In a cluttered downtown newsroom, City News Bureau reporters work the phones and listen to the police scanner, ears cocked for even the slightest suggestion of a story.
The medical examiner’s daily list of the dead is grist for the mill. An anonymous tip on a politician’s daughter? Sirens in the Loop? Check it out.
Check everything out. This is City News Bureau, inspiration and torchbearer of “The Front Page,” a gritty little wire service that celebrated a century of rough-and-tumble journalism with a banquet Sept. 29
Columnist Mike Royko, novelist Kurt Vonnegut Jr., actor Melvyn Douglas, sculptor Claes Oldenburg--all were once cub reporters at City News. Each benefited from the same sage advice, handed down by generations of crusty city editors: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
And don’t forget--get the story first.
It was a City News Bureau reporter who informed the world one hot summer evening in 1934 that gangster John Dillinger had been gunned down near the Biograph Theater. Forty-eight years later, City News was the first to report several unusual deaths later attributed to cyanide poisonings of Tylenol.
Legend even has it that City News “scooped the world” on Pearl Harbor, thanks to a reporter’s expensive shortwave radio--though that one is hard to believe, given City News’ notoriously low salaries.
“The basics you learn there are the basics of the business,” Pulitzer Prize-winner Seymour M. Hersh said recently of his brief City News stint in 1960.
“I’d argue that you could learn a lot better there than you could in journalism school. Of course, you also occasionally spent hours with the cops, watching stag films.”
City News Bureau was founded June 19, 1890, by the publishers of the city’s then 10 dailies to cover police news at night.
Then, as now, it was a 24-hour training ground for would-be reporters who are slapped on the back, told to get their facts straight and tossed unceremoniously into the world of big city journalism.
The bureau’s 35 reporters start on the police beat at $265 a week. They go to police stations to badger cops for stories, then call a rewrite, who can be expected to growl questions on a story’s finer points: What’s the victim’s middle initial? What color was his tie? Was he wearing any jewelry?
In the novel “Slaughterhouse Five,” Vonnegut describes calling “one of those beastly girls” on rewrite with the tale of a man crushed in an elevator.
The rewrite chomped a Three Musketeers bar while calmly asking--for her own information--what the squashed victim looked like.
“I’m very proud I did work there,” said Vonnegut, who worked at City News immediately after World War II. “It was just like being a soldier.”
In his day, reporters often impersonated police officers or fire marshals--journalistic chicanery of the sort that Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht immortalized in “The Front Page,” a play (and much remade movie) based partly on MacArthur’s experience as a City News reporter.
MacArthur told the story of the time he cornered a nefarious criminal, “the Albino,” just moments before the police arrived.
“He took the gun and pointed it at my head,” MacArthur recounted to a crowd of reporters. “And what do you think I did?
“I pushed this pencil down the gun barrel.”
In his history of City News, “Hello Sweetheart, Get Me Rewrite,” longtime editor A. A. Dornfeld describes how reporter George Wright placed his ear to the wall with a stethoscope in 1924 to hear the confessions of Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, the two rich young men who killed a neighbor boy for kicks.
Wright listened carefully as the state’s attorney read the confessions to the grand jury, then rushed to report what he had heard.
Pulitzer Prize-winner Royko worked at City News in the 1960s, when “papers were just beginning to make a transition . . . into respectability.”
In photos from the era, Royko resembles “a kid dressed up to look like a cop.” His car was equipped with spotlights “so that when I wheeled up at the scene of a crime, they’d think I was somebody besides a City News reporter.”
City News’ methods have grown tamer through the years, but this is not to say that present-day reporters are a bunch of milquetoasts. Covering a sniper situation early in her City News career, City Hall reporter Sheryl Hislop said she ran through the line of fire to get to the police.
“All I could think of was: ‘I have to get this information to the desk,’ ” she said. “It’s more frightening to think that you might not get the story.”
City News is co-owned by the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times. The Associated Press, New York Times and 27 broadcast outlets are among its subscribers. Most use it as a tip service.
Originally, copy was rushed to clients by delivery boy. Later, it was sent via pneumatic tubes that ran for miles beneath city streets; when someone complained that they had gotten bugs in the canisters that were supposed to carry news, a can of roach powder came barreling through the tubes in response.
Then there was Larry Mulay, a city editor in the mid-1960s who called upon copy boys to clean his desk each day.
“It was like a religious ritual,” Royko said. “He wanted the city desk cleaned and disinfected . . . then he would do the whole thing again himself.”
One night, Royko and others bought a flammable liquid to really do the job.
“We sloshed it over the desk and then lit it,” Royko recalled. “I thought it would be kind of a gentle, flambe effect. Instead, it was like a ball of fire that rose to the ceiling and scorched the ceiling.
“We never did it again.”
It is only within the last decade that the bureau moved from an antiquated Teletype system into the computer age.
City News has its other weaknesses--one being the subtleties of the English language, General Manager Joe Reilly admits.
“We never claimed that we turn out poets. If a person comes to us and is a good writer when he arrives, we hope not to damage his talents,” he said.
Sometimes in the haste to be first, spectacular errors are made--as in a story that mistook Vietnamese children for senior citizens.
Even so, the most irascible journalist can--and frequently does--turn tender when recalling his time at City News.
“It was a terrific experience,” said Chicago Tribune Editor Jack Fuller, who worked at City News during the Chicago riots of the mid-1960s.
“Where else can you, as an 18-year-old lad, be out all hours of the night in the middle of the most chaotic, emotionally troubling situations that the city can present?”
“I hated it for a couple of months when I was new there . . . and being forced to run barefoot across hot coals,” said Royko, who hires his assistants almost exclusively from the pool of reporters who have worked there.
“Yet there was a certain sense of what long-distance runners feel like when they burst through this wall of pain--an exhausted joy.”