Few pedestrians making their way under the west side of the Oak Park Avenue el viaduct likely ever give a second glance to the light grey wooden shack resting between the iron support columns. But that shack is a relic of sorts, the lone remaining local example of a structure that once helped form the rich if gritty streetscape of 20th century Chicago and its close-in suburbs.
Run by Oak Parker Rick Meegan, it’s the last physically standing newsstand in Oak Park and may be the last stand for several miles”the old shack near Madison and Desplaines in Forest Park was damaged by a car several years ago and torn down.
Another stand, faring much better, still flourishes on Oak Park Avenue near Cermak Road in Berwyn.
Whenever I find myself standing near the North Boulevard newsstand on a weekend as trains pass by overhead, I listen for the faint echoes of a faded time and smile.
The 1960s and ’70s were roiling, fluid, unstable times, with an unprecedented mix of political, racial, social, sexual and artistic tumult. The old was giving way to the new in unsettlingly messy clashes. Yet newspapers remained the primary way people attempted to make sense of it all”even as television news, with its compelling immediacy, slowly supplanted print as the primary manner of transmitting breaking news.
As former Tribune editor Richard Ciccone, the author of Royko: A Life in Print wrote, “The ’60s and ’70s were the last great era of newspapers as the dominant information provider.”
Back then, Chicago had four newspapers competing for the public’s pocket change”two mornings papers, the Tribune and Sun-Times that published before dawn, and Chicago’s American and the Daily News, whose first editions came out after 9 a.m.
“Morning” and “afternoon” were general descriptions, in reality. The Daily News and American published four and even five editions throughout the day, starting around 9 a.m. The Trib abd Sun-Times printed their first edition around 2 a.m. Their last edition the Three Star Home, nicknamed “the Bulldog,” came out in the evening.
The majority of those bundles landed at newsstands back in the 60s, and all that newsprint got there via a huge delivery system that relied primarily on street-smarts, muscle and hustle. It was the focal point of a blue-collar industry that provided a living for thousands of people, both adults and kids.
One of whom was me.
In the quarter century following World War II, that environment remained vibrant, even as shadows lengthened on the afternoon papers. Today there’s the Internet, television, cellphones and radio, and newspapers sometimes seem an afterthought. But newsstands used to be everywhere around Chicago. They dotted street corners, nestled in the vestibules of grocery stores and were often an integral part of drugstore checkout counters. There were also many temporary sites, usually outside churches, where men would set up shop on Sundays and sell hundreds of copies of the Sunday Tribune and Sun-Times, come rain or shine, heat or cold.
Since childhood I’ve viewed newspapers as among the true marvels in life. Like bakeries and coffeeshops, newspapers were, and remain, evidence of society’s daily renewal. The sun comes up, and there’s today’s newspapers. Bakeries for the mind, so to speak, providing informational food for thought.
Working a newsstand was hard work. You had to pay attention”the customer came first”if not because you felt like it, then because you usually always made at least as much money on tips as you did on the 2-3 cents per paper sold.
I ran a newsstand at the Jewel Store on Madison Street at Franklin Avenue in Forest Park”which is now Famous Liquors. I was in seventh and eighth grade at a time when some grown men were earning $1.10 to $1.50 an hour. I took home $29.10 clear one Saturday evening after a long day of selling Daily News and pushing overloaded shopping carts for women shoppers. In decent weather it wasn’t unusual to average twice the minimum wage”princely pay for a poor kid in junior high back in the ’60s.
Meegan’s last stand
Newspapers were a family thing for Rick Meegan. His dad was a Tribune driver, his uncle a Daily News driver. Meegan started as a helper on his dad’s Tribune truck when he was eight years old.
“Back in 1942, all the qualified helpers were in the service,” said Meegan, who went on to help on a truck that distributed for several blocks on either side of Madison Street from Western Avenue to Austin Boulevard. He also sold newspapers near Comiskey Park.
As soon as he turned 18 in 1952, he started driving a truck and didn’t stop until 48 years later, when forced to by back surgery in 2000.
Around 1970, Meegan’s son and his buddies took over the Oak Park Avenue stand from the old guy who’d run it for decades.
“They’d sell the American and Daily News, from around 4 p.m. until 6 p.m.,” he recalled. “Kept ’em out of trouble.
Several years later Meegan, who sold the Saturday edition of the Sunday papers at St. Edmund and other churches, got the idea to start selling papers at the newsstand on the weekends.
He’s been doing so for over 30 years now”and he’s the last one left.
Seeing the world … well, the near west suburbs
When I turned 14, I took a pay cut to leave my newsstand and go work on Nick DeSario’s Daily News truck every Saturday for a flat eight bucks and lunch. The bonus that swayed me was the opportunity to ride around Oak Park, Forest Park and four other near west suburbs, delivering two editions of the News. (Ironically, Meegan’s newsstand sits less than 300 feet from the old Daily News and Sun-Times garage that served as a starting point for Field’s west suburban distribution operation.)
I still look back on it as the best times I ever had hustling and sweating. As does David Royko, who was 17 when he started working weekday afternoons on a Daily News truck downtown.
The son of Daily News columnist Mike Royko, David expected to get a nice desk job during his senior year. Dad, however, had other plans. Mike, who grew up a quintessential Chicago street kid, told the paper’s personnel guy not to play favorites with his son.
“I don’t want a nice job,” the elder Royko told the paper. “I want a hard, sweaty, dirty job.”
“You start Monday. You’re a helper,” Royko unceremoniously announced to his son.
David Royko said he remains forever grateful for his dad’s decision. Though an experienced writer and psychology professional, he has a difficult time articulating what the 15 months riding and working on a news truck as a helper meant to him.
“There was just something …” Royko said recently, his voice trailing off. He recalled driving along Wacker Drive for a few blocks, leaning out an open side door, watching Chicago’s vista whiz by, then said, “It just felt very … invigorating isn’t the right word …”
“Free,” he said at last. “You felt like you were one with the town.”
Free is precisely how I felt both at my newsstand and on the news truck. A kid on his own, with no one looking over my shoulder dictating things. Yet it was a responsible sort of freedom. Both David and I relished the experience of knowing we were doing something essential, a real job that lots of other people counted on us to do right.
“You were getting it to the people who were going to sell it,” said Royko.
Nick Desario confirmed that recently.
“The helper was your right arm,” said Desario. Without your helper, you’d never get back [on time].”
And time, every driver knew, was of the essence. Not only did each edition have to get to the stands quickly, but delivery drivers either met their supply, or the “relay” driver’s schedule, or paid the price.
“If you were late, it was ‘Bye bye, baby.’ You picked up your papers off the ground by yourself,” Desario recalled.
Understandably, helpers on a news truck did what the driver wanted, or you got off his truck. The drivers were a rough-and-tumble group, blue collar guys who hustled all day and didn’t whine about the weather or other tough circumstances. Not that Nick was ever a hard case. Nor did he have to be. Small but strong and looking to prove myself, I always worked my tail off until the work was done, and enjoyed every minute of it. All in all, satisfying stuff for an undersized kid feeling his way toward manhood.
When I think back on newsstands and newspapers, I think of the Chicago Daily News. Like David Royko, I took a lot of pride just in helping deliver the best paper in Chicago. The Daily News was a marvel, both to readers and competing journalists like the Tribune’s James Yuenger, who called it “one of America’s great newspapers.”
“Above all, the News was a reporter’s paper,” Yuenger wrote the day after the News ceased publishing, “and its pages have been enlivened by some of best journalists in the business.”
For a dime”15 cents on the weekends”you had the world at your fingertips.
Besides the sports section, always a big draw to kids of all ages, the News offered Royko’s column on page three. Foreign coverage featured the likes of Keyes Beech, a war correspondent who’d covered World War II and Korea. For years he sent riveting reports back from Vietnam.
Peter Lisagor, the paper’s Washington bureau chief from 1959 to 1976, became one of the most respected and well-known journalists in the United States. Editor Larry Fanning, the guy who gave Royko his column, created Panorama, the first regular feature section in a daily newspaper.
Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist John Fischetti graced the editorial page, and Al Capp’s “Lil’ Abner” (featuring a cartoon strip within a cartoon strip in “Fearless Fosdick,” the Inspector Clouseau-like detective) lead off the city’s best cartoon section.
The Tribune was the staunch Republican standard bearer. The Daily News was the paper of the working men heading off to second shift jobs or coming home from them. But back then it was the Daily News that was known for exemplary journalism. The News won four of its 13 Pulitzer prizes from 1963 through 1972, while its sister publication, the Sun-Times, added two more during that period. The Tribune won one Pulitzer over that same time period.
Being the best not good enough
In the end, however, while each Chicago paper was competitive in its own way, it was printing schedules, not journalistic content or quality, that would determine their fates. The Daily News had a circulation of 600,000 in 1959 when publisher John S. Knight sold the paper to Marshall Field. By the time it folded in 1978, that number had fallen by nearly 50 percent” published reports in February, 1978 put it’s daily circulation at around 305,000.
“We really did lose a lot of readership,” recalled Desario. “The paper lost so many advertisers.”
Conventional wisdom has it that the sales of afternoon dailies declined with the rise of television and the movement of its readers to the suburbs. By the late 1970s, there were not as many people commuting to night-shift jobs, long the main readers of afternoon newspapers.
But work patterns weren’t the only things changing. There was another noose tightening around the neck of Chicago’s two daily afternoon newspapers”the thickening traffic on the region’s expressways and arterial streets.
“Traffic kept increasing each year as more cars hit the road,” Desario recalled.
Such congestion made it increasingly difficult to deliver their product in a timely manner to an increasingly spread out readership. By the ’60s the suburbs were rapidly expanding, and reaching the increasingly far-flung expatriates of the newspaper’s old urban base now depended on long ribbons of concrete that were getting more and more crowded. It’s a problem even for today’s morning papers, noted Meegan, who watched the roads clog up over the decades.
“Oh, it’s horrible,” he said. “Especially the Sunday deliveries on Saturday. If they don’t get out [early] they just get hung up.”
By the late ’70s, the logistical challenges of moving loads of bulky newspapers during rush hour in a timely fashion proved too much. People may eat day-old bread, but they won’t pay for late newspapers.
In 1969, the Tribune Company converted its Chicago’s American to a tabloid format and re-christened it Chicago Today, one of several moves intended to attract more readers and bolster circulation. It didn’t help, and the paper folded on Sept. 13, 1974.
The Daily News made adjustments of its own, but would ultimately suffer the same fate. Alan Mutter, currently a successful Northern California Internet executive, was an editor at the paper in the 1970s.
“The management was changed. Circulation dropped. We redesigned the paper. Circulation dropped. We tinkered with the product. Circulation dropped,” wrote Mutter on his internet blog.
Marshall Field’s Chicago Daily News published its last edition on March 4, 1978, folding some, though not all, of its staff into the morning Sun-Times.
“So long, Chicago,” read the banner headline on the final Daily News, written by nightside copy desk chief Tom Gavagan.
“In the end, there was nothing left to do,” wrote Mutter. “Some 300 people lost their jobs, and Chicago lost a great newspaper.” The final Daily News printed the name of everyone working on the paper that day, a day Mutter calls “one of the saddest and proudest days of my life.”
All told, 985 people lost their job. And some, including the Daily New’s previous publisher, contended that Daily News management could have done more.
John S.Knight, who’d run the paper profitably for 15 years, castigated Field’s handling of the Daily News, writing that it died of, “editorial ineptness and managerial malnutrition.”
Mutter, though, disagrees. “I would have to say there is nothing ” not improved content, holographic pictures or even free dental floss ” that could have saved afternoon newspapers from the competing electronic media and modern commuting patterns, work styles and life styles,” he said via email. “Times change and people move on. If media companies don’t do so, they will lose. In the case of the (News), we outlived our usefulness and there was nothing to be done. I spent many years being very angry about it, but management absolutely was correct to focus resources on enhancing the competitiveness of the Sun-Times.”
Besides putting quite a few good journalists and most Daily News drivers on the street, the demise of the paper also removed nearly two million copies from the weekly street market. For those whose livelihood depended on selling newspapers, a valuable commodity was lost for the second time in four years.
Mike Royko’s final Daily News column appeared on the front page of the final paper. He may as well have been writing about the declining prospects of newsstands and newspapers themselves when he penned his beloved paper’s eulogy. A devoted 16-inch softball player, Royko compared the passing of the Daily News to the fading rays of late summer sunlight on a darkening school playground. The piece resonated with dread”a sense of the inevitable, impending loss that Royko had wanted so badly to stave off.
“When I was a kid, the worst of all days was the last day of summer vacation, and we were in the schoolyard playing softball, and the sun was down, and it was getting dark. But I didn’t want it to get dark. I didn’t want the game to end. It was too good, too much fun. I wanted it to stay light forever, so we could keep on playing forever, so the game would go on and on. That’s how I feel now. C’mon, c’mon. Let’s play one more inning. One more at bat. One more pitch. Just one? Stick around, guys. We can’t break up this team. It’s too much fun.
“But the sun always went down. And now it’s almost dark again.”
Not the same
28 years later, I still pick up a newspaper when I want full, serious coverage and analysis of a news event. Television, in my opinion, is still too superficial, and radio, especially in these deregulated times, can be too scattershot.
The Internet? As the late Royko once wrote, “It’s been my policy to view the Internet not as an ‘information highway,’ but as an electronic asylum filled with babbling loonies.” That’s not true anymore, but while I routinely exploit all three electronic media when seeking news, newspapers remain the most important source for me.
Keep your news boxes and home delivery, though. I choose to buy my weekend papers from an actual human being, either Gus at Oak Park Market, or from Rick at the stand at Oak Park Avenue and North Boulevard.
“Yeah, there’s something about handing your money to an actual human being and being handed a paper,” said David Royko.
It’s a simple little pleasure I want to continue enjoying until it too simply disappears one day. Which it will almost certainly do. Like Mike Royko’s softball game, the shadows have mostly swallowed up newspaper street sales.
“Street sales are hurting,” said Meegan. His newsstand, he fears, “is going down the tubes.”
Electronic media and home delivery have already made selling daily newspapers “not worth it,” according to Meegan. Now the weekend papers look to be disappearing from the street as well. The last time his business was really good, Meegan said, was several years ago when both the Trib and Sun-Times discounted their cover price to a dollar.
“I was selling triple what I do now,” he recalled. “People went back to buying both papers at the lower prices.” Within two weeks of the Trib and Sun-Times dropping their discount pricing, Meegan’s sales plummeted.
“I went from 600 Tribs to around 300,” he said.
Nowadays he sells 200 Tribunes, along with 100 Sun-Times, plus a smattering of New York Times, of which he once sold around 60 copies.
“But they kept jacking up the price,” he said. Now at $5 a copy, he sells “16 to 18.”
Alan Mutter is almost certainly correct, painful as his analysis may be to accept. While the Oak Park Avenue el viaduct has shielded Meegan and his papers from the rain and snow, it can’t shield him from the forces working to eliminate newsstands from the scene”including his age. Meegan, who’ll be 72 in July, admits he’s feeling the effects of time.
“My kids are always saying, ‘Dad, why don’t you quit?'” said Meegan, who admits he runs the stand nowadays more for the social aspects than for the money. After paying his help and buying lunch at Erik’s Deli, he’s lucky to take home $20.
“I tell them, hey, I like going over there and talking to people,” he said.
But for only the third time in over 30 years, Meegan wasn’t at the newsstand the weekend before last due to health problems. He doubts there will be anyone waiting to take his place when the time comes to walk away from his stand for the last time.
“I don’t think anyone will want to put in all the hours for the money involved,” he said.
The disappearance of newsstands may be inevitable, but it still doesn’t feel right. One can only hope Rick Meegan and the few other remaining newsstands can hold out for a while longer, if only to give the few of us literary dinosaurs who still care a chance to savor an era that will soon be gone forever, like the last day of summer vacation.
As Royko, and maybe Meegan, would put it, “Stick around, guys! Let’s play one more inning.”