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Steve Rhodes, who watches Chicago Tonight so I don’t have to, summarizes Sun-Times publisher Cyrus Friedheim’s attitude towards the future:

“Finally, Freidheim said his paper’s competition wasn’t the Tribune but Google and Yahoo, whom he accused of ‘pirating’ the news. Google and Yahoo actually send readers to the Sun-Times’s website.”

Technically, this is true. Google and Yahoo do greatly expand the Sun-Times‘s potential audience from people who actually read the Sun-Times to anyone searching for anything that might, via Google and Yahoo, lead them to the paper’s Web site.

The greater problem is that the Web has expanded the Sun-Times‘s competition from a few sources to millions. Not just in terms of indirect competition–in the past, a Chicagoan like me wouldn’t be choosing to devote five minutes of my time between QT and  if charlie parker was a gunslinger, there’d be a whole lot of dead copycats–but also in terms of direct competition. Not only do Jay Mariotti and Rick Telander have to compete against Sam Smith and Rick Morrissey, they have to compete against Deadspin, Free Darko, Chauncey Billups (well, not anymore, unfortunately), John Hollinger, and others. Lynn Sweet, who Rhodes calls “a one-woman Washington bureau,” has to not only compete against the papers that a Chicagoan might have otherwise plausibly subscribed to (WSJ, WaPo, NYT), she has to compete against the Politico, Talking Points Memo, and thousands of other sources. I agree with Rhodes in that she’s very good, but that’s a tall order.

It’s not that Friedheim shouldn’t fear the Web. The problem with Google and Yahoo is that the ease cuts both ways; those sites don’t pirate, they just make the competition all the more intense. Twenty years ago a one-man CW machine like Richard Roeper might have been the only convenient columnist writing about such subjects as the senselessness of Heath Ledger’s death, will.i.am’s “Yes We Can” video, Boston sports hubris, the senselessness of the Tinley Park murders, and how crappy our president is. Now lots of people are doing it, some of them are much better writers, and now they’re easier to find. Having a one-man Technorati made sense before Technorati. Likewise, Michael Sneed‘s roundup of news might have been more useful when she was reading more papers than the average Internet user.

That’s not to say the S-T needs to go exclusive and hardcore with local content. Years ago they had the foresight to tab a features reporter and U of C doctoral student named Roger Ebert as their film critic, and now he has a worldwide audience. The Web has expanded newspapers’ potential audiences, but it’s also raised the standards, and content that wasn’t redundant, dated, or just inferior in the context of plausible alternatives is now much more likely to be so. That’s the problem, and that’s what Friedheim needs to address. For the sake of the Sun-Times and its staff and contributors who are truly irreplaceable (Novak and Warmbir, Marin, Ebert, etc.), I hope he adjusts his fear of the Internet accordingly.