October 22, 2014 Last Updated 8:34 am

Sad state of Chicago newspapers: Report says Sun-Times owner may sell off suburban properties to rival to try and stay afloat

In a metro area of ten million residents, the two metro papers struggle to reach any level of readership worthy of a national advertising buy

The Chicago-based media reporter Robert Feder (paywalled) yesterday reported that the Sun-Times, Chicago’s ailing tabloid, would be selling its suburban holdings to the Chicago Tribune. The report remains, at this time, unconfirmed, but few doubt that the paper’s new owners would gladly part with their suburban papers in exchange for a new lease on life for its daily newspaper.

CT-CSTThe Sun-Times has roots that go back to 1844, but the paper most Chicagoland residents know dates to its ownership by Marshall Field, the heir to the Marshall Field department store chain (later sold to Macy’s). That paper was Democratic leaning in a Democratic town, and one that stood in contrast to the Chicago Tribune, a loyal Republican paper (the paper had never endorsed a Democratic candidate for President until forced to do so with hometown candidate Barack Obama).

In 1984 Field sold the Sun-Times to Rupert Murdoch who immediately made the paper in his image, morphing the paper into a sleazy, right-wing tabloid. Wikipedia has a great quote from famed film critic Roger Ebert about Murdoch’s first day of ownership of the paper (sidebar at left).

On the first day of Murdoch’s ownership, he walked into the newsroom and we all gathered around and he recited the usual blather and rolled up his shirtsleeves and started to lay out a new front page. Well, he was a real newspaperman, give him that. He threw out every meticulous detail of the beautiful design, ordered up big, garish headlines, and gave big play to a story about a North Shore rabbi accused of holding a sex slave. – Roger Ebert

Murdoch’s ownership of the paper was brief, very brief. By 1986 the paper was traded among owners before being picked up by Hollinger International, whose management the best that can be said is that they are no longer in prison.

In 2011 the paper was picked up by the start-up Wrapports, a company formed by private equity eeec Michael W. Ferro Jr. and former Newsday publisher Timothy P. Knight. In 2012, the paper closed down its suburban offices that supported the papers the Sun-Times had owned when bought from Copley (and therefore lowering the value of those papers for any potential buyer).

Having grown up in a great newspaper town, Detroit, it is hard to believe just how bad a newspaper town Chicago is. In my 18 years here I have seen the once dominant Tribune quickly decline. From 2005 to today, daily circulation has fallen 40 percent, with the Sun-Times losing more the 50 percent of its daily circulation. Much of this is single copy sales as the papers have abandoned any effort to reach commuters or those living in other parts of town that are not “the north side.” To keep both papers listed among the top papers in the country, each must rely on its branded editions (the Tribune’s Sunday edition remains strong at 789.917 print and digital copies, though it topped a million a decade ago), while both papers lag behind other metro papers in digital edition growth.

Whether the Tribune picks up the suburban papers from the Sun-Times will be irrelevant to readers as the circulation of the suburban editions have fallen as editorial resources were trimmed and local offices closed. As a former newspaper man, it will feel odd living in a metro area with almost 10 million people, where soon the largest newspaper will not even sell over 200,000 copies on a Monday following the Bears game.

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