Hello, Sweetheart--Give Me Rewrite

Lisa Leff last wrote for the magazine on QAD founder Pamela Meyer Lopker

Peter Hartlaub was the only journalist in the courtroom the morning a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ordered Playgirl magazine to stop distributing its August issue with nude photographs of Brad Pitt. The hearing had been scheduled at the last minute, and none of the reporters swarming the Los Angeles County Courthouse for Carroll O'Connor's slander trial even knew about it.

Hartlaub, 27, who, aside from his pierced ear, calls to mind a young Montgomery Clift, had all the makings of a classic scoop. Not that you'd have known it from the avalanche of coverage about the Pitt pictures that appeared over the next few days quoting liberally from Hartlaub's story without naming him as the source.

In this case, however, no credit was required, much less expected. That's because Hartlaub works for City News Service, the Los Angeles wire service that furnishes an unending stream of local news to nearly 130 regional, national and international media outlets. Virtually unknown outside newsrooms, CNS is the guilty secret of L.A.'s press corps, whose jobs would be much tougher were it not there acting as a tip sheet, clearinghouse and safety net.

Before Angelenos ever see them in the newspaper or on the evening news, many of the sad and sensational stories the city serves up each day pass first through the hands of the comparatively low-paid and often improbably young staffers at City News. CNS subscribers, which include The Times, CNN, "Hard Copy," the Wall Street Journal and every local TV station, receive CNS' prodigious daily output simultaneously via computer and then use it to supplement and sometimes supplant their own coverage. Whether alerting editors that a Chihuahua-eating pet python will be available for a photo op or that a celebrity witness is about to take the stand, CNS plays a huge unsung role in setting the agenda for what makes news in Southern California. (It's common to see reporters at meetings and trials clutching CNS copy as background.)

"All of the local stories come from fundamentally two sources: my own people and City News," says Bob Sims, director of news and programming at KNX, an all-news L.A. radio station. "I would hate to have to do it without them."

More often than not, a breaking story in L.A. starts out as a two-sentence "advisory" on the CNS wire that usually includes Thomas Guide map pages and contact phone numbers. "People jump when they see advisories, so [CNS] can drive the market in that respect," says Jack Noyes, an assignment editor at KCBS.

CNS also distributes a nightly "budget" of upcoming court hearings, city and county government meetings and Hollywood publicity events--with much the same effect. The CNS budget is regarded as such a vital cog in the local news-making machinery, nervous City Council members are said to call CNS before dawn to make sure their press conferences are listed. Savvy publicists know that a spot on the CNS budget can legitimize an event, if only because editors are more tempted to cover a story they know their competitors might also cover.

"If I see it and I know everyone will be there, I might tend to go more often than not," says Stephanie Medina Rodriguez, assignment manager at KCAL.

As local newspapers, radio and TV stations have cut their staffs, the reliance on CNS has grown. For example, since L.A.'s TV stations no longer operate bureaus at City Hall, CNS' take on what's newsworthy there "tends to determine what gets covered in Los Angeles politics," says Eric Rose, an aide to Councilwoman Laura Chick.

"If we didn't have City News Service, I don't know if it would change the quality of what we put on the air," says Mike Merle, an assignment editor at KABC, "but it would definitely add to everyone's workload." Adds KCBS' Noyes: "Producers and writers are heavily dependent on City News. If someone says it's only a tip service, that's baloney."

on a cool august monday, hartlaub strides into the dingy county courthouse pressroom at 8:05 a.m., the sleeves of his white oxford shirt already rolled up. During the next two hours he will interview two lawyers, survey the goings-on of eight courtrooms, check a file in the clerk's office, scan the newspaper and ride the escalator nine times because the elevator takes too long. And then, at an hour when most print reporters are still checking their e-mail, Hartlaub sits down to pound out his first report of the day: the latest development in a lawsuit involving actor George Hamilton's cigar shop. As news goes, the story has "who cares" written all over it. But the wire demands to be fed--the 20-odd CNS reporters covering the city and Orange County typically grind out five to eight items daily--so Hartlaub dutifully supplies a morsel. Besides, after 18 months on the job, he has given up second-guessing what will pique the interests of CNS' clients.

"I feel like I'm the cavalry--I'm supposed to be like a scout riding in on my horse to see what's in the next valley," Hartlaub says. Then he grins sheepishly. "This type of job, you almost have to romanticize it."

By the time Hartlaub begins his rounds, nearly 50 stories will have gone out to City News subscribers since midnight. CNS is the only news organization in town that staffs police headquarters around the clock, and if something big is happening, be it a double murder or a traffic-knotting car crash, the pressroom at Parker Center is where the fire, sheriff's and police departments usually call first. That was the case in early August when CNS night editor Calvin Milam was filling in on the cop beat. Milam heard from the fire department that a boy rushed to Childrens Hospital was suffering from a parasite that infected his brain after he ate undercooked pork. So he wrote something short about it. Reports based on Milam's "brain worm" story--uncredited, of course--quickly became a fixture on the 11 o'clock news.

Seeking to be the first word for a client base that includes national wire services in Mexico and Japan as well as "Inside Edition," CNS reporters frequently dig up offbeat or just plain bizarre news. It was CNS that first reported Barry Manilow's involvement in a Golden State Freeway fender-bender during a rainstorm last year. Likewise with the saga of a 37-year-old woman who was rescued, naked and against her will, from a cliff in Azusa where she had taken her 9-year-old son on a nighttime search for God.

Pat Teague, 47, a voluble Texan and former United Press International bureau chief who has served as CNS' top editor since 1988, knows there are in the media those who smirk at some of the stories City News covers. (CNS alumni joke about the number of stars they saw dedicated on the Hollywood Walk of Fame during their tenures.) But, notes Teague, a story that strikes one editor as "stupid" may delight another. "We have to be all things to all people."

Indeed, those same smirkers may very well be the ones eagerly scanning the CNS wires--a pleasurable, post-deadline perk in many newsrooms--for the latest pathological turn of Dudley Moore's on-again, off-again divorce, a story that has kept Hartlaub busy for months.

"It's not the meatiest thing I'll ever do, but I'm not going to apologize for that," Hartlaub declares. "I'll get more calls about that stuff than when I cover MTA lawsuits."

Los Angeles is one of a handful of cities that has a purely local wire service like City News (Chicago and San Francisco are others). Most metropolitan newspapers and TV stations rely instead on local bureaus of the Associated Press, which tend to focus on local news of national interest. While CNS might seem a logical outgrowth of a media age in which police pursuits are broadcast live from helicopters, it has actually been around since 1928. Little is known about CNS before 1955, the year it was bought by Joseph Quinn, the onetime L.A. deputy mayor and aide to Mayor Sam Yorty. (To this day, there is still disagreement in media circles over whether Quinn used CNS to promote his political agenda.)

According to CNS president Douglas Faigin, the number of CNS subscribers has more than doubled during the last two decades, thanks in part to the boom in ethnic media. (The growth helped finance the opening of a six-reporter bureau in San Diego last year.) But even as its reach has expanded, the perception lingers that City News is primarily a training ground for fledgling reporters. While there are a few veterans, CNS is mostly staffed by people like Hartlaub, hired in their mid-20s after having worked at small newspapers.

"To do the type of news you need at City News, you almost have to be young just to keep up with it," says Sandi Gibbons, a CNS reporter from 1965 to 1975 and now spokeswoman for the L.A. District Attorney's Office.

Newsrooms throughout the state and country are filled with CNS alumni who wear their tours of duty as proudly as battle-scarred war veterans. Times columnist Bill Boyarsky, KCBS political reporter Linda Breakstone and L.A. Weekly columnist Marc Haefele all cut their teeth at CNS. After CNS was assigned one of the six permanent seats inside Judge Ito's courtroom, Shoreen Maghame parlayed covering O.J. Simpson's criminal trial into a reporting job at ABC News' L.A. bureau.

"They put me in City Hall when I was 24, which was an opportunity to do the kind of reporting I wouldn't be able to do somewhere else until I was much older," says Richard Perez-Pena, who worked for CNS from 1987 to 1990 and is now a state reporter with the New York Times. "It was a chance for me to deal with heavyweight subjects while I was still a lightweight."

Yet staff turnover at CNS remains high. Lack of recognition for their labors, low pay (newcomers make about $26,000) and the tremendous workload are the reasons most reporters cite for leaving. They recall feeling both tickled and indignant when they have heard their stories read almost verbatim on the air: tickled because it was one of the few tangible rewards of the job, indignant because CNS was rarely mentioned. (Only a handful of small newspapers dignify CNS stories by running them with bylines.)

"I sometimes felt we were even lower than the totem pole--we were the ground beneath the totem pole," Perez-Pena says. At least once a day, Hartlaub says, he must stop an interview to explain to a source what CNS is, a process he jokingly refers to as reading newsmakers their "Miranda rights."

Teague tries to remind his staff that subjugating their egos to serve subscribers is the nature of a wire service job. In fact, CNS reporters and editors are helpful to their media colleagues to a sometimes absurd degree. At 4:39 a.m. one recent morning, an ABC producer called to ask about a story involving a laid-off news helicopter pilot. After fumbling through a stack of papers on his desk, overnight editor Jacques Clafin discovered that it had been published not by CNS but in the previous day's Times. Clafin volunteered to fax it over anyway.

The main CNS newsroom is located on the 18th floor of a Century City high-rise. It is probably no bigger than a modest-sized bedroom suite in neighboring Beverly Hills. But it is often so noisy that its occupants must raise their voices, even though there are usually only two editors and a reporter there.

Six television sets that are always turned on dominate the room. Four printers, two devoted to CNS stories, one to the Associated Press and one to the Emergency Broadcast System, spit out a steady drone of copy. Adding to the din are two humming fax machines, two radios tuned to all-news stations, a squawking police scanner and the sound of Pat Teague typing, if that's what you can call the ferocious way the editor attacks his computer keyboard.

CNS reporters say that when they feel overworked, they comfort themselves with the knowledge that their editors, particularly Teague and city editor Lori Streifler, 35, work even harder. Every inch of copy that goes out during the day--every advisory, budget item and surf and smog report--comes under their scrutiny. Teague says he typically handles 50 stories a day, not including those he writes himself.

When two heavily armed robbers shot their way out of a North Hollywood bank last February, it was Teague who compiled the first print stories on the episode. Using dispatches sent in by his reporters and information gleaned from television newscasts, he sent out updated stories at 10:02, 10:05, 10:48 and 11:04 a.m., the last a remarkably complete and graceful account of the unfolding mayhem.

Former reporters say that Teague and Streifler make a powerful team and are chiefly responsible for erasing the image for rampant inaccuracy that dogged CNS during the 1970s and 80s. (In 1981, a CNS reporter misread a lawsuit brought against Billie Jean King by a woman who claimed she was King's former lover and wrote that the woman had had an affair with King's husband, not the tennis star herself, an error widely picked up by other media.) At the same time, the two editors can be brutally blunt during crunch time. One ex-reporter recalled an unpleasant encounter in which Streifler "actually asked me if I was stupid." Others said that after pushing themselves all day, often the only feedback they got was a terse message from Teague reminding them of the proper way to spell "Valencia."

Teague says most of his beginning reporters "initially go into shock" at the workload, although he tries to prepare them. "We say, 'Welcome aboard the CNS Express. It is going 70 mph and it is going to yank your arm off at the first stop.' "

With no other mass-market news organization watching the civil courts full time, Peter Hartlaub is frequently the first reporter to know about lawsuits involving celebrities. They have, in fact, become his specialty.

"It's actually a really good beat for me," he says. "Growing up, I watched crappy TV and would go out and see all these movies. Now I can justify it."

Hartlaub boasts half-jokingly that one of his goals is to write a story about every cast member from the 1970s sitcom "Good Times." He's well on his way there, what with Esther Rolle's being sued by a neighbor over her sprinklers and BernNadette Stanis, who played Thelma, suing a theater producer. "It's like collecting baseball cards," Hartlaub says.

In late August, though, Hartlaub left CNS to take a reporting job at the Daily News. Like so many before him, he had grown weary of not receiving credit for his work.

"I want to see the results of my work and have people react to it," he says.

But that is still three weeks and about 75 stories from now. And so, on this August afternoon, Hartlaub is down in the clerk's office thumbing through a stack of fresh lawsuits. There's a complaint brought by the parents of a suicide who are suing MGM because they claim they saw his body on a police reality show, and an insurance company's suit against the band Smashing Pumpkins that Hartlaub figures is worth "at least three or four paragraphs."

As it turns out, he writes five in 12 minutes.

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