The Lisagor Awards, held at the Union League Club May 6 Credit: Danielle Scruggs

Now that this year’s Lisagor Awards are behind us, the Chicago Headline Club needs to go back to the drawing board. The competition’s guidelines are obsolete.

While the Headline Club has tinkered with its categories in recent years to accommodate the rise of digital journalism, it’s overlooked something basic: newspaper circulations have slipped so precipitously that the Lisagor’s most basic distinction—between big metro dailies with print circulations above 250,000 and papers with circulations below that—finds the Tribune the only big paper still standing.

It’s not even close. The daily circulation of the Sun-Times, according to last December’s report to the Alliance for Audited Media, is 121,795, while the Sunday circulation is 129,829. 

“Hah! I wasn’t aware,” says WBEZ’s Odette Yousef, president of the Headline Club, when I mention this to her. “That’s actually a really good thing for us to take into consideration for next year’s contest.”

“I can’t imagine a Lisagors where the Tribune and Sun-Times don’t go head-to-head,” says board member Flynn McRoberts of Bloomberg News. Yousef suggested I talk to McRoberts because he speaks for a committee responsible for keeping the Lisagors in step with changing times. “We spent all sorts of time talking about categories,” he tells me—but at the molecular level of “affiliated” versus unaffiliated bloggers, freelancers versus staff writers. The circulation divide was like the elephant in the room no one saw. “The 250,000 is an artifact that just sat there,” says McRoberts. Next time, “this will be the first item on our agenda.” 

Dealing with it won’t be as simple as deciding whether to move the circulation bar. Print circulation as the yardstick is also obsolete. Papers also publish digital editions, and they keep close tabs of online visits to their websites. Even print circulations aren’t necessarily realistic. Papers can cook those numbers by adding the circulations of so-called branded editions, which is what the Sun-Times did with its suburban papers before it sold them to Tribune Publishing two years ago.

Not that more sophisticated calculations would get the Sun-Times over the old bar. Its weekday total for combined print and digital circulation reported to the AAM last December was 138,305; on Sunday it was 144,741. The Tribune reported a weekday number of 406,031 and Sunday number of 711,968. 

Separating papers by circulations is a crude but easy way to separate them by resources, which is what matters. And resources, in an era when nobody has enough, have been superseded by resourcefulness. Making journalism competitions even more unruly are the alliances media now strike to get the job done. For instance, the Daily Herald (daily print circulation 94,740) just won the Lisagor for best education reporting in the under 250,000-circulation category for the series “Generations at Risk.” But two of the four journalists cited actually work for WBEZ, with which the Daily Herald collaborated.

And how often do I see a bug at the end of a Tribune story identifying the contributors: somebody who actually works at the Trib, somebody else at one of its suburban papers, and a third reporter who’s a freelancer. 

Whatever works.

On another front, this was the first year the Lisagor Awards were open to journalists from throughout Illinois, not just the Chicago region. Headline Club secretary Sue Stevens, who championed the change, argued that since it’s the only Illinois chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, there might be journalists around the state who felt unsung and would want to enter.

Only a handful of the 916 entries this year (and no finalists) came from beyond the region, but Stevens thinks that number could increase with time. What will happen to the awards dinner when it does? I asked her. Finalists buy tickets, but a finalist from Carbondale is much less likely to show up than someone from Chicago or Hammond.

Stevens hadn’t given this possibility any thought, but it didn’t seem to concern her. The dinner itself isn’t really a fund-raiser, she said. It breaks even. The entry fees are what bring in revenue.