CHAMPAIGN — For much of its life, The Champaign News-Gazette — the newspaper formed 100 years ago with the merger of the Champaign Daily News and Champaign Daily Gazette — has faced financial stress.
It was born, in fact, from financial difficulties partly the result of World War I that ended a year earlier.
But none of the money problems were mentioned in the cheery story that appeared at the bottom of page one on Sunday, Dec. 14, 1919, when the first Champaign News-Gazette was published.
“We come to you this morning not as a new paper, but as the joining of the two forces which have served you in the past,” said the anonymous greeting, likely written by the publisher of the new paper, D.W. Stevick, who for four years had run the Daily News.
There was no need for Stevick to go into detail about the merger; the other local newspapers, the Urbana Daily Courier and the student-run Daily Illini, had scooped The News-Gazette days earlier on its own story.
The Courier reported Dec. 8 that Stevick had purchased the Gazette for “in the neighborhood of $70,000.” Two days later, The Daily Illini pegged the sum at $60,000 but the narrative was much the same, an indication that Stevick had been the source.
“Owing to the fact that the cost of operating a newspaper has increased from three to four times the cost in 1915, and because of the increased cost of paper and higher wages, The Gazette has followed the action of scores of newspapers throughout the country, merging with its competitor,” The Daily Illini reported. “The necessity of raising subscription prices was an added difficulty.
“Champaign, moreover, is too small a city to support two papers the size of The News. Keen competition made the operation of both newspapers a losing proposition in many respects.”
The Courier’s publisher, Abe Burrows, offered a similar take in an editorial.
“In the case of the Courier, the advertising rate today is not 20 percent higher than it was before the war. In the case of the Gazette, it is not 10 percent higher than in 1914. The subscription rate of the Courier in that period has only increased from 10 cents (a week) to 12 cents, while the Gazette has changed from 12 cents to 15 cents. Expenses, however, have doubled, and in the case of print paper, have quadrupled. Five years ago, printers and pressmen were glad to get $20 a week. Today, they draw from $30 to $35 a week, and at that they are still underpaid in proportion to the increased cost of living,” Burrows wrote.
Newsprint costs more than quintupled over five years, he said, and the Gazette was looking at revenue of about $80,000 in 1920 and expenses of $105,000.
“The Gazette threw up the sponge, and who wouldn’t under those conditions?” Burrows concluded.
For more than a decade, the merged newspaper survived but hardly thrived. Then another crisis — the sudden sale of The News-Gazette in July 1933 to a small group of News-Gazette employees. Stevick was to get $200,000 in notes from the sale, plus $15,000 a year for the rest of his life.
But he sued, claiming the newspaper had been sold while he was “mentally distracted” and that it was worth $600,000, not $200,000.
The trial in Champaign County Circuit Court got spectacular, front-page treatment in the Courier as well as regular coverage in The Daily Illini, but there was no mention of it in The News-Gazette, whose publisher now was Robert P. McKinley, a public accountant. Lillie Procise was listed as secretary-treasurer. It was she who negotiated the sale of the newspaper and informed Stevick.
“You should sign those papers. If you don’t, you can’t get a cent. The paper has been sold,” Stevick’s chauffeur testified.
Stevick’s attorney, O.B. Dobbins, said that the new owners “knew his mental and physical condition, took advantage of his condition and robbed him.”
Elmer Bleau, business manager of The News-Gazette, testified that Stevick had allowed the newspaper’s equipment to deteriorate. And local contractor A.W. Stoolman said The News-Gazette building at 48 Main St. “is in poor condition” and “that any severe shock would be likely to cause the building to collapse,” said the Courier. (Later, the top two floors of the building were removed.)
Almost a year to the day that The News-Gazette was sold, Stevick regained control with an out-of-court settlement. It was immediately reported in the Courier, although News-Gazette readers weren’t informed until a week later with a terse announcement that “Mr. McKinley has, for a consideration agreed between the parties, sold all his interest to Mr. Stevick in the capital stock of the Corporation.”
A series of stock notes originally made out to Stevick in 1927 and transferred to McKinley in 1933 simply read “Cancelled July 14, 1934.”
Stevick died the following year at the age of 48, and for the next two-thirds of a century, his wife, Helen, and daughter, Marajen, owned and operated the paper with the help of a host of honest, hard-working and dedicated employees — mostly.
The next round of financial troubles came three decades later, when the renamed Champaign-Urbana Courier, which had perennially trailed The News-Gazette in advertising and circulation, suddenly became supreme. In 1962, the Courier’s circulation was 32,324 to 31,739 for The News-Gazette.
Aid to The News-Gazette came from an unlikely source: the Johnson Administration’s Justice Department, which in March 1967 charged Lindsay-Schaub Inc. of Decatur with conspiracy in an attempt to “monopolize” the Champaign-Urbana newspaper market. The government alleged that in an effort to remove The News-Gazette from the market, the newspaper chain “intentionally operated the Champaign-Urbana Courier at losses of as much as $500,000 a year” and subsidized the Courier with profits from its other Illinois newspapers.
The government said that over eight years, Lindsay-Schaub had subsidized $3 million in losses at the Courier in order to damage The News-Gazette. Two months later, a consent decree barred the chain from offering special low rates to advertisers who agreed to not advertise in a competing paper. It also prevented Lindsay-Schaub from purchasing The News-Gazette.
Twelve years later, Lindsay-Schaub and the Courier went out of business and The News-Gazette’s most profitable days followed.
A strong local economy, a contract to print a downstate edition of the Chicago Tribune and a virtual newspaper monopoly in East Central Illinois propelled the newspaper through the 1980s and ’90s. It expanded into the Danville market, became a 24-hour operation with three editions daily and moved from the 48 Main St. building (once a harness factory and the newspaper’s home for 70 years) down the street to a spacious, remodeled three-story building.
The 2000s, however, pummeled The News-Gazette with a succession of setbacks: the rapid embrace of the internet and its instant access to news and information, the loss of the Tribune printing contract, a major recession, difficulties for the entire newspaper industry, and a sad and costly betrayal of D.W. Stevick’s only child, Marajen, by her trusted attorney and newspaper CEO.
In that episode, John Hirschfeld, Marajen Stevick Chinigo’s attorney for 38 years, eventually lost his law license after he was accused by a state licensing board of misconduct for overbilling the newspaper’s umbrella corporation by more than $1 million over five years, committing a fraudulent real estate transaction, fraudulently using a signature stamp and improperly revealing the confidences of a client.
Mrs. Chinigo died two years after the negotiated agreement was reached, and Hirschfeld, a one-time state representative and Republican Party heavyweight, never returned to prominence in his hometown. He died in 2014.
All of that hastened The News-Gazette’s demise, leading to a declaration of bankruptcy in August. The corporation estimated its assets at $1 million to $10 million and its liabilities (in particular, pension obligations) at between $10 million and $50 million. The new owners of the nearly 100-year-old merged Champaign Daily News and Champaign Daily Gazette, the Champaign Multimedia Group, took over in November.
There was a time 30 years ago or so when someone in the newsroom printed up T-shirts with the slogan “News-Gazette ... The Miracle on Main Street.” It was a reference to all journalists, printers, bundle haulers and everyone else who had suddenly upped their game and proudly put out an award-winning newspaper with three editions a day and a circulation of more than 50,000.
But that informal slogan could just as easily have referred to a small-city newspaper that somehow survived mismanagement, looting, depressions and recessions, aggressive competition, technological shifts, changes in the public’s appetite for news and other financial stresses. That’s the real miracle, going on for 100 years.
Tom Kacich’s column appears Sunday in The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.