I took the above picture a few weeks ago while on the Metra train from Aurora into Chicago. It’s the shelf those sitting on the upper level can put their bags or other items on.

When I first started working downtown back in 1998 that shelf would be littered with strewn about copies of the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times. Between that and anything left on the actual train seats you could, by the time you reached the city, assemble five full copies of the paper from what was leftover. Someone might take the Sports section but leave Business and Local. Or take Business but leave the front section. If you didn’t subscribe yourself you could still read the paper and these additional readers were, to varying degrees, counted by the publisher when it came time to sells ads. So every subscriber would, through pass-along, equal to or three actual readers.

Now that shelf is empty. If anyone is reading the newspaper they’re doing so on their tablets or phones, where they’re the only eyeballs counted. There’s no pass-along and then digital/mobile revenue is a fraction of what print ads brought in.

You can write any number of hot takes about the state of the newspaper industry in Chicago and elsewhere. But that image, an empty shelf that once teemed with the work of local journalists and winters, shows just how things have changed over the last 20 years.

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