Here’s a glimpse of journalism from another era:

“The Daily News became a social service agency as well as a newspaper,” write Rich Cahan and Mark Jacob in Chicago Under Glass, the new book that’s the subject of the Reader’s cover story this week. “Its Fresh Air Fund provided medical attention, milk, food, and respite to more than ten thousand mothers and forty thousand children over several decades.” 

Aside from Cahan and Jacob’s long introduction, Chicago Under Glass is a collection of pictures taken by Chicago Daily News photographers from roughly 1900 to 1930.  When we talked the other day, Cahan elaborated. “There was hardly a night the Daily News was not sponsoring something. There was a great track relay in the Chicago Stadium. There were lectures all over the city.  There was a fresh air sanitarium on the lakefront [now the Theater on the Lake]. Pregnant women needed fresh air — the air was so full of soot. So they’d go there to breathe the fresh air.”

The Daily News wasn’t alone in contributing to the city in conspicuous ways. “Newspapers were much more than what you received in the afternoon,” Cahan said. “And I think when reporters went out they were part of a social service agency in a sense, so they were more respected. [Papers] wonder, ‘Why are we doing poorly?’ and the reason is they’re not such a vital force in the community.”

No, they’re not. When cities were smaller and simpler and newspapers competed only with each other, they commanded local influence that’s beyond them today. But papers haven’t entirely sworn off doing good. For instance, the Tribune sponsors the Printers Row Book Fair. And this year David Kupcinet resurrected his grandfather’s Purple Heart Cruise, and the Sun-Times is a sponsor.

Yet in some basic ways, papers have turned their backs. “There are some reporters who won’t answer their phone,” Cahan said with a touch of astonishment. “They let their answering machine answer the phone.”