By Michael Miner
The Parris Island of Chicago journalism has less than two months to live. Whatever comes after City News Bureau--if anything comes after--it won't be a boot camp for wannabe reporters.
"We don't come at it from an idea we're there to train people," said Doug Faigin of the City News Service of Los Angeles, sounding like someone who expects to set up shop soon in Chicago. "Our clients use our stories in the newspapers and give us credit," he told me. "The news station anchors are authorized to read our stuff immediately."
His point was that City News Service delivers news that editors trust, because its reporters know what they're doing. His larger point is that City News Service knows what it's doing--it makes a profit in the same business that lost the City News Bureau a million dollars last year.
City News Service made an offer for CNB before Christmas. Faigin and Tom Quinn, who run the LA wire, are both Medill alumni and Quinn worked at CNB when he was starting out. But their credentials were more impressive than their original terms. "I have received no serious offers," Joe Leonard, the Tribune associate editor who's president of the CNB board, told me the other day.
The picture's changed. "It's not finalized, but I think we're getting along pretty well," Faigin called to tell me Tuesday night, after a few days of negotiations. "It's not at all a done deal, but I'm hopefully optimistic at this point. Next week we should know."
Even if Chicago can support one local wire service, it certainly won't sustain two. And City News Service isn't the only player in the field. "The City News Bureau has done a marvelous job, and I don't think I have a right to put on its mantle," declared media consultant Phil Whitfield in a speech written for delivery Wednesday to the Chicago Press Veterans. Whitfield would no more put on CNB's mantle than he would assume its debts. Hired last year to help save the bureau, which went into business in 1890, Whitfield now is willing to see it die. He proposes to raise a new wire service from the ashes.
Whitfield's assignment had been to persuade CNB's clients that it was in their own best interests to dig deep and pay the same high rates the City News Service commands in Los Angeles. The clients said no, and the Tribune and Sun-Times decided to pull the plug on their 108-year-old property.
"We hired Whitfield in the beginning to go out and explain to them that this is what's going out, this is what's coming in," Leonard said. "They thought we were posturing. I don't posture. I'm a straight-up guy. I don't think they took us seriously."
"I thoroughly enjoyed meeting the news directors. They're a splendid crowd of people," said Whitfield. "I reported the results to City News Bureau, and it came as a complete shock to me when a reporter from the Daily Herald called and said the bureau would close on March 1.
"Then," Whitfield went on, "I had a couple of calls from broadcasters who asked me if it was possible for me to investigate if a service could be continued. That I've done." With Leonard's permission, Whitfield went back to CNB's clients and sounded them out about a new service. This past Monday he sent them a letter announcing the rates of his new Chicago News Service--rates somewhat lower than CNB was demanding but considerably more than the clients are paying now.
You could probably pick up CNB, which has lost $2.5 million in the last two years, for pocket change. But you'd be buying both a famous name and fearsome liabilities, such as the long lease on the fancy suite of offices at 35 E. Wacker. It makes perfect sense to Leonard that Whitfield wants to avoid those entanglements.
"This is strictly conjecture," Leonard said, "but I think Phil has a lot of City News people lined up, and the next day [after it closes] I envision a lot of them working for Phil."
Whitfield's a former reporter for British dailies and the BBC who's done tours in Vietnam, Beirut, and Belfast. He met his wife, Janet, a Chicagoan, in London in 1976, and he decided to come here to settle down. "I teach people how to deal with the media in a crisis," he told me, explaining Media Visions, the consulting firm he and his wife run.
Where can you save money? I asked him.
"If we put more-experienced people in the front lines we'll save in rewriting and editing, so we'd have less staff," he said. "They had a staff of 44--ours would be less than half of that. They have staffed it full-time through the weekend. I'd look for some part-timers. I know there are some experienced people out there who would like to do a shift.
"They have a very expensive rental. We would put them on another floor in this building, at 211 E. Ontario. With modular furniture we'd do more in a smaller space." By the end of the year, said Whitfield, he wants Chicago News Service feeding clients by "intranet." He gave this example of how it would work: "Let's say a reporter goes out to Old Orchard, where there's been an incident. By the time he's up there the police have their yellow tape out, so he winds up standing 150 feet from the crime. In truth, many reporters like this one have to call their desk to find out where the casualties were taken, so they can do their stand-upper for the ten o'clock news. In my world he'd be able to log on to the Chicago News Service from his laptop and read the latest reports of what's happening on his story out of his own visibility. He's not tying up the newsroom while it's supplying him with information."
Like Faigin, Whitfield promises reports filed by experienced professionals paid living wages. (However, he's also been talking to Medill about interns and about tapping into the Chicago Medill News Service.) A "modern management," as he delicately labeled the new zeitgeist in his speech, would strive "to encourage rather than to cajole newcomers." Clients could expect "fast, accurate, reliable copy that they can use straightaway. That's not always been the case."
Whitfield talks jauntily of high technology. "Competent reporters need the means to send their copy in fast," he said in his speech to the Press Veterans. "And thanks to recently improved technology we are now able to do that at lightning speed, using voice-recognition software on specially designed small computers equipped with wireless links to a Web site. Our reporters will be able to file court reports within seconds of verdicts being announced. They will also be able to capture the precise words of their interviewees so that we can deliver them in text and sound....There are enormous productivity savings to be made if competent people are equipped with the latest communications tools."
Faigin's a little skeptical of a news report that arrives--as he puts it--by E-mail. "For subscribers to pay attention it has to be right up in front of you at all times, coming in on a constant stream. People check their E-mail every couple of hours. If you're a professional wire service you have to be acting like one."
But he's no less willing than Whitfield to dismiss CNB's current operation as obsolete. He intends to introduce a software system designed specifically for City News Service and its clients, a system that, among its other virtues, will allow a client editor to pull up stories and the daybook from his bedroom when he wakes up in the morning.
"We know how to run this thing," Faigin told me. "One reason we're so successful here is we know what our subscribers want. We make a very active effort in keeping in touch with our subscribers. The daybook, courts, and cops is what most media people are after."
Whitfield's more expansive, speaking of putting reporters in new beats and in new suburbs. An adroit salesman, he couches in the idiom of mission and high principle the notion that without a metropolitan news service, local news desks will be so many headless chickens.
"Today," he said in his speech, "with the media answering to Wall Street and the investment community, who demand ever more cuts in the editorial budget, journalists know there is no substitute for firsthand, eyewitness reporting. In the early 70s when I was in Belfast, I slipped up by not leaving the office to cover a demonstration passing through one of the big housing projects. Word came that there had been a riot, and rumor had it that several children had been stoned to death. Although the BBC put out a special bulletin within an hour and reported the circumstances as given to us by the police--a couple of kids injured--there are still those to this day who believe there was a massacre at Unity Flats that afternoon.
"You see, the media in Northern Ireland had lost the respect of the community. And the community turned to the people who were out on the street for their news--people politically motivated to foment violence. How much better it would have been to have been able to send a live report from Unity Flats in Belfast that afternoon. I let them down that afternoon--and it was a lesson underlined that night when the guns came out and people were killed.
"It's all too easy to lose the respect of your community. Once the media abandon the streets, they renege on their contract with the people to print all the news impartially, fairly, and honestly. Telephone journalism is a poor substitute for the real thing. And it always shows."
That's language that stirs the soul. "He's certainly a decent, honest guy people seem to like," Faigin acknowledges. "The big difference, obviously, is that we actually operate a wire service and are not in a situation of having to promise things based on theory and hope."
Why not start from scratch the way he intends to? I asked Faigin. "That option is not eliminated yet," he replied. "We're trying to resolve which way to go on that. But there's something about City News Bureau--its name, history, reputation. In addition to our business reasons for doing this--which are number one--we also have some real fondness for City News. It's not like we're coming in from outside with no history or feeling for the area."
Whatever happens next will happen quickly. Whitfield and Faigin both told me that any deal must be done in a few days if a local news service, new or revamped, is to be up and running March 2, the day after the old one dies.
With FOBs Like These...
"Impeachment move a right-wing conspiracy plot?" asked a page-four headline last week in the Chicago Defender. We already know Hillary Clinton's response to the question, and it turns out that Edward Spannaus thinks the same. Spannaus was identified by the Defender as "law intelligence editor of the weekly Executive Intelligence Review." He'd come to town to air his views on Cliff Kelley's show on WVON.
According to the Defender, Spannaus told his radio audience that "the drive to overthrow Clinton began as soon as he came into office" and has nothing to do with Monica Lewinsky. "A lot of it started with the British press," Spannaus confided, explaining that ever since Clinton demonstrated that he "wasn't going to be led around by the nose by the British as George Bush was" that country's journalists have been trying to bring him down.
There's never enough room in a newspaper, and the Defender chose to tell us much less about Spannaus and the Executive Intelligence Review than there is to say. Defender readers might have been interested to learn that the review feels so strongly about the crisis in Washington that on December 31 it published an open letter to the people of America. It said in part: "The real intent of the British-steered coup against the Presidency is to destroy the possibility, once and for all, that the President of the United States can take steps to overcome the financial crisis and the Depression.... As a matter of fact, the British are running the same kind of coup against the United States which they ran against Germany in 1932-1933 by toppling the von Schleicher government and bringing in Hitler."
On October 9 the Executive Intelligence Review published an open letter to Clinton himself: "We assure you, Mr. President, of our full support," stated the journal, which went on to offer heartfelt advice. "The economist Lyndon LaRouche alone has warned for a long time, that the series of wrong decisions in the framework of the neo-liberal economic policies of the last 30 years must inevitably lead to a systemic crisis. He has been right; all of his critics are today fully discredited....We appeal to you, President Clinton, to appoint Lyndon LaRouche immediately as economic advisor to your administration."
On December 9 LaRouche himself picked up his pen in the pages of the Executive Intelligence Review. Putting to rest the idea that Clinton would be succeeded in office by a man much like himself, LaRouche revealed that there is "hard evidence" that Al Gore "has deep, long-standing, close connections to a wide assortment of some of the most savage among President Bill Clinton's most impassioned, and nastiest, Zionist far-right-wing and other political and personal enemies, the recently retired Newt Gingrich and Conrad Black notably included." LaRouche called Gore "dumb and poisonous as a Gila Monster."
When the media report the great thoughts of clear thinkers who aren't household names, the public deserves to be told what they need to know about them.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.