The sinking realization that newspapers were dying came swiftly to some, slowly to others and not at all to newspaper executives who still consider the Internet a passing fad.
For me, the dawning that the end might occur in my lifetime came in 1991, during the first Gulf War. I, like millions across the globe, watched bombs rain down on Baghdad (sometimes from the nosecone of the incoming missile just prior to detonation). The next afternoon, we delivered a paper with the same news everyone had already seen the day before. And worse, they had already seen that day’s war, rendering us inconsequential. “We can explain it better,” newspaper editors claimed. “For depth, you have to have a newspaper.”
But something deep inside told me we would soon be in serious trouble. Timeliness now meant “as it is happening,” not the next day. Printing news on paper and driving it around to be dropped on a driveway the next day seemed about as modern as the Pony Express.
I am not a Luddite. But one morning in about 2004-5, I walked into the publisher’s office and asked her a question: “Explain to me the business model in which you give away what you are also trying to sell.”
I liked Terri and we had a very good rapport. She tried hard to make the turkey fly as I used to characterize the effort to make the Courier News profitable.
We had just started giving away all of our news free on the Internet while we also despaired that circulation was stuck at about 16,000. This schizophrenia seems implausible to the outside observer, but that was the newspaper mentality. “We must have a presence on the web. Everything on the web is free so we can’t charge for it. Therefore, we must give it away. But why is our circulation going down?”
I asked for a 24-hour delay or free access to subscribers only but of course none of that was possible. The camel’s nose was under the tent. The Internet era had begun in earnest. By the time I left, we made more information available free on the web than was printed in the newspaper. Breaking news, updates, and video were available on our site. And it was available before the newspaper was delivered. We worked very hard to make ourselves completely irrelevant.
Then came Twitter, Facebook, texting, podcasts and blogs. To keep up, we experimented with sending updates and breaking news to cell phones and on Twitter and Facebook, further obviating the need for our existence. It was a runaway train of devastation for the entire newspaper industry. And it was not a passing fad.
The Courier’s revenue was in freefall. All the unique Elgin businesses of the 1950s and 60s were long gone; Gromer’s succumbed to megastores, the First National Bank, Home Federal Savings and others were consolidated into national banks; hardware stores, appliance outlets, drug stores, television repair shops, sporting goods stories, small retail shops, all went the way of the buffalo.
While the Grand Victoria casino has done wonders for the city’s bank account, a stunning truth has emerged. Businesses like the watch factory employed thousands of highly skilled workers who made a good living and spent it in local businesses and on local services, which employed more people. Secondary businesses which made their living from supplying goods and services to the watch factory also prospered. Workers ate in local restaurants and shopped in local stores.
But the casino is a black hole. Money pours in but little comes back into the local economy. Patrons drive in to gamble and drive out without spending money anywhere else. Many of the jobs are in food and beverage service, producing little disposable income. Little is purchased locally and few businesses thrive as a result of the casino. That isn’t an indictment of the casino; it’s just a fact of gambling. Instead of providing customers for restaurants, bars, theaters, etc. the riverboat soaks up all the discretionary income. Ask the Elgin American Legion what happened to bingo night _their lifeblood _ after the casino opened.
Elgin migrated from a manufacturing center to service-oriented businesses like VISA and while that provided jobs, it did not create the symbiotic need for supporting enterprises.
After Conrad Black and David Radler were indicted and control of Hollinger was wrestled away from them, Terri was forced out and a new hare-brained plan was hatched, this one the debacle Hollinger had been building toward in minor episodes.
In an apparent attempt to show what a shrewd businessman he could be, interim president John Cruickshank decided to trade the Courier News to the Shaw Newspaper group for the Kane County Chronicle (or the Kane County Comical as it was known in the business.) The Chronicle and the Courier were in a pitched battle to see who could be the most unprofitable and apparently Cruickshank thought the Courier was winning because he threw in $1 million cash.
Shaw’s plan was to essentially make the Courier News an edition of the Northwest Herald (Crystal Lake) with a small local office near some warehouses on the west side of Elgin. It would no longer be called the Courier News and the title _ and its glorious history _ would die.
I was encouraged to stay with Hollinger and run the Chronicle. Shaw made me a generous offer in excess of my current salary to work for them. Shaw’s reputation for arbitrarily firing people (“to keep everyone on their toes,” I was told by a Shaw executive) was too capricious by even my diminished standards so I reluctantly agreed to manage the Chronicle. I worked with Shaw executives to ensure that all my people had a job with either us or them. Three were left out in the cold when Hollinger told me to stop trying to ensure everyone had a job.
We then set out to identify problems and issues to be resolved. They were legion. The editorial systems didn’t mesh, meaning we couldn’t share work with other papers in our group. Billing software was incompatible. Classified ad systems were different. Telephone systems were different, making inter-paper call transfer impossible. Order intake for circulation did not work across both platforms. (Add to that the looming libel trial in which Illinois Supreme Court Justice Robert Thomas ultimately would win a multi-million dollar verdict against the Kane County Chronicle and one could justifiably say the palace had gone mad.)
At the end of about four months of this lunacy, the whole thing was called off. We had lost nine full-and part-time people during that period which we had not been able to replace. Editors were working 60-hour weeks to put out what remained of the paper. Miraculously, the Courier News remained alive.
But irreparable damage had been done. We were labeled damaged goods. Our company had announced publicly that it no longer wanted us. We felt diminished, unwanted, like the dog they tried to give away with no takers. A pressman from Chicago openly questioned at a manager’s meeting why the company even bothered publishing the Courier News.
Meanwhile, the building continued deteriorating. The toilets didn’t properly flush, faucets didn’t work, urinals were closed off. Maintenance personnel no longer worked there. We were the red-haired stepchild no one cared about.
So we all became closer. It became “us-against-the-world.” We took more pride in the Courier News because our company took none. Our photography consistently won awards, as did our reporting. Everyone threw themselves into their work with the vigor of the damned.
But there was no denying that there was no road back.
(Finale next week, followed by an epilogue).