Forget the argument about how keeping up with the news is a civic duty. If you live in Chicago and don’t read the papers you’re missing out on one of the joys of life. Most cities have one daily paper, and it probably thinks of itself as a utility like the water works, bland and inoffensive. In Chicago there are two metropolitan dailies (and others in the suburbs). Reporters here compete by one-upping each other. They can’t afford to be second, and they can’t afford to be dull.

Chicago’s the rare city where there’s actually a journalism hall of fame. Some of the immortals leave town, others stay, but they all drink the water. When Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur moved to New York they looked back at Chicago and wrote The Front Page as a tribute. Mike Royko wrote the classic Boss about the first Mayor Daley and died here still in harness. The most prominent political commentator on today’s national scene learned his trade in Chicago, where in 1993 he authored this incisive report on the war-torn Balkans:

In 1528, Austrians brought Catholicism.

Again some folks converted, causing yet another schism.

The King said, ‘Relocate the Serbs,’ to where the grass was greener,

The Croatian-Bosnian border, which is now troubled Krajina.

Stephen Colbert polished his skills at Second City, where he performed that ditty, and though other giants claim more orthodox backgrounds and greater fidelity to the facts, the outlook that prevails among them is roughly as skeptical as Colbert’s. Chicago is not a place where reporters acquire a lofty view of human nature.

The angrier Royko got the funnier he got and that can’t be said of his successor at the Chicago Tribune, John Kass. But in a city where scheming warlords do whatever they can get away with, and a little bit more, Kass’s eye for that little bit more is as sharp as anyone’s. Former governor George Ryan just got sentenced to six and a half years. Eight years ago Kass was already pounding him while the Tribune endorsed him for governor.

There’s good reading ahead. Coming up this fall is one of those local elections that neither side deserves to win. The utterly unqualified Todd Stroger is running for president of the Cook County Board by some sort of divine right of succession: he wants to follow his dad, who was renominated in the Democratic primary against stiff opposition in March even though he’d just had a stroke and for all anyone knew was in a coma. The Republican, Tony Peraica, is such a social conservative that he removed his name from a proclamation welcoming the Gay Games to Chicago.

Mayor Daley is expected to run for a fifth term next spring, this time on the unspoken premise of apres moi, le deluge. The excitement builds as federal investigators, who in July convicted Daley’s patronage chief on fraud charges, now have senior Daley aides in their sights. It’s taken for granted they’re looking at the mayor–oh, and the governor too.

The Tribune will be on top of all this, but Kass might be one of the few there admitting to having any fun. It’s an odd paper. Its pallid design suggests the shirt drawer of a Baptist undertaker, and as hard as it tries to rock and roll the suspicion lingers that these are people taught from the cradle it’s a sin to dance. Tribune investigations resemble state occasions, created with Pulitzers a little too obviously in mind. In its ponderousness, it’s frequently outreported not only by the smaller, nimbler Chicago Sun-Times but by the Chicago bureau of the New York Times. But the Tribune does do some great things. District attorneys across America loathe it for its inquiry, lasting many years, into corrupt prosecutions and false convictions. And the arrest of reporter Paul Salopek in Sudan last month reminded readers that the Tribune actually has had a man in the field in the worst parts of Africa doing Pulitzer-winning work.

The id to the Tribune superego is its four-year-old RedEye edition, the local example of a national trend: dumbed-down versions of serious papers aimed at the elusive 18-to-34 market. RedEye finally caught on to a strategy the Reader pioneered in 1971, free circulation, and combined it with aggressive marketing. If a current circulation drive succeeds, RedEye will be distributing just about as many papers each day inside Chicago as the Tribune does.

Without anything like the Tribune’s depth of talent, the Sun-Times rides its stars. The name over the title, so to speak, is movie critic and TV host Roger Ebert, but he’s been missing since June, recovering from surgery. That same month sports columnist Jay Mariotti was called a faggot by White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, went into a sulk over what he deemed his paper’s halfhearted defense of him, and took off on a vacation of indeterminate length. Mariotti’s despised around the paper, but people read him, so the Sun-Times finally sweetened his contract, and he came back.

The Sun-Times’s top political columnist is Mark Brown, whose eye for sin is as keen as Kass’s though he doesn’t get as lathered up about it. Brown’s the go-to guy for Chicago’s next big trial. In March, Conrad Black faces federal racketeering, fraud, and tax evasion charges. Until recently, Lord Black of Crossharbour (as he chose to be called after he wangled himself a seat in Britain’s House of Lords) controlled the Sun-Times; now he stands accused of plundering it and other media properties of about $84 million. The key witness against him will apparently be his lifelong friend and business partner, David Radler. After being indicted himself, Radler, the former publisher of the Sun-Times, started cooperating with the U.S. attorney’s office. Black and Radler are reviled at the Sun-Times for bleeding it dry, and that paper’s coverage should glisten with schadenfreude.

Chicago’s legendary black daily, the Defender, helped inspire the Great Migration north, but it hasn’t been readable for decades. At least it isn’t moribund any longer. A young new publisher, Roland Martin, is a bundle of energy, but he symbolizes greater change than he’s been able to make yet. He’s in action weekdays as a tub-thumping midmorning host on the city’s indispensable black talk radio station, WVON (1450 AM).

There are other dailies with more restricted circulations that one-newspaper cities would be lucky to have–in particular the Daily Herald in the northwestern suburbs and the Daily Southtown in the southern suburbs. There are weekly papers circulating in just about every neighborhood and suburb. Many of them, in addition to the Daily Southtown and some other suburban dailies, are controlled by the Sun-Times thanks to Radler, who patched together a local empire and undermined the editorial independence of the lot. Some are operated by dreamers, idealists, opportunists, or lunatics. And let me add that the foreign-language press is rich. If not reading a newspaper is a habit you’re into, wait until you leave town to indulge it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.