As paper shutters, a look back at the legacy of Chicago Journal
12/12/2012 10:00 PM
After twelve years of publication, today marks Chicago Journal’s final issue. But that doesn’t necessarily mean our readers will never see a Chicago Journal again. The name has been around since the dawn of Chicago media. Two other Chicago Journals came and went, and our Journal had a pretty good run.
The original Chicago Journal debuted on April 22, 1844, three years before the Chicago Tribune. Like most Chicago newspapers at the time, it was a daily broadsheet. Over the next twenty years, most of its competitors either went out of business or merged with the Tribune, but the Journal kept going strong.
When the Chicago Fire devastated the city, it was the only daily paper that survived without damage, allowing it to keep printing. In fact, it was the Journal that first reported that Catherine O’Leary’s cow was responsible for starting the disaster. The story has since been proven false, but, for better or for worse, it is still part of Chicago folklore.
The original Chicago Journal lasted until 1929, but the story didn’t quite end there. The owner sold off its assets to the Chicago Daily News and started another newspaper from scratch. Originally known as Daily Illustrated Times, it merged with the Chicago Sun in 1948, becoming the Chicago Sun-Times.
The Chicago Journal name reemerged on Aug. 3, 1977, when publisher Eugene Priest Forester III reused it for his weekly community newspaper. Originally focusing on Hyde Park and South Shore neighborhoods, it soon expanded coverage to the entire South Side.
While the paper usually dealt with neighborhoods below 26th Street, it occasionally touched on issues relevant to this Chicago Journal’s coverage area. The Jan. 3, 1979 issue, for example, surveyed Chinatown residents about U.S. government’s decision to give diplomatic recognition to People’s Republic of China.
The paper lasted for seven years, shutting down in March 7, 1984.
Dan Haley, publisher of Oak Park based Wednesday Journal Inc, said that he wasn’t aware of any previous Chicago Journals when he decided to start this paper. He recalled that, in 2000, he was looking for areas where he could expand. With exception of the Austin Weekly News, which the company acquired in 1995, all of its newspapers have been suburban. Haley wanted to go in another direction.
“We started to look at the rebounding/reinvented neighborhoods of the South Loop, West Loop and Little Italy,” he said. “It was a lot more interesting to us than expanding into some suburban communities.”
At the time, the South Loop and Near West Side were undergoing significant construction, redevelopment and gentrification. A Tribune article published in October 2000 argued that this gave the paper ample opportunity to grow.
“The biggest building boom in Chicago since World War II has created new residential neighborhoods and, with them, a fertile ground for a newspaper,” the Tribune said.
The first issue of this Chicago Journal was released on Oct. 19, 2000. It was a 16-page broadsheet that included seven pages of news, a political column by Dick Simpson, a five-page “Metropolis” arts and entertainment section and a two-page real estate section. The classifieds section was sparse, but that would change in the next few issues. One thing that set the paper apart from all the rest was peach-colored paper — something that would remain Chicago Journal hallmark for the next few years.
In an introductory editorial, Haley outlined the paper’s purpose thusly:
“In our pages, you are going to find weekly supply of neighborhood news you won’t find anywhere else. The latest, the most local, the most relevant stories about living here.”
Bonnie McGrath, a long-time South Loop resident and Chicago Journal’s longest-running contributor, recalled that the neighborhood welcomed the paper. Still, Haley said there was some confusion about what Journal was trying to do.
“A good number of people […] assumed we were an alternative weekly like the Reader or New City,” recalled Haley. “We kept saying, ‘No, we’re the neighborhood paper for the South Loop. We’re going to cover schools and business and arts and interesting local people.’ Took a while for that to sink in.”
Chicago Journal hit the ground running and never stopped. Reading the paper’s archives, one gets a very local, ground-level look at the communities’ history. It traces construction throughout South Loop, the rise of the Randolph Street restaurant corridor, changes in the Fulton Market District, failed efforts to preserve the Maxwell Street neighborhood and the creation of University Village. It chronicled tensions between newer and more established residents and tried to give them both a voice.
The paper made an effort to cover local events and Chicago-wide events that affected its coverage area. When the Chicago Children’s Museum first contemplated a move to Grant Park, the Journal devoted two pages to summarizing various perspectives on the issue.
During the recent NATO summit, it dispatched regular and temporary contributors to provide daily updates.
The Journal’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. It has received several Chicago area journalism and design awards. It even had a brush with Hollywood exposure — Vince Vaughn’s character briefly read an issue of Chicago Journal in a scene from The Dilemma.
Chicago Journal was never the most profitable paper, but the 2008 economic downturn only made it worse. The paper traded peach paper for more conventional white and shrank from broadsheet to tabloid. Over the course of 2009, Metropolis went from a two- to three-page section to a single page. At the same time, the number of classified ads from its coverage area slowly but surely dropped.
Editors have handled some of the reporting since the paper began, but by the current time Ben Meyerson got the position, he was responsible for filling more than half of the paper’s news content. This forced him to make tough choices.
“I always wish I’d had more time to cover more things,” he said. “It’s hard sometimes to be both an editor and a reporter simultaneously — you find that your time gets pulled in a lot of different directions, and you have to evaluate what the most efficient use of your time is.”
Still, he tried to maintain good coverage. Reflecting on the past twelve years, Haley said that editorial side was one aspect of the paper that always remained strong, even amidst economic pressures.
“We have been blessed by several very strong editors who understood the communities very well,” he said. “I believe the primary role of a community publisher — in print and digital — is to create a sense of community. We’ve worked hard and sincerely to accomplish that goal.”
But in the end, the economic pressures were simply too much to bear.
“Ultimately we were done in by this monstrous recession which has just been unrelenting for [the past four years],” said Haley. “And we were undermined by new media tech that has changed the way people discover and read news — for better and for worse.”
Still, Haley said that he has no regrets.
“I’m proud of Chicago Journal,” he said. “We’ve given it our all over 12 years. We don’t give up easily, which is why we’ve kept at it this long. So no regrets — just wish we had a different outcome.”
Bill Motchan, who has been writing for the Chicago Journal since February of this year, said that the news of the shutdown haven’t gone over well.
“The ending of the Chicago Journal is really a bummer,” he said. “It really fills a need in the West Loop/South Loop. Many neighbors feel the same way. Everyone I talk to is saddened by the loss.”
Our paper may be publishing its last issue. But if the past history is any guide, the Chicago Journal name will outlive us. Perhaps someday, somebody else will pick up the name and publish something in print, online, or in some other format we can’t even conceive yet.
Only time will tell.