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Daily Journal
     May 19, 2021      #85-139 KDJ

World changes, but newspapers still needed 


By Joe Yurgine

Amid the aftershocks of the George Floyd story and the president’s disrespectful rants about reporters, the free press and fake news, I retrieved and dusted off my copy of the last Chicago Daily News newspaper printed on March 4, 1974.

The headline read “SO LONG, CHICAGO, It Took 102 Years To Finish, And These Are The Final Pages Of the Chicago Daily News.” It marked the death of a newspaper. The copy was saved and handed off to me by my Dad, who at that time had worked in the circulation department for the Daily News for 56 years. In growing up between the ages of 8 and 12 in a newspaper oriented family, geared to the “circulation” business end of a newspaper, I found myself spending a lot of time on the street, delivering, selling and obtaining subscriptions for its very survival. Annually, there would be newspaper subscription contests for news boys. The top 50 statewide sellers would win a free week trip to parts of the USA. With these contests, I made six very educational trips in a very extravagant fashion to significant areas of the USA that at the time escaped me.

Circulation and subscriptions to the Daily News were always a struggle. It was an afternoon paper and had to compete with the Tribune and Sun-Times. When circulation dipped to about 315,000 in a circulation area of 7 million people, its illness was insurmountable. Call in Hospice. No extraordinary measures could prolong its life. So it was that when Marshall Field, the publisher of the Daily News, announced that it would cease publication of the paper, it produce a lot of sadness and memories within the family. If the paper had not been such a momentous book of life, its death would have been easier to take. Allow me thus to tell you a few things about the Daily News, which at the time was selling for 35 cents.

The Chicago Daily News didn’t go quietly. Even while alive it was brawny and strong, like it was always trying to pick a fight. It believed in freedom of the press. To its credit it pursued a commitment to civil rights and truth, which to me is the foundation of what a newspaper should stand on. It was an attack newspaper with 102 years of investigating. Mike Royko, (who then was at the top of the columnist’s mountain, a fact recognized in 1972 by his Pulitzer for Distinguished Commentary) discussed all of this in his last hurrah front page opinion piece, “A Truly Great Newspaper: Why Couldn’t it Make It?” Royko touched upon things seldom mentioned by professional press critics.

As examples, in the 1960’s when it came to civil rights, unlike other newspapers who treated the civil rights movement cautiously, the Daily News treated it as the most important story going in America. It openly criticized and was aggressive in reporting racism in Chicago and elsewhere. Royko explained, “The Daily News was far ahead of any Chicago paper on the story. All of which made the staff proud. But it made many white readers angry. It was a story they didn’t want to know about. Almost every day the circulation director would storm into the news room and scream about cancellations by white readers. The editor told him to stay the hell away from the reporters. The irony was that the white readers quit in droves. But almost no black readers joined.”

Then there was the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, four days and nights of violence, when 688 people were arrested and 400 demonstrators ended up being treated at medical facilities, with police firing teargas and beating them with night sticks. At the time Mayor Daley, the law and order guy saying “Shoot to Kill,” was the dominant politician in the city’s history. According to Royko, “He was viewed with awe by the establishment, common people and the Eastern press. By almost everybody, in fact except the Daily News and after the 1968 Democratic convention the Daily News hit him hardest for his contribution to chaos. But most Chicagoans thought that the splitting of protesters’ heads in Grant Park was great sport. So Daley got votes while the Daily News lost readers.”

Then came the police raid on the Black Panther headquarters when two black men were shot, where the official explanation was that the police had fired in self-defense. As noted by Royko, “The Daily News said baloney and demanded an investigation. The Daily News proved right, but more white readers, who preferred police to Panther, turned away. Courage didn’t kill the Daily News, but it undoubtedly shortened its life. And so did apathy. .. There’s a big market for mental cotton candy. … When a new dictator takes over the country, one of the first things he does is seize or close the newspapers. Apathy isn’t as heavy handed as a dictator. But it can get the same job done.”

If you have been following the news, over the last 15 years, one in five newspapers across the USA (many locals) have closed. With those papers still alive and kicking, many journalists have been let go. Some 7,800 journalists lost their jobs in 2019. What has happened? There are reasons too numerous and lengthy to discuss here, like adopting technology to survive in a digital age of vast daily communications, the battle between print and online news, and now the pandemic. Local papers, the canaries in a mine with reporters going places and digging into records, form the core of our democracy. If someone doesn’t watch, corruption is inevitable. Take Kankakee County, where the last time I checked, we had 18 municipalities, a county government, 12 school districts, fire protection districts, townships, etc.

Where would we be if voters were not kept current and educated about city council and school board meetings, budgets, environmental and zoning hearings, politics, court issues and governmental actions at all levels? I’ll end this with Fitzgerald's last line in his book “The Great Gatsby,” “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” perhaps again coming to a time to when 10-year-olds will again be going door to door at night hustling for subscriptions to win a trip to Washington D.C.

Joe Yurgine is a practicing attorney, “Of Counsel” with Corboy & Demetrio, Chicago. He can be contacted through the Daily Journal at editors@daily-journal.com or directly at joeyurgine@yahoo.com.

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