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Pantagraph ownershippasses to California firm

THIS TIME it was the Daily Pantagraph of Bloomington, an independent newspaper owned by the same Illinois family since before the Civil War; it was swallowed by a California-based communications conglomerate.

After the death of W. O. Davis, the farmer-businessman who built the Pantagraph into a successful and profitable community institution, his Republican descendants (the Merwins) and his Democratic heirs (the Stevensons) quarreled often over the operation and policies of the paper. But the Pantagraph was, first, last and presumably always, a McLean County paper.

In February, the Merwins and the Stevensons sold out to the Chronicle Publishing Co. of San Francisco, publisher of what is widely recognized as one of the worst big-city newspaper in the United States. The Chronicle company also holds interests in cable television, book publishing, feature syndication and real estate.

That the sale of the Pantograph should follow so closely the acquisition last year of the Edwardsville Intelligencer in Madison County by the Hearst Corp. is an interesting coincidence. Here is some background that may help Illinoisans understand how the Chronicle and Hearst groups happen to have the resources to come

30/June 1980/Illinois Issues

hunting new properties in this state.

For many years the Chronicle and Hearst's Examiner battled in the San Francisco morning newspaper field. Instead of heavy news, the Chronicle entertained its readers and filled the paper with the comments, social notes and opinions of a stable of local columnists. And the Chronicle overtook its rival. One of the Examiner's editors has called the Chronicle "a daily satire on American journalism."

There was another reason why the Chronicle did so well. Defending themselves in a subsequent antitrust proceeding, the owners admitted that they had cut prices below cost in order to increase circulation and the ad rate base.

Then in 1965 the two previously competing companies made peace by combining their business, printing and other noneditorial functions an exception to the antitrust laws legalized later by the Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970. Once their profit-splitting arrangement had been implemented, the Examiner switched to the afternoon field, leaving the Chronicle with a morning newspaper monopoly. And the two papers doubled their joint advertising rates. Next came five antitrust lawsuits, most of them filed by advertisers. Settling out of court in 1975, the Chronicle, the Examiner and their jointly operated printing company agreed to pay $1.35 million in damages to the plaintiffs.

One plaintiff, the owner of a department store, claimed the raise in ad rates by the newspaper monopoly forced him to close seven branches and eventually to go out of business. For each of the nine years following the profit- sharing agreement, each newspaper reported pre-tax profits of more than $1.6 million. The Examiner, which had been losing money, is said now to be the most profitable of the Hearst newspapers. Shortly after the settlement, the U.S. Justice Department timidly acknowledged that the newspaper antitrust exemption may "contribute to increased advertising costs in particular local markets."

Bloomington-Normal is one of the few growing communities in downstate Illinois. What is sad about all this is not that the Chronicle would want to invest some of its profits there, but rather that the present generation of Pantograph owners thinks so little of their heritage that they would sell out to such a company.

Polls and presidential politics

Meanwhile, this presidential election year is a jarring reminder of how the publication of opinion polls commands our attention to "who's ahead," eclipsing most everything else that is said and done in the campaign.

For once, the timing of the presidential primaries put Illinois in the national spotlight. The two Chicago newspapers were engaged, therefore, in a competition to see whose poll would be cited most frequently by the national news media as the authoritative source for who was running ahead.

Fortunately the polls commissioned by the two papers, as well as a third conducted for WBBM/CBS, agreed two weeks before the primary that President Carter was far ahead on the Democratic side and that Rep. John B. Anderson had pulled up to or was even a little ahead of Ronald Reagan in the Republican race. This prompted speculation that Anderson might actually win his home state.

Unfortunately the Sun-Times stopped polling before the final weekend and did not catch the swing back to Reagan, a swing that even the Tribune badly underestimated. Not only does the electorate appear to be more volatile than usual this year, but the Reagan-Anderson experience pinpoints the big weakness of any poll in a primary: the difficulty in predicting the turnout. An analyst must consider whether Reagan's supporters, for example, are more likely to show up and vote in a primary than are Anderson's, especially since many Anderson supporters were not Republicans.

Partly for that reason, the Sun-Times did not use its customary straw poll techniques in the primary. After the problems encountered in the senatorial campaign two years ago (see "Media," February 1979), the Sun- Times hired an "editorial research manager," Virginia Fielder, who has a Ph.D. in the statistical mumbo-jumbo of polling.

At her recommendation, a market research firm that had conducted readership studies for the Sun-Times in the past was hired to do the pre-primary polls in a highly scientific fashion. Using teams of questioners at a telephone bank in Fair Lawn, N.J., RMH Research selected the sample (beginning with 500 statewide and working up to 1,000 in the final wave), asked the questions over long-distance WATS lines, tabulated the results and reported them back to Chicago. All Fielder and her colleagues did was come up with the questions which demonstrates how physically remote and machine-like a polling operation can be.

In the fall the Sun-Times will attempt to capitalize on the national publicity value of its historically well-known straw poll, while the Tribune is expected to counter with its own survey results. The straw poll will continue to be based on in-person contact with voters around the state, using a large sample and closely simulating the balloting process itself.

This time, however, the New Jersey firm will play a part in selecting the sample. Instead of casually asking local party officials and newspaper people where representative bodies of voters are likely to be found outdoors when the straw pollers are in town, more scientific methods will be used to select a true cross-section of the voting population.

June 1980/Illinois Issues/31

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