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A Bankrupt Business

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 1, 2009; 7:48 AM

When I was growing up in New York, the city was awash in newspapers: the Times, Post, Daily News, Herald-Tribune, Journal-American and Mirror, to name a few. And even then there were ghosts, such as Joseph Pulitzer's New York World.

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I can also remember when some of these papers began to fold, particularly an unwieldy contraption called the World Journal Tribune, cobbled together to save two failing papers. That had an impact on me because I was delivering the pre-Murdoch New York Post by bicycle, and I picked up quite a few customers for the 10-cent tabloid.

As a young reporter, I remember the wave of newspaper closings that included the Philadelphia Bulletin, Baltimore News American, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Chicago Daily News and the Washington Star, the last of which had an impact on me because I worked there when the ship went down.

I've always had a soft spot for rough-and-tumble Chicago newspapering, especially after hanging out a dozen years ago with the acerbic Mike Royko, who took me to the legendary Billy Goat Tavern. Royko moved to the Chicago Sun-Times after the Daily News folded, and when Rupert Murdoch bought the paper, Royko announced that "no self-respecting fish" would be wrapped in it and signed with the Chicago Tribune.

Were he still alive, Royko--who turned down an offer from The Washington Post because he did not want to become a stuffed-shirt Beltway pundit--would no doubt be saddened by what has happened to the city's surviving papers. But perhaps, as a champion of the underdog, he would take a shining to some of the new Web sites trying to compete with the faltering giants.

Here is my report:

By the big, brawny, tough-guy standards of Chicago journalism, Geoff Dougherty's modest Web site might seem little more than a blip.

With four reporters, four freelancers and 100 unpaid contributors, the Chitown Daily News is pioneering a new form of low-cost, street-level reporting, the need for which was dramatically driven home yesterday.

The Chicago Sun-Times, a scrappy tabloid with a checkered history, filed for bankruptcy protection, joining the city's other major daily, the Chicago Tribune, in Chapter 11 status. It was an extraordinary development for the city whose newspaper wars were immortalized in the 1920s play "The Front Page."

"It's positively devastating and inconceivable, something I never could have imagined," says Pam Zekman, who led a legendary investigation three decades ago in which the Sun-Times set up a bar with hidden cameras to trap corrupt city inspectors. With both papers in bankruptcy court, says Zekman, a reporter for WBBM-TV who also once worked for the Tribune, "who knows if they're going to survive?"

Dougherty, a former Tribune reporter whose site is drawing 50,000 visitors per month, says the Sun-Times' filing means that "we're going to have to step up our game" and "bring in enough dollars to expand to a full-service newsroom. . . . When you look at a situation where a number of metro papers are going out of business, the thing that really gets shut down is local coverage. We can fill the gap."

Whether Chitown and similar startup operations can match what newspapers have traditionally done remains an open question.


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