The Feb. 2, 1948, first edition of the Chicago Daily Sun and Times’ front page.

On Feb. 2, 1948, you could pick up the first edition of the Chicago Daily Sun and Times — and find an investigation on page 1 that was the first story in what has become a proud tradition of impactful investigative reporting.

Sun-Times file

Sun-Times at 75: A look back, starting with a story that became a Jimmy Stewart movie

The first daily edition was a reminder to readers that, while they were reading a new paper, they could trust the reporting. That has never changed.

To mark the 75th anniversary of the Chicago Sun-Times, we are exploring the history of Chicago — and our own — and thinking about how the next 75 years might unfold.
America was in a post-World War II boom, with jobs aplenty if you were an energetic young man or a “lively girl,” as a want ad for a secretarial job put it.

International Business Machines had just introduced a new calculator, which operated with 12,000 vacuum tubes from an organlike console.

In Chicago, “Sleep, My Love,” starring Claudette Colbert, Robert Cummings and Don Ameche, played at the Oriental Theatre at State and Randolph.

For 50 cents, you could get a dozen eggs.

75th with 1st edition
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To mark the 75th anniversary of the daily Chicago Sun-Times, we are exploring the history of Chicago — and ours — in stories throughout the year. Click here to read the entire first edition of the paper from Feb. 2, 1948.

And, for a mere 4 cents, on Feb. 2, 1948, you could pick up the first edition of the Chicago Daily Sun and Times.

It rolled off the presses with little fanfare, with the banner headline: “MAJCZEK TELLS $5,000 ‘GIFT’ TO ILL. LEGISLATOR.”

The Majczek story, which would be made into the movie “Call Northside 777” starring Jimmy Stewart, was about a man wrongly convicted of killing a cop and sentenced to 99 years in prison. The Sun and Times’ first daily edition was a reminder to readers that, while they were reading a new paper, they could trust the reporting. Many of its staff were seasoned pros, including James McGuire, one of two reporters who helped prove Majczek’s innocence.

Seventy-five years later, even as the news business has endured upheavals that surely no one in 1948 could have imagined, the Chicago Sun-Times has never forgotten its roots and crusading mission.

“We’re a spunky newspaper,” says Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell, who began writing for the paper as a summer intern in 1990. “We’ve always been a newspaper for the folks who felt they didn’t have a voice in this city.”

Man-about-town columnist Irv Kupcinet talks with President Harry S Truman in 1950.

Man-about-town columnist Irv Kupcinet talking with President Harry S Truman in 1950.

Sun-Times file

Over the years, the paper has featured a storied array of columnists — including Irv Kupcinet, Mike Royko, Eppie Lederer (writing under the pseudonym Ann Landers), Roger Ebert, Carl Rowan, Michael Sneed, Neil Steinberg, Mark Brown and Rick Telander. Ebert was the first to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize for film criticism — one of eight Pulitzers the Sun-Times has won. Eleanor Roosevelt wrote a column, too.

Roger Ebert in 1969 in the Chicago Sun-Times newsroom.

Roger Ebert in 1969 in the Chicago Sun-Times newsroom.

Sun-Times file

Editorial cartoonist Bill Mauldin, another Pulitzer winner, famously captured a nation’s grief after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy with a single, uncaptioned drawing of the Lincoln Memorial showing Abe Lincoln, face in hands, weeping.

Bill Mauldin’s editorial cartoon showing the Lincoln Memorial, with Abraham Lincoln weeping, was published a day after the assassination of President John F, Kennedy in 1963. It took Mauldin about an hour to create the unforgettable image.

Bill Mauldin’s editorial cartoon showing the Lincoln Memorial, with Abraham Lincoln weeping, was published a day after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. It took Mauldin about an hour to create the unforgettable image.

Sun-Times file

From polo-playing squire to civic-minded publisher

If the paper’s target reader was your average person, its first publisher was anything but. Marshall Field III, like his counterpart Col. Robert R. McCormick at the conservative Chicago Tribune, was a country-squire type. Born in England, Field idled away many of his younger years playing polo. By the time Field launched the Chicago Sun in 1941, he’d reinvented himself and wanted his newspaper to be serious and civic-minded. He bought the Chicago Times six years later and merged the two papers to cut production costs. (The Sunday Sun and Times debuted a few months before the daily edition.)

Field’s civic mission played out with the front-page Majczek story — a saga that had started four years earlier after a Times reporter spotted an ad in the personal columns offering a $5,000 reward for the “killer of Officer Lundy on Dec. 9, 1932.”

Listen to an interview with reporter Stefano Esposito and columnist Neil Steinberg on WBEZ’s “Reset” about the Sun-Times’ 75th anniversary:

Tillie Majczek, described as a scrubwoman, placed the ad. Her son Joe Majczek was doing 99 years in Stateville for murder, but she was sure of his innocence.

Two Times reporters, McGuire and John J. McPhaul, were able, after months of investigating, to prove she was right. The police had pressured a witness to falsely identify Majczek as the killer.

Majczek eventually was pardoned, and a bill to pay him $24,000 in compensation was awaiting the governor’s signature. But state Rep. Ragnar G. Nelson, R-Chicago, was demanding a $5,000 cut of the payment, Majczek told The Sun and Times’ reporters for their front-page story.

In the movie version, Stewart played the lone hero reporter.

Poster for the film “Call Northside 777.”

Poster for the film “Call Northside 777.”

Sun-Times files

The Sun-Times’ best-known investigation involved the newspaper and Better Government Association buying a Near North Side bar in the late 1970s and naming the joint the Mirage. Sun-Times reporters Pam Zekman and Zay N. Smith produced a 25-part series and later a book — touted as “a tale of cold beer and hot graft, in which a team of investigative reporters ran a Chicago tavern to probe corruption — and pulled off the greatest sting in the city’s history.”

The reporters stood back and watched crooks drop by. Prostitutes stopped in. So did city inspectors with a hand out for a payoff.

“Even in an era where newspapers did a lot of undercover journalism, heavy lifting, reporters being able to take months to do work on one story, this one stood out because of its creativity and the overall characters the story brought out,” former Sun-Times executive editor Chris Fusco said in 2018, marking the 40th anniversary of the series’ publication.

A fire inspector is seen here taking a payoff for overlooking code violations. The Sun-Times bought and operated a North Side tavern dubbed the Mirage for four months in an effort to uncover and document shakedowns of tavern owners. 

The Sun-Times bought and operated a North Side tavern dubbed the Mirage for four months in an effort to uncover and document shakedowns of tavern owners. A fire inspector is seen here taking a payoff for overlooking code violations.

Sun-Times file

Reporter Tim Novak is among the reporters who have carried on the Sun-Times’ investigative tradition, receiving national recognition that has included the prestigious George Polk Awards — twice.

Once, reporting with Steve Warmbir, was for an investigation of clout and corruption that shut down City Hall’s Hired Truck Program — and saw federal prosecutors send four dozen people to prison.

The other, working with Fusco, was for stories investigating the Chicago Police Department’s mishandling of the investigation of the 2004 death of David Koschman, 21, of Mount Prospect, after a drunken confrontation on the Near North Side. The police department, which had quickly stopped investigating, was still listing the case as an unsolved homicide until the Sun-Times investigation led to the court-ordered appointment of a special prosecutor and the conviction and jailing — a decade after the killing — of Richard J. “R.J.” Vanecko, a nephew of former Mayor Richard M. Daley, for involuntary manslaughter.

The hardest part about telling that story, Novak said, was getting Koschman’s mother Nanci Koschman to trust him. Other reporters had told her they were interested in her son’s story but then backed off, Novak said.

“If the police had done their job back in 2004, we wouldn’t have had to do ours,” Novak said.

Big personalities, short tempers

When Novak started at the Sun-Times, he sat next to Charles Nicodemus, a legendary investigative reporter who was a big man with a reputation for not tolerating “bull----,” Novak said.

At one point, Nicodemus was on the phone with a spokesman for ComEd and getting the runaround.

“He says to this PR person, ‘You are beginning to piss me off. You don’t want to piss me off,’ ” Novak said. “Sitting next to him was like a graduate-level class.”

During a blizzard, Nicodemus once set off on skis from his Evanston home to get to the newsroom.

Chicago Sun-Times investigative reporter Charles Nicodemus.

Chicago Sun-Times investigative reporter Charles Nicodemus had a reputation for not tolerating any “bull----” from sources.

Sun-Times file

Novak developed a reputation of his own.

“There are people who won’t talk to me unless I make them talk to me,” he said. “You have to have something that they have to talk about.”

Then, there’s Fran Spielman, the newspaper’s longtime City Hall reporter, of whom the Sun-Times wrote in 1998, on the 50th anniversary of the newspaper, “looks like she could blend in more easily on Michigan Avenue than in the rude, raucous press room at City Hall. But her sources are like a well-disciplined army.”

It isn’t unusual for Spielman to crank out three, four or more stories a day.

Mary Mitchell remembers, during her first few days at the Sun-Times, the shock of making it to the newspaper.

“The editor sat me down at a desk and told me to write a story about a moose that got loose on the North Side,” Mitchell said. “I was so nervous, I stared at that blank screen for maybe an hour. [The editor] was, like, ‘What are you doing?’ … I couldn’t even talk I was so nervous.”

The newsroom for years tended to be filled with outsized personalities. Sometimes, being loud was the only way to be heard.

“It was noisy and smoky,” said Don Hayner, who started at the Sun-Times’ in 1982 as a night reporter, retiring 30 years later as editor-in-chief.

Hayner smoked in the early days — Marlboros, two packs a day.

“You’d put it in an ashtray on deadline,” Hayner said. “It would just burn down. And then you’d light another one. Back then, people would smoke in the newsroom and put it out on the floor.”

In the sports department — which saw a boost with new stars coming over from the Chicago Daily News, a sister paper shut down in 1978 — big egos sometimes collided. There were days when writers stood over each other’s desks and unloaded: “What you wrote was garbage!”

Turf writer Dave Feldman, dressed in winter in a full-length fur coat, feuded endlessly with prep sports editor Taylor Bell about whose beat mattered most. During one argument, Bell shouted across the office at Feldman, “I’ve read your stuff. It stinks!”

To which Feldman shouted back, “There! That proves it. You read my stuff. I don’t even read your stuff!”

From mostly white, male to a more diverse newsroom

In the early days, the Sun-Times newsroom — like most American newsrooms at the time — was mostly white and mostly male.

The newspaper’s first edition featured a section toward the back called, “The Feminine Angle” in which columnist Dorothy Dix told a “confused” husband, recently returned from the war and wanting his wife to give up her job and stay at home: “It takes all a woman’s heart, brain, patience and diplomacy to run a house properly, make her husband happy and rear children into fine men and women.”

By the time Mitchell arrived in 1990, she was one of six interns, four whom were people of color, she said.

“They were really reaching out to journalists of color and hiring them,” she said. “It was a mission.”

Mitchell credits the National Association of Black Journalists, which went newsroom to newsroom, asking to see the numbers for minority hires.

“They were pushing it in a way that now they are pushing Black journalists to move up the ladder,” Mitchell said.

Still, if you were a minority, you had to work hard not to be “pigeonholed,” she said.

“Just because you’re a person of color, you didn’t want to always be the one going to the South or the West Side when there was a crime,” Mitchell said.

Mary Mitchell.

Mary Mitchell.

Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

Luckily for Mitchell — and the Sun-Times — she often wanted to be sent to the South Side.

“I wasn’t ashamed of being brought up on the South Side in a housing project,” she said. “I thought it gave me a breadth of experience that other people didn’t have.”

Newspaper with a chip on its shoulder

Through the years, it’s been both a source of frustration and pride for Sun-Times reporters that they have often found themselves up against more reporters from the Chicago Tribune on big, breaking stories.

“The Sun-Times’ ethos has always been the chip on the shoulder — the second paper in the second city kind of syndrome,” Hayner said. “That always kind of brought everybody together as a team.”

The steel structure of the new Sun-Times building as it neared completion in October 1956 on the north bank of the Chicago River at 401 N. Wabash Ave.

The steel structure of the new Sun-Times building as it neared completion in October 1956 on the north bank of the Chicago River at 401 N. Wabash Ave.

Sun-Times file

But a Sun-Times reporter hired during the last decade or so would likely have marveled at the newsroom of say, the late 1990s, when the paper had a dining critic and classical music critic and theater critic — and, in the old bargelike building on North Wabash Avenue, a hallway with office after office for its columnists.

When American Airlines Flight 191, bound for Los Angeles, crashed shortly after takeoff from O’Hare Airport on May 25, 1979, killing all 271 people on board and two people on the ground, the Sun-Times assigned 28 reporters, 10 photographers, 14 news and copy editors and 10 freelancers to the story, with rewrite ace and Pulitzer-winner Hugh Hough writing the lead story. The next day’s edition included 14 pages of coverage — some filled entirely with photographs.

An official stands amid the wreckage of American Airlines Flight 191, a DC-10 that crashed shortly after takeoff from O’Hare Airport on May 25, 1979.

An official stands amid the wreckage of American Airlines Flight 191, a DC-10 that crashed shortly after takeoff from O’Hare Airport on May 25, 1979.

Jim Frost / Sun-Times file

“When I was there, there was one reporter who just played [legendary CBS reporter] Charles Kuralt each week — one Sunday story a week from whatever Midwestern town and story struck his fancy,” said Tom McNamee, who began his Sun-Times career as an intern in 1982 and retired in 2021 as editorial page editor. “I was sent to Mexico City for a week, along with an assistant city editor and a photographer, to cover an earthquake in 1985.”

In the early 2000s, the Sun-Times’ then-parent company Hollinger International Inc., even leased a private jet.

“Management was not averse to flying to Montreal for lunch and a baseball game, then dinner and home,” said Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg, who once flew on the jet.

But that was in an era when Canadian-born Conrad Black, a former member of the British House of Lords, ran the paper. Black was convicted in 2007 and handed a prison term for diverting profits into his own pockets when the money should have gone to investors of Hollinger, his media empire that included the Sun-Times and The Daily Telegraph of London. Former President Donald Trump later gave Black a full pardon.

The arrival of the digital age and the resulting loss of print advertising revenue in the early 2000s upended the news business. Daily and Sunday circulation plummeted, as it did at newspapers across the United States.

“We were hemorrhaging money,” said Hayner, who retired in 2012. “We were really trying to save the paper. We all recognized what we had to do to stop the bleeding. It wasn’t pleasant, and a lot of good people were let go.”

In 2011, the Sun-Times closed its $100 million printing plant on South Ashland Avenue and hired Tribune Publishing to print the paper. About 400 workers lost their jobs.

Then, in 2013, the Sun-Times laid off its entire full-time photography staff — about 28 employees, including photographers and editors also at what were then the paper’s suburban publications. That included John H. White, who had been awarded a Pulitzer for feature photography in 1982.

The pandemic later added to the uncertainty for the paper, with reporters and editors mostly working from home.

“The newsroom, to me, is one of those great petri dishes of sharing information, growing information, talking to the old guys and learning from the young guys,” Hayner said.

But the news hasn’t all been grim. Carrying on a tradition of top-notch reporting — which also saw Frank Main and former Sun-Times colleagues Mark Konkol and John J. Kim win a Pulitzer in 2011 for local reporting for stories examining violence in Chicago — Sun-Times staff members produced work during the first year of the pandemic that was honored with more national awards than the newspaper had ever won in a single year. And year two of the pandemic saw the staff top that.

In January 2022, Chicago Public Media, which owns local NPR affiliate WBEZ, bought the Sun-Times, creating one of the nation’s largest local nonprofit news organizations. CPM has said it plans to invest in the Sun-Times to expand its journalism, invest in its digital products and maintain the print paper.

But there’s no going back to the old days of clacking presses spitting out half a million newspapers a day. In 2022, about 53% of Americans preferred to get their news from digital devices, compared with 5% favoring print, according to the Pew Research Center.

Last June, the Sun-Times named Jennifer Kho, former managing editor of HuffPost and Guardian US, executive editor. Kho, who is Indonesian American, is the first woman and first person of color to lead the newspaper.

“Over the next 75 years, I’d love for the Sun-Times to continue to strengthen its ties with all parts of its community, becoming a resource for growing understanding and empathy, solving societal problems and strengthening our democracy,” Kho said. “I want it to be one of the most impactful, respected and beloved local news organizations in the country and part of a thriving, collaborative information ecosystem in a city that has become an epicenter of innovation in news and storytelling.”

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