrelevant Steve Neal. The Tribune, by contrast, is known for avoiding hiring from the opposition. But it has made a recent exception in Steve Rosenbloom, a sports columnist nobody noticed at the Sun-Times until he left for the Tribune, which acted as if it had hired the Messiah. The Tribune's desperate "In Your Face" ad campaign for Rosenbloom and its section is a nod to the dominance of its rival's sports page, which many readers consider the Sun-Times's prime attraction, after size. Its gritty, not to mention gigantic, sports section always made the Tribune's coverage look like a horse race called by the Queen Mother. Its main weakness is Hessian hired-gun Jay Mariotti, famous for blowing the smallest athletic contretemps into Pagliacci. He recently warned Mayor Daley that if the Olympics came to Chicago in 2008, he'd be "moving away." C'mon Olympics!
One thing you can say about both newspapers, or any daily newspaper for that matter: they're just not that important anymore. Newspapers have taken a backseat to television and, it appears, are about to be bumped to third by the Internet. The Tribune's daily one-million-plus circulation is almost exactly the same as it was in 1946. The Sun-Times sells about 600,000 copies a day, or about what it did in 1950.(NP)
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration of straw-hatted, sleeping man with newspaper, by Peter Hannan.