Winds of change swirl around Chicago newspapers

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

All is not right in the realm of Chicago newspapering these days. Both of the city's major dailies are facing challenges. For the Chicago Tribune, the larger of the two, the challenge is a strike -- the first newspaper strike in Chicago in nearly 40 years. The action began last Thursday, when three production unions walked off the job, charging the company with bad-faith bargaining.

The Chicago Sun-Times, meanwhile, is facing the possibility of a new owner for the second time in 18 months.

The strike at the Tribune is proving to be a minor irritant. The paper has continued publishing using management employees and replacement workers, says spokeswoman Ruthellyn Roguski. Most of its operations are back to normal. The plant only missed one day of putting out USA Today, which it also prints regularly, she says.

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``They're in the driver's seat,'' concedes Dave Donovan, president of the Chicago Typographical Union Local 16. Delivery drivers, represented by the Teamsters, have remained on the job. Their contract has a clause prohibiting sympathy strikes, and they could receive stiff fines and penalties if they honor the picket lines.

New computer technology, which reduces the need for production workers, is the main issue in the strike. The printers (who have lifetime job guarantees), say they are not necessarily opposed to moving to different jobs at equal or better pay, which the Tribune is offering. But they want some say in the job changes so that older workers are not put into entry-level posts.

At the Chicago Sun-Times talk continues about a sale. In May, media baron Rupert Murdoch announced he would sell the paper along with his New York Post in order to buy TV stations in both markets and avoid federal restrictions on cross-ownership. This has sparked a mixture of hope and trepidation in the newsroom, says one staffer.

Some reporters are hoping a new owner might improve the spicy tabloid. Others are content with Mr. Murdoch, who has not changed the paper as much as many observers expected. A Murdoch spokesman says that offers continue to come in, even though he has applied to the Federal Communications Commission for a two-year extension to sell the newspapers.

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