HYDE PARK — Bruce Sagan was a teenager when he first saved a community’s newspaper.
As a tenth grader at Summit High School in Summit, New Jersey, with three years experience editing his junior high’s newspaper, Sagan discovered the paper had folded at Summit High. He set out to revive it — and did just that.
Less than a decade later, in 1953, Sagan would take that experience to a bigger stage. He and his wife Judith scrounged up $2,500 to save the Hyde Park Herald from an already-announced closure.
The purchase kicked off Sagan’s 69-year career at the Herald’s helm, as he shaped it into a paper with a penchant for detail, an activist bent and a dedication to the unique community it served.
After more than seven decades in the Chicago-area hyperlocal news business, 93-year-old Sagan retired last week and transferred the Herald to a new nonprofit led by the South Side Weekly.
The Herald and Weekly will remain standalone papers. The merger formalizes a partnership that’s put the outlets in close collaboration, including sharing an office, for more than two years already.
The merger can best honor the years of work Sagan put into “Chicago’s oldest community newspaper” with one, not-so-simple task — “by being thoughtful about its journalism,” he said.
A ‘Public Citizen’ Of Hyde Park
Sagan first moved to Hyde Park in 1946 as a 16-year-old University of Chicago enrollee.
He entered the university’s undergraduate program — “I never finished,” he said. He’d later enter its law school — “I never finished,” he said.
A sociology professor once quipped that Sagan missed so many classes, it was only by reading Sagan’s writings for the university’s newspaper, the Chicago Maroon, that the professor could confirm he was an active student there.
Sagan entered professional journalism in 1951 at 22 years old, securing a job as a “copy boy” for the Hearst International News Service.
He then worked about two years an overnight editor for the legendary City News Bureau. His was a midnight-8 a.m. shift where staffers half-joked that they covered the Mafia assassinations beat, he said.
As Sagan sought a more sustainable reporting job in 1953, he was rejected for a position at the Chicago Sun-Times, where he would later return to serve as chairman.
Shortly afterward, a group of Hyde Parkers approached Sagan, who by then was a 24-year-old “public citizen” of the neighborhood who dedicated his time to block clubs and other community initiatives, he said.
The group wanted the budding reporter to consider buying the failing Herald, whose publisher had already announced the paper’s demise.
Given the Herald’s precarious finances, “the offer of Hyde Park was obviously scary, but very attractive,” Sagan said. The 24-year-old Sagan borrowed $2,500 from loved ones to take over the paper, which ran the next week without interruption.
Under Sagan’s leadership, the Herald “went into detail of an intimately small kind” as it covered pressing neighborhood issues, he said.
Hyde Park’s burgeoning “urban renewal” project — a controversial, decades-long redevelopment plan that followed widespread demolitions and saw hundreds of millions of dollars poured into the community — received particular attention from the paper in Sagan’s early years.
The Herald printed the urban renewal plans that would be passed by City Council in 1958 “so the community could see them and discuss them”; wrote about neighborhood crime, “which was high on [neighbors’] list of concerns”; and promoted the Whistle Stop crime prevention program, Sagan said.
“This idea that you could re-plan an existing area, keep people in it and still do things to modernize that community, that was a new idea,” Sagan said. “It needed explaining … and it needed a vehicle which could communicate to the community its details that other journalistic enterprises wouldn’t do.
“A Downtown daily newspaper covering the entire metropolitan area was never going to do it,” he said.
The paper also covered race relations as the urban renewal project moved forward, including a 1958 proposal from socialist Ald. Leon Despres (5th) to ban racial discrimination in rental housing.
Hyde Park’s status as an interracial community in the years following urban renewal remains an issue worth covering, Sagan said.
The Herald under Sagan’s watch “thrived on community conflict rather than merchandising consensus, and became a potent force,” former editor Lee Pavatiner said in a statement.
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Detailed coverage of major social issues was no small task for a skeleton crew that at some points was just Sagan and an editor, with perhaps one other journalist, he said.
Sagan regularly spent “about 200 hours per week” putting the paper to print, he joked, distributing it and securing advertisements from local businesses and for the classifieds section.
In 1958, five years after taking over the Herald, Sagan purchased the Southtown Economist, which grew into a chain of 28 publications. The papers eventually merged into one daily paper in the south suburbs, which was a predecessor to the modern Daily Southtown. Sagan sold the Southtown in 1986 reportedly for $40 million and retired from it two years later.
The Lakefront Outlook — a small sister publication to the Herald started by Sagan in 1999 — won a prestigious George Polk Award in 2006 for its investigation into then-Ald. Dorothy Tillman and the Harold Washington Cultural Center. Tillman lost her re-election bid to Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) the next year.
“His career had such a fundamental impact on newspapers and news in the city, as well as nationally,” South Side Weekly publisher Jason Schumer said. “The man at some point had [nearly] 30 community newspapers. … He was very interested in experimenting with various markets and how to get people the news they wanted.”
Beyond his journalism career, Sagan is an avid patron of the arts. He is one of the Joffrey Ballet’s inaugural board members, having served since it moved to Chicago from New York City in 1995.
Sagan is also on the board of the Steppenwolf Theatre. John Malkovich, a charter member of the theater, feted him with a script reading on his 80th birthday.
Sagan’s primary occupations of journalism and performance art sometimes overlap, with perhaps no clearer example than his ownership of the Harper Theater in Hyde Park.
When the rejuvenated Herald’s headquarters was set to be torn down as part of the neighborhood’s urban renewal project in 1960, Sagan began looking for new office space. He bought the Harper Theater in 1961 and moved the paper to the theater building’s upper floor.
Sagan made wholesale changes to the theater itself starting in 1964, cutting its capacity to 300. Inspired by New York City’s “off-Broadway” productions, he turned the Harper into an “off-Loop” theater where professional actors could perform for more intimate audiences.
The Harper Theater held an annual dance festival organized by the Sagans, hosted the Joffrey Ballet in 1965, and was home to other live theater and dance programs before it reverted to a movie theater around 1970, Sagan said. The Herald moved out of the building in the 1980s.
A Longtime Partnership, Made Formal
Though Sagan transferred the Herald to the Weekly on July 1, and the merger was made public Thursday, the two outlets have been closely linked for more than two years.
They’ve shared an office since June 2020 at the Experimental Station, 6100 S. Blackstone Ave., which technically makes the Hyde Park Herald a Woodlawn-based outlet. Schumer and the Weekly have overseen publishing and other day-to-day duties at the Herald since October of that year.
The Herald and the Weekly will continue to operate as standalone newspapers.
With the merger, the Weekly is essentially repeating what Sagan did 69 years ago — tagging in to stabilize Hyde Park’s longstanding paper, Schumer said.
“Our version of that is, let’s build an infrastructure to subsidize a lot of the cost and the work that it takes to start up a community newspaper,” Schumer said.
It’s a model he believes could be used to take on other existing hyperlocal papers and create new outlets down the line, he said.
“It’s a much leaner operation, it’s much cheaper, you’re also sharing a lot of resources and expertise — but still, importantly, having editorial independence that’s rooted in the neighborhood,” he said.
Sagan trusts the South Side Weekly with the future of the newspaper to which he dedicated nearly 70 years of his life. “We wouldn’t be having this announcement if I didn’t,” he said.
But this is no clean break. Sagan will remain available from his home in upstate New York, offering guidance and support to the paper’s leadership, he said.
“I’m never done,” Sagan said.
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