How Suburban Newspapers Grew from Minors to Majors

Article excerpt

Byline: James Kane Daily Herald Business Editor

When Daniel E. Baumann, publisher of the Daily Herald, joined the predecessor of today's paper in 1964, Chicago journalism was a very different world.

It had three distinct parts:

- Four metro dailies - two morning and two afternoon - engaged in cutthroat coverage of government and crime news, with a heavy emphasis on the city. Coverage of the more than 200 tiny communities outside the city was sparse. Tribune Co. owned the Chicago Tribune and Chicago's American. Field Enterprises owned the Sun-Times and the Chicago Daily News. Combined, they had a daily circulation of more than 2 million.

- Six major dailies ringed Chicago, far enough out to each hold a comfortable monopoly in a city with its own identity apart from Chicago. Copley Press owned the ones in Aurora, Elgin and Joliet, while others controlled the Gary, Hammond and Waukegan markets.

- In between, dozens of small, mostly family-owned companies produced weekly newspapers that were beginning to grow in size along with the small farming and commuter communities where they were born. Coverage focused on local government meetings largely dealing with planning, zoning and development and getting local names in the paper.

Among the more successful players were the Hollister papers on the North Shore, Press Publications in Elmhurst, Sun papers in Naperville and Paddock Publications in Northwest Cook County. One, in Wheaton, went daily in 1933 during the Great Depression and kept that frequency until 1992.

Publishers, big and small, were family owned for the most part, with even the mighty Tribune still under the influence of its opinionated longtime owner and DuPage County resident Col. Robert McCormick, who died in 1955.

Today, 38 years later, as Baumann retires from full-time work, the picture is very different.

Suburbs now dominant

It's the suburbs that are home to about two-thirds of the region's people and jobs, and the headquarters of eight of the area's 10 largest publicly held companies. And it's the suburbs that are the battleground papers fight over.

"It's largely a suburban market," said George Harmon, a professor at Northwestern University's journalism school. "You have an awful lot of people who don't go downtown."

To reach that market, Chicago's two morning dailies have taken opposite strategies, with the Tribune opening suburban bureaus and producing zoned editions, while the parent company of the Sun-Times has bought up much of the suburban press, including six outlying dailies.

Most of the family-owned publishing companies sold out, with only one emerging as a major market force: Paddock Publications.

The difference in the newspaper landscape between 1964 and today says much about how the world and lifestyles have changed and how the newspaper industry has adapted to survive.

Papers lose readers

Today, newspapers are competing as much for readers' time as they are with each other - not only with TV, but with the Internet, specialty magazines and more entertainment options. Winning younger readers, raised on television and video games, has proved especially difficult, placing the industry's long-term future in jeopardy.

Those lifestyle changes have pummeled daily newspaper circulation.

The only newspapers to consistently buck that trend have been the Daily Herald, whose circulation has grown almost five-fold, and to a much lesser extent, dailies in Kane and McHenry counties produced by another family-owned company based downstate: Shaw Publications.

The two metros have a combined circulation of about 1.1 million, down more than 150,000 since 1990 and less than half what Chicago's four dailies had in 1960.

The dailies in Aurora, Elgin, Joliet and Waukegan have lost 36 percent of their circulation since 1990, falling to just over 100,000. …