Sun-Times' Gasping Leaves Us All Winded

09/27/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's almost the era that never ends but simply keeps ending endlessly, seemingly every week. If print news were a TV character it would be Fred Sanford, except with real, honest-to-goodness heart attacks, only a few breaths from seeing his beloved Elizabeth.

In the latest turgent episode of "As the Crumbling Newspaper Industry Turns," news broke that Jay Mariotti, the $300,000-a-year (give or take a few thousand) controversial sports columnist at my old newspaper, The Chicago Sun-Times, abruptly quit.

The news was followed by reports that a new round of newsroom cuts would begin shortly. By the end of the business day newsroom gossips were naming a reporter who had been on the short list to go back in January when I, one of the newest kids on the block, was cut, as well as two columnists, two photographers and a few support staff as the next likely, though unconfirmed, targets.

This development comes, almost dizzingly, on the heels of a Chicago Tribune purge that saw barely-two-months-on-the-job managing editor Hanke Gratteau and long-timer James Warren take buyouts, along with an estimated 80 reporters dismissed because no one is making money off an electronic news system that relies heavily on syndicated wire services and a passed-along-by-a-friend distribution model.

How will the Sun-Times dismissals play out? Probably no one will be hustled out by security, as I witnessed in the days before my own January departure, though that fact was later vehemently denied.

There will be more tears, but far fewer people to shed them in a newsroom so condensed that several departments are comfortably occupying the space where just one dwelled as recently as a year ago.

And subsequent Sun-Times editions will surely contain even more freelanced dispatches of delicious depth, bought for a pittance, from ex-staffers who were bought out - or who simply chose to bail out - such as the incredible classical music writer Wynne Delacoma.

Fear, now a familiar face across all the Sun-Times News Group properties, has once again taken up residence and is clanging a loud bell for the unfortunate who have been left behind long enough to wonder whether tomorrow or the day after will be their last.

One editor, who wished to remain nameless, at a suburban Sun-Times News Group property articulated perfectly what Mariotti's bye-bye signals mean.

"There's a sense of the end being near and we don't know when it's coming but we're a day closer," he said. "When you see one of the Sun-Times' most recognizable figures saying we're dead in the water and he doesn't want to go down with the ship it's not good. The worst thing is that Mariotti is ahead of the curve."

Despite there being life after the Sun-Times, the slow, emaciative demise of this newspaper, scrappy to its core (wait until you see Thursday's edition which features fans who have vowed to return to the paper's fold now that the sharp and cutting Mariotti is gone) even in the face of cuts that have gone way beyond fat and into marrow, is nothing short of a tragedy.

Sure, some of the fiercely talented group of people will instantly be snapped up by eager employers, but the real losers are Chicagoans who everyday rely on the printed paper, not the Internet, to tell them what's what in town.

Newspapers' web sites require twice as many, not half as few, excellent reporters to feed the 24-hour news beast, not that that means anything only two days removed from the New York Times' announcement that its ad revenue fell by 17.9 percent, with less than 1 percent growth in online ad revenue despite having poured money into its "golden goose," according to Advertising Age magazine. So prospects for an online only rebirth look grim as well, despite Mariotti's cocksure pronouncement that the internet is where it's at. One longtime Sun-Times staffer candidly old me, "What Jay doesn't realize is that the internet doesn't pay."

Either way, my beloved Sun-Times is almost out of breath and though it's obvious that the city isn't mourning, and management appears gleeful at the Mariotti development - their news release quoted Editor-in-Chief Michael Cooke coolly remarking, "We wish Jay well and will miss him--not personally, of course--but in the sense of noticing he is no longer here, at least for a few days." - it's a bad week for a hometown favorite.

In a parting shot comment to a Chicago Tribune reporter Mariotti said, "I'm a competitor and I get the sense this marketplace doesn't compete," he said. "Everyone is hanging on for dear life at both papers. I think probably the days of high-stakes competition in Chicago are over."

The Sun-Times may not think Jay's departure is a loss, but his spot-on call of the Chicago newspaper market is really a loss for us all.