The Coming Chicago News Vacuum

August 17, 2009
The increasingly desperate straits of Chicago’s news outlets is already having an impact on what – and how much – news gets covered. More cuts are coming. In the next year we should expect a significant decrease in community and political news coverage in the Chicago area. Small start-up are trying to fill the gaps, but they lack resources and readership to make up the difference.
How is this happening?
Recent studies show 2008 newspaper advertising shrank 16.4%2009 television advertising will shrink 4.6% and online advertising to grow 13%. While online advertising is growing, its starting from a much smaller base than newspaper or TV. Newspapers sold $37.9 billion in ads last year. Online sold $3.1 billion.

Last week we reviewed the financial states of Creative Loafing, Inc. and the Sun Times Media Group. Although CLI is suffering, friends from the Chicago Reader assure me their paper remains profitable – despite CLI’s debt. But STMG regulatory and bankruptcy filings seem to show that the Chicago Sun Times is the major money loser among STMG properties. It seems possible – even likely – that the Sun Times may not exist in 2010.

Earlier this year the Chicago Tribune‘s parent company, the Tribune Company, went into bankruptcy, burdened by $12 billion in debt created by Sam Zell’s leveraged buyout of the company. Although recent news suggests Zell will be muscled out and the company will become the property of creditors – especially Deutche Bank – it seems likely that the new owners will be looking for ways to increase cash, reduce expenses, prepare the company for sale, or dismember it into parts for individual sales.

News reporting positions are being eliminated throughout the Chicago area. TV stations are pooling news crews, NBC 5 is forcing staff to reapply for their own jobs, CBS 2 has replaced its longtime general manager and laid off staff. Meanwhile the Sun TimesChicago TribuneDaily Herald and SouthtownStar have all gone through too many layoffs to count.
This means that as newsrooms get smaller, television news and newspapers are being forced to skip not only in depth stories but just about every story that does not affect or appeal to the general population – that means more health and crime stories and fewer neighborhood conflict or political backstories. 
For instance, let’s recall the amount of coverage afforded to last spring’s 5th Congressional District special election to replace Rahm Emanuel. A major story in Chicago politics, this seat has changed hands a handful of times – mostly among major power brokers – over the past fifty years.

The Chicago Tribune published 68 articles in 1994 during the two months leading up to the 5th Congressional District general election – the year Democratic boss Dan Rostenkowski suffered a shocking loss to Republican Mike Flannigan. Yet, in 2009, only 20 articles were written in the same amount of time about the Democratic primary special election won by the Chicago Tribune‘s champion reformer – Mike Quigley.

True, there are alternatives stepping into the picture, such as the Chi-Town Daily News, and excellent reporting by the Chicago Journal papers and the hyper-local In general there are many alternatives cropping up on the web, including one of my projects, But these publications and alternatives lack breadth in coverage and have limited audiences.

As a political consultant based in Chicago, I am constantly thinking about how to get my candidates’ message out to the broadest number of voters. While the viewership and readership of Chicago news media has declined, I still light up with smiles when five TV cameras and four print reporters show up at a press event I am managing.

But the likelihood of those TV cameras or print reporters showing up at an event is decreasing significantly. There are fewer reporters available to cover the smaller stuff – such as Congressional races. Political campaigns are making a darwinian choice to de-emphasize earned media outreach – getting press event covered – and learning to lean more on advertising, direct mail and online outreach.

This is a dangerous trend for the business of mass media. As Bill Wyman outlined last week, newspapers and TV news have thrived on the predication that they provide direct access for advertisers. As mass media loses its readers and viewers, advertisers splinter to as many different channels as they can find – and they are not flooding to on-line news. For instance, if newspapers stay on pace to lose another 16% of advertising nationally, that $6 billion is not going to go on-line. At best, we can expect $1 billion to go online.

In short, while large news organizations shrink, smaller ones are coming onto the scene, but they are not making up the difference and it may be years before they do. It is clear that as local news media continues to constrict, Chicagoans will have many fewer options to learn what is happening in their region.