If all three of my loyal readers can tolerate one more post on the media, I’d like to explain part of the reason I have such high expectations for reporters. The Chicago of my childhood published eight daily newspapers: the four citywide papers (Sun-Times, Tribune, Daily News, and the American), three “regional” dailies (Calumet, Southtown, Herald), and the Defender, which served the black community. My family took (now there’s an old expression) the Sun-Times, the American, and the Calumet.
It would have been foolish for all of those dailies to assign reporters to minor events and ordinary crime stories, so they pooled their resources to create the City News Bureau. City News would assign one reporter to cover a story, and the member papers would use it like any piece off the AP or UPI wires.
City News was the Parris Island of journalistic training grounds, with editors who were every bit as brutal and terrifying as drill instructors. Reporters found themselves making call after call to verify and re-verify facts. If they reported that Police Sgt. O’Malley told them about a robbery, they’d be asked what the good sergeant’s first name was. When they called back with that information, the editor would snap, “And did you remember to get his middle initial?” Chastened, the reporter would call again, only to be asked, “How many years has Sgt. O’Malley been a desk sergeant?” The cops, politicians, and PR people all knew the game, and happily played along. The unofficial motto at City News was “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”
Reporters didn’t stay at City News for long, but they learned their lessons well. Their reportage became extremely thorough and accurate, and they became adept at getting all the information they needed in an initial interview. They may have done it primarily to outflank the editors who grilled them, but those editors taught them to be the best reporters possible. And if you look at the city’s finest journalists and PR people for the past several decades, you’ll notice that nearly all were baptized at the bureau.
City News closed down in 2005, a victim of newspaper consolidation and shrinking budgets. Too bad. I think many of today’s young reporters could have used a dose of what it offered, and as media consumers, we would all benefit from that.