James P. Miller and Leon Lazaroff, (Sun-Sentinel) Tribune staff reporters, reports:

The Chicago Tribune, which hasn’t missed an edition since the Great Fire of 1871, came perilously close to doing just that Monday.

Because of a computer breakdown, about 40 percent of subscribers received no paper Monday. And those that did got a truncated version with strange page numbering and unusual placement of some features.

The problems occurred after a flaw in software installed over the weekend crashed the newspaper’s production system. After struggling through the night, the newspaper managed at daybreak to begin printing an abbreviated Monday paper.

Normally, the Tribune’s presses begin running about midnight, and it takes about three hours to print the nearly 600,000 Monday copies. But because of Sunday night’s difficulties, the presses didn’t begin rolling until about 5:30 a.m. The Tribune’s RedEye tabloid edition also went to press hours late.

By mid-day, the paper had received more than 40,000 phone calls from angry or confused subscribers. It was the highest single-day complaint total “I’m aware of,” said Dick Malone, the Tribune’s senior vice president and general manager.

And the calls kept coming.

“We’re very disappointed to have inconvenienced so many of our customers,” Malone said at a news conference.

Tribune Publisher and President Scott C. Smith told employees in a memo that the estimated cost of resolving the problem, including credits to subscribers who didn’t get a paper and advertisers whose ads didn’t appear, will be “under $1 million.”

In its 158 years, the Tribune failed to publish only at the time the Great Chicago Fire was destroying much of the city.

The printing problems at the Chicago Tribune were related to efforts to upgrade computer equipment used to produce the newspaper, Malone said. The Tribune acquired customized software for the upgrade from an outside provider, and it contained a “coding error,” he said.

As a result, although the paper’s editors were able to edit and design pages for Monday’s planned 48-page edition, the computerized pages couldn’t be transmitted to the paper’s Freedom Center printing plant on the Near North Side.

The software problem “took us down hard,” Malone said.

Although production staffers identified the problem relatively early, he said, resolving the issue was extremely time-consuming, and editors opted to eliminate half of the planned pages in order to speed the press run.

The Tribune also has a contract to print the New York Times’ national edition at Freedom Center. But because the computer problems were limited to the Tribune’s news system, the Times printed without incident.

Some Tribune subscribers won’t receive Monday’s paper until Tuesday morning, company executives said. On Monday, some home-delivery subscribers found on their doorsteps only the Business section and classified advertising—two sections that are pre-printed on Mondays.

Those sections are routinely delivered in advance to the Tribune’s distributors, and many agents opted to deliver those sections rather than nothing, Malone said.

Monday’s circulation woes came on the heels of other problems for the newspaper’s corporate parent, Chicago-based Tribune Co.

Early this summer, the media holding company unsettled investors by disclosing that revenue and earnings would fall short of management’s earlier projections.

More recently, two Tribune Co. papers, Long Island, N.Y.-based Newsday and the New York edition of the Spanish-language daily Hoy, admitted that they had significantly overstated circulation. Such overcounts cause advertisers to overpay, and Tribune Co.’s second-quarter earnings were blighted by a $35 million charge to cover settlements with unhappy advertisers.

Monday’s disruption in the Chicago Tribune’s printing created confusion and dismay among readers and vendors.

Jimmy Modi, owner of Mike’s Newsstand at Chicago and Michigan Avenues, said he didn’t receive copies of the Tribune until about 8:30 a.m.

“I usually sell about 30 papers between 1 and 8 a.m.,” he said. “I need my papers at 1 in the morning, not 8:30.”

When John Stein left his home in far west suburban Big Rock at 6 a.m., he thought he had simply beat his newspaper delivery man, who usually drops off his Tribune by 5:30 a.m. Looking for a newspaper to read on the train ride into the Loop, Stein purchased a suburban daily.

“I have a routine,” Stein said, “and not having the Trib kind of ruined my day.”

For Jack Jones, the Tribune’s delivery problem meant he was selling far fewer papers than normal.

Jones, who works out of a wooden newsstand on the Madison Street bridge near Union Station, said that most customers were taking a pass on the Tribune’s skeleton edition.

“No one wants to buy the Tribune when it doesn’t have Tempo,” he said.

Some readers resorted to calling the newsroom to learn why they hadn’t received a Tribune. Even after an editor assured her that she wasn’t alone, a Stickney woman had to ask one more question to ease her mind.

She wanted to be sure that her missing Monday paper had nothing to do with the fact that her Sunday Tribune had been labeled “Final” edition.

Tribune staff reporter Rhasheema Sweeting contributed to this story.

Posted July 19 2004, 7:53 PM EDT