Murdoch's latest newspaper purchase leaves Chicagoans scratching their heads

Mike Royko, Chicago's feistiest columnist, made headlines last week. He jumped from the Chicago Sun-Times to the rival Tribune, touched off a legal battle, and left Chicagoans scratching their heads.

For two bizarre days, readers were treated to double doses of Mr. Royko - reprinted columns in the Sun-Times, which claimed he was on vacation; brand-new ones in the Tribune, where Royko proclaimed his switch was permanent.

It was the latest twist in the saga of the Sun-Times, which was sold last week to press baron Rupert Murdoch and has touched off a flurry of speculation over the future direction of the paper. What has been generally overlooked amid the hoopla, though, is the larger question of the future of big-city journalism.

Nationally, the sale of the Sun-Times (reportedly for $100 million) marks another notch in the decline of family-owned newspapers and the rise of conglomerates, says Bruce Thorp, newspaper analyst for Lynch, Jones & Ryan in New York.

And along with Denver, Dallas, and Houston, Chicago is one of the dwindling number of cities with two competing newspapers, he says. ''Fifty years from now, I'm not sure we'll see two newspapers in any of these cities.''

Daily circulation figures at both Chicago newspapers have been dropping slowly. Up until 10 years ago, four major metropolitan newspapers were battling for Chicago readers.

But this doesn't mean that Chicagoans are switching from newspapers to television news, says George Rosenbaum, president of Leo Shapiro and Associates, a local market-research company. A 1981 study by his company showed that two out of three heads of households in metropolitan Chicago had read a newspaper in the past 24 hours. More had watched TV in the same period, but not for televison news.

If national, metropolitan, and neighborhood newspapers are added, circulation has probably increased here, he says.

In many ways, the Royko incident was true to this city's long tradition of brawling journalism. In the early part of the century, hired thugs disrupted delivery of competing newspapers.

The Sun-Times wasn't so crude in this case; instead it went to court, claiming Royko had broken his contract. But a circuit court judge ruled Thursday that the columnist could make the switch. By Friday, the Sun-Times had stopped reprinting his columns and announced it would not appeal the decision.

According to Mr. Rosenbaum, a major chunk of Sun-Times circulation depended on Royko's column. And, despite assurances to the contrary, many here are worried that Mr. Murdoch will try to beef up circulation by sensationalizing the newspaper along the lines of his New York Post and Boston Herald.

Already, four top Sun-Times executives have resigned. Remaining staffers have been expressing everything from ''wait and see'' to ''abandon ship,'' Sun-Times sources say.

And the rival Tribune is talking to ''half a dozen'' Sun-Times employees about jobs, a spokesman says.

On the other hand, the Sun-Times is Murdoch's first ''good quality'' newspaper in the United States, Mr. Thorp says. And it has been marginally profitable, unlike the Post and the Herald, which continue to lose money.

What may account for much of the brouhaha is the fact that Murdoch is an outsider. Many were disappointed when a local group of investors, led by then Sun-Times publisher James Hoge, failed in its bid to take over the paper. Mike Royko, whose pungent columns rarely miss the thrust of local ethnic attitudes, has dubbed the Australian-born Murdoch ''the Alien.''

''Chicago is an insiders' town,'' says Rob Warden, editor of the monthly Chicago Lawyer. And, like other cities, it is distrustful of people who come in and take over major institutions.

That may be more myth than fact, since many of the city's most prominent editors and publishers have also been outsiders, points out local media critic John Madigan. Even the Field family, which sold the Sun-Times to Murdoch, lived for many years in New York.

Whatever he does, Murdoch already has some idea of his Chicago competition. In New York, his Post has battled for years with the Daily News, which is owned by the Chicago Tribune. And if a new local afternoon newspaper gets off the ground here, its editor reportedly will be a former London Times editor, who became disenchanted after Murdoch had bought that paper.

(The Tribune has been negotiating to print the new newspaper, though bargaining began before Murdoch bought the Sun-Times, a spokesman said.)

Last October, Murdoch met with the corporate historian for Field Enterprises, Herman Kogan, who told him the newspaper's origins.

Marshall Field III started publishing the Chicago Sun as an alternative to the staunchly isolationist Tribune. The first edition was Dec. 4, 1941. On Dec. 7, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the Tribune changed its editorial stance.

''Three days after publishing, there really was no need for (the alternative newspaper),'' Mr. Kogan recalls telling Murdoch. Murdoch, according to Kogen, was surprised.

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