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Ask Geoffrey: What Happened to ‘World’s Greatest Newspaper’?


Geoffrey Baer has some newspaper history hot off of yesteryear’s presses, and dives deep into the fishy story of storm drain covers in this edition of Ask Geoffrey.

What happened to the Trib’s banner “World’s Greatest Newspaper”? I believe it was in the ‘80s that it was taken off.

—Paul Seelentag, Chicago

It actually didn’t quite make it to the ‘80s. The last day that “World’s Greatest Newspaper” was on the Tribune’s front page nameplate was Dec. 31, 1976. By then, the modest phrase had run there regularly for 65 years.

It was removed by Tribune editor Clayton Kirkpatrick, who was described as a transformational leader who pushed the Tribune into the modern era. According to a later Tribune account, when Kirkpatrick was asked years later why he cut the “world’s greatest newspaper” slogan, he responded simply that it wasn’t.

“World’s Greatest Newspaper” made its first appearance in the nameplate on August 29, 1911, though it had referred to itself that way in its pages a few times by then. During that time the bombastic Col. Robert McCormick was president of the Tribune Company.

The Tribune professed in its 1920 Book of Facts that “The words ‘World’s Greatest Newspaper’ are not used as a boast, but as a statement of fact in which people who make this paper, people who read it, people who advertise in it, and many impartial experts firmly believe.”

In 1924, the paper acquired the radio station WDAP, and McCormick changed the station’s call letters to WGN, the initials of the paper’s slogan.

When the decision was made to drop the slogan from the nameplate, it wasn’t commented upon in the Tribune itself, but other newspapers did take note.

An article from a Massachusetts newspaper quoted then Tribune president Robert Hunt as saying, “The Tribune has never been greater than it is today, but we felt the time was past when a promotional message was appropriate for the masthead.”

And the Tribune’s crosstown rival, the Chicago Sun-Times, celebrated the change in an item with the headline: “That’s Great!”

Do you know the history about these sewer covers? It’s at 4500 North Broadway.

—Mark Boerboom, Buena Park

Above is the photo our viewer sent. It’s a storm drain cover, and we think what caught our viewer’s curiosity were the fish molded into it. You often spot these in parking lots in many places around the country. We’ve actually got one in the parking lot right here at WTTW. So to understand the fishes on the drain cover, you have to understand what storm drains do and what makes these different.

In the best of all worlds, we wouldn’t need storm drains at all. Rainwater would just soak into the soil, but in a city where a lot of the soil has been covered up with hard surfaces like pavement and rooftops, storm drains prevent streets and buildings from flooding in heavy rains.

Chicago and many suburbs have what’s called a combined sewer system, which means that most storm drains feed rainwater into the same sewers that carry wastewater from homes and businesses. The combined flow goes to wastewater treatment plants and is cleaned before being released into the Chicago River.

But these storm drains our viewer asked about are different. Instead of draining into the sewer system they send stormwater directly into a nearby body of water without passing through a wastewater treatment plant. That’s why the drain cover has a picture of little fish on it and a message that reads “dump no waste – drains to waterways.”

So if you’re tempted to pour off the old motor oil that’s been sitting in your garage for ages into one of these drains – think of those poor fish and don’t do it! Actually you shouldn’t pour that into ANY sewer because even sewage treatment plants can’t remove oil, paint and other toxins from wastewater according to Friends of the Chicago River.

Storm drains like the one our viewer asked about help solve the inherent problem of a combined sewer system. A heavy rain can simply overwhelm wastewater treatment plants creating what’s called a CSO – combined sewer overflow. All that water that can’t be handled is released untreated into the river and sometimes even the lake, which is obviously a bad thing for everyone.

So these days when you go to the city for a permit to build a parking lot or something with a big roof you’ll be encouraged to install storm drains that don’t add to the combined sewers. According to Richard Lanyan, retired president of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. But there’s a footnote. The drain cover our viewer asked about is on Broadway, nowhere near the river. And WTTW’s Building Manager told us that our drain just empties into the regular Chicago sewer system. So it seems at least some new sewer covers are being installed with the fish image because that’s just what was available, or maybe to remind us to think carefully about what we’re putting down the drain.

More Ask Geoffrey:

Did you know that you can dig through our Ask Geoffrey archives? Revisit your favorite episodes, discover new secrets about the city’s past, and ask Geoffrey your own questions for possible exploration in upcoming episodes. Find it all right here.

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