By Michael Miner
No City News Is Bad News
Whatever you might have heard about afflicting the comfortable and binding the community, the first function of the journalist is witness. Reporters are our eyes and ears, and whenever they abandon a place things there are sure not to go better.
The unsung virtue of City News Bureau is being there. Fighting to stay alive, CNB sent out a prospectus last June reminding clients of all the places its reporters go: courts, City Hall, transportation agencies, school board meetings, police stations and crime scenes, and county, state, and federal buildings. Today Bernie Judge edits the Daily Law Bulletin, but he broke into journalism in the 60s as a copyboy at City News Bureau and in 1983 and '84 was back there as its general manager and editor. CNB announced last week that it will shut down early next year, and Judge's reaction was a passionate declaration of first principles. "There'll now be no one in the police stations checking what the police do," he told me. "Nobody covers the police stations except City News."
This isn't to equate the police department with Sudan. It's to recognize the power of reporters on the scene to keep fallible people honest, and to wonder why the Tribune and Sun-Times think that power's worth surrendering to save a million dollars a year. That's what City News will lose this year and what the two papers that own it must cover--on top of the $250,000 each assesses itself for the service.
Judge thinks going out of business to cut the loss is a false, odious economy. "It lost money for 80 or 90 years," he said. "Why aren't they closing CLTV, which has not made money? Or their Internet sites, which don't make money?" Judge, who's also worked at both papers that own City News, was speaking specifically of the Tribune, whose managers have been around Chicago long enough to see beyond CNB's red ink. "You can't do a cost-benefit analysis on an organization 108 years old that's played such a singular role in this town's reputation--which is national--for good reporting, good journalism."
Which will suffer now, I added.
"Absolutely. Because the competitiveness of the coverage and the aggressiveness of the coverage will be diminished. In any building beat in Chicago covered by City News, the reporters from the papers and from anyplace else know they'd better pay attention so City News doesn't do stories that they haven't considered. Lee Strobel [a former Tribune courts reporter] said he hated it when City News checked things, because then he had to." If City News isn't watching, Judge went on, nobody will be. "If you know when to file a lawsuit--late on Friday, or before lunch--nobody will catch it."
But Joe Reilly, City News's general manager, is beyond such idealism. Yes, he said, CNB keeps the dailies on their toes. It's a tip service, he said, "and it's gotten to the point where we're a fairly expensive tip service. It gets kind of hard to justify. It's like wearing a belt and suspenders at the same time. We're like the suspenders to their reporters' belt."
To balance the books, City News jacked its prices so high it began driving off its broadcasting clients. The big network-owned-and-operated stations that paid $20,000 a year for CNB until August and today pay $40,000 would have gone to $70,000 next May and to $120,000 by January 1, 2001. "From their perspective it's a hell of a lot to pay, and the step increase is phenomenal," said Reilly. "The music stations dropped out immediately. Several of the really big guys told me, 'OK, we'll stay with you until May 1 of '99, but we won't stay with you after that.' And we didn't come up with any new ideas. I would happily have made and painted plaster-of-paris figures and sold them on the corners, but we had no new ideas of things to sell--so we were stuck trying to sell news. And there wasn't enough interest in news to pay our bills."
I asked Reilly if he could mount an argument that he'd believe that the City News wire is worth the money he was asking. "I can, but I can see our value to them from their side too. They're not really interested in some of the things that we traditionally cover, but they are interested in our daybook and coverage, perhaps, of City Hall. But they're not interested in keeping full-time reporters in many of these largely secondary-type beats. We cover a lot of courts. They don't see a reason for them to pay high rates to maintain reporters in that many courtrooms."
I'd last talked to Reilly in the summer of 1997, when City News had just sold off its profitable PR News Service, putting CNB's own future in question. "I'm not going to be the person to preside over its death," Reilly said then, and he told me he hoped to sell the wire to papers like the Daily Herald that had never been offered it.
John Lampinen, editor of the Daily Herald, was interested, but not at Reilly's price, which turned out to be $120,000. What's it worth to you? I asked Lampinen. He said, "We would have been in the ballpark at $20,000 or $25,000."
Losing a Scorekeeper
City News is a fabled training ground, but not every reporter there covers the cops and the courts for a brief time and moves on. Steve Foltin joined the bureau in 1968. "They said, 'Two years and we'll kick your fanny out of here.'" But Foltin was interested in sports, and there happened to be an opening. He's been at City News ever since.
"I never really expected to have to go out and look for another job," says Foltin, who's 56. "That's part of the shock."
Foltin, with a staff of one, became sports editor in 1978. His tenure's an aberration, but the work itself is classic City News: no frills, long hours, loads of detail. "Ninety-nine percent of it is high school stuff," he says. "We send letters to the athletic directors asking them to pick some person to call us with their home games. Then we pay them per game. When I started it was a dollar a game. I think it's up to $5 for a football game."
Foltin and his assistant take down the scores and a highlight or two, write a paragraph, and put the game on the wire. "You get home at three or four in the morning," he says, sounding chipper as he describes his Friday nights. "And of course you can't go to sleep right away, so you watch the Sports Channel for half an hour until you can calm down and go to sleep. And then you're back there [at the office] about noon."
When the papers each had only a couple of prep writers, Foltin's yeoman's work was indispensable; now that they've developed their own long lists of stringers it doesn't matter as much. Even so, City News is still the prep source of record, and the weekly schedule of games it sends out gives the dailies one less chore. "The AP relies on us a lot," Foltin says, "so they can send the scores out statewide. Especially during basketball season, when they want to keep track of the ranked teams, we're in contact with them quite a bit."
City News's present office at 35 E. Wacker is cool and carpeted, which is to say, inappropriate to the institutional ethos. Foltin has touching memories of the old place, overlooking the el tracks at Wells and Randolph. "It was a small, dinky, dirty, little, cramped, cluttered office, and it was a tile floor. There was this old truncated switchboard that used to buzz and beep and do all kinds of strange things, and a lot of yelling across the room--if a call got cut off, 'Can you get me an outside line?' kind of thing. Back then they were using teletype machines, so that added to it. And of course you had the picture radio blaring. Then they had a hookup to the Fire Department, which would send out a bell-type code that would put marks on a little white spool of paper with red ink, and you'd look at the dots or dashes and look up what firebox or alarm box had gone off. That added to the din a little bit, and then of course the typewriters themselves. And back then everybody and their uncle smoked--that added to the haze. So it was quite a place, especially around 4 or 4:30, when the new people came in to get assignments--that added to the noise. And the building faced west, so you got the afternoon sun and in summertime it could get a little warm, to say the least. It was always, shall we say, uncomfortable, in that it put your deodorant to the test."
So Foltin remembers it. If it's your memory too, your heart is breaking.
The Press Club Is History
Did you ever join the Chicago Press Club? wondered Richard Digby-Junger.
No, I said. Neither did most of the journalists I know. Young firebrands didn't sit around and smoke cigars and sniff brandy, or whatever it is you do in clubs to get fair value for the dues you pay.
"It was in business 107 years, from 1880 to 1987," said Digby-Junger, who a couple of years ago made the remarkable decision to become the defunct club's historian. "Changing times helped put it out of business more than anything else. It cost in the hundreds of dollars to join, and then there were various surcharges, because it was running short of money. Did it ever bother you that you might be hanging around with public-relations types and other lesser life?"
Well, sure, I said--the pro forma answer, though I never actually gave it a thought.
Digby-Junger said the "changing ethos in journalism" did in the club and that one "watershed" event came as early as 1907, when lesser life-forms were admitted. "It was the first press club, as far as I could tell, that let advertising and PR people join. We working press people never got paid enough money to really support it," Digby-Junger said. "They used to have stewards to wait on people, stuff like that. They had a library. You could sack out for the night if you were from out of town and didn't want to pay for a hotel. It was a real club. If you died, there were widow benefits and orphan benefits. They'd help you find a job if you got fired. They didn't have unemployment back in those days, so they'd help you out with a couple of bucks."
The mid-60s brought another sea change. "Women started becoming involved in the business--not just as sob sisters and society reporters but as beat people. They wanted to join, and they did," said Digby-Junger. "But I think that took away some of the appeal for guys. It had been where guys went to talk about guy things and drink."
And then there was drink itself--the vanishing "culture of alcohol." Digby-Junger asked, "Have you ever seen The Front Page? That's the whole glorification of the four-martini, five-martini lunch and journalists staggering back to work in the afternoon. We don't do that anymore." Whatever other purpose the press club served, it was first of all a bar, he said. And as with other reporters' bars--Riccardo's and the Boul Mich, for example--its time passed.
A former broadcast journalist in Minneapolis and Milwaukee, Digby-Junger's now an associate professor of journalism at Western Michigan University. A couple of years ago he got a notice in the mail about a fund-raiser for the Chicago Press Club, which he discovered no longer functioned but was trying to raise money to pay off the IRS. "My academic specialty is journalism history," he explained. "I found out through some calls who the last president of the club was." This turned out to be Bob Herguth, the semiretired Sun-Times columnist. Digby-Junger phoned Herguth and asked if he still had any of the club's old records. Boxes, said Herguth, and come Monday he was putting them out with the garbage. Digby-Junger showed up on Saturday and loaded his car.
Digby-Junger's scholarly history of the press club will appear in the next issue of the Journal of Illinois History, the new quarterly of the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. Chicago History will carry a shorter piece he wrote on the same subject for a more general readership.
"I don't know if the bar was open 24 hours a day, but the restaurant was," he told me. "Back at the turn of the century, that was one of its biggest attractions. If you were visiting from out of town you could go get a meal 24 hours a day." The late 19th century was an era when any trade with pretensions of professionalism was founding clubs and associations for reasons of status, he told me, and the club that newspapermen put together was one of the more successful in town. "Once you got over that hurdle of having people recognize you as at least a quasi-legitimate profession--when you get into the teens and 20s--it becomes more of a social thing."
Was it a club a reporter felt he had to belong to if he could afford it?
"If you were a real up-and-comer you probably wouldn't belong to it," Digby-Junger said. "The example I talk about is Ben Hecht. He never joined, probably because he thought he was too good. He was a literary type. The guy who did belong was Charles MacArthur [Hecht's coauthor of The Front Page]. And there were lots of lesser--I call them--lights that belonged, who thought they had the stuff but didn't."
There were actually two declines, he went on. The original press club went out of business in 1937. "It was an era of labor unrest. The newspaper guild was started in 1935, and people started joining the guild instead of the press club--some of them. Certainly not the people at the Tribune. There was a terrible strike in '38 and '39 against the Herald and Examiner, the Hearst paper, that's tied into it. There were so many bad feelings among reporters that they really couldn't socialize anymore. They lost the bar in the 20s, and there were at least a dozen speakeasies in the neck of the woods where the press club was. So I have a hunch they lost a lot of their working press anyway in those years."
The club was resurrected in 1947, and Arch Ward, the Tribune sports editor who'd created baseball's all-star game, became the first president of the second era. The club moved from what's now the Hotel Inter-Continental on Michigan Avenue to the penthouse of the old Saint Clair hotel in Streeterville, and in 1980 to the "dungeon"--as members put it--on the lower level of the Wrigley Building. "All those moves were dictated by economics," said Digby-Junger. Herguth "kind of held it together in the last couple of years."
Herguth remembers writing two letters to members. The first said, let's turn this club around. The second said, it's over. "Instead of sitting down and drinking at the bar at night, most people were going to the health club or going home to their families," he remembers. In the face of such bleak social trends, the club was helpless. Membership dropped from 2,500 to 900, and every dues hike and end-of-the-year "special assessment" drove more members away.
"We owed a lot of bucks to the Wrigley Building in back rent," said Herguth. "They were very nice about it. They said, well, I guess you have to leave. At some point we had stopped paying the IRS for a while, and of course we had to pay that back. By the time we paid them off we were really flat broke. Later we had to pay some interest and penalties, so we had a party to raise money and eventually did satisfy them."
What were you into the IRS for? I asked Herguth.
"Tens of thousands of dollars, I think."
In the last manuscript she submitted to the Reader, Florence Levinsohn attempted something too rare in journalism. Certainly aware that despite a startling recovery from lung cancer she was living on borrowed time, Levinsohn confronted her follies. "Crow Is Not Your Tastiest Dish," the piece is called. "What happens," it asks, when a "lefty journalist" such as herself, sipping coffee at home on a sunny June morning, opens the paper and sees, "in hard black and white, a crude tale of sexual high jinks about a saintly fellow of whom she had written glowingly during his 1992 campaign for Congress, a man whose election, in fact, she probably helped win?"
Mel Reynolds wasn't the only paragon she'd misread. There was Reynolds's tormentor, former state's attorney Jack O'Malley, "this former cop who had worked his way through law school; I was always a sucker for such folks." And Carol Moseley-Braun, "a woman sometimes led to do awful things by her heart instead of her head." The list went on.
When Levinsohn died last week, what she called her list of saints was still "pretty long." But she'd reminded herself of who saints are. Goethe once said that "he'd never heard of a crime he could not imagine himself committing," and she pasted Goethe's admission to her computer. So what does happen when a journalist discovers a hero has feet of mud? This was Levinsohn's last piece of advice: she takes her phone off the hook.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Steve Foltin photo by Dorothy Perry.