When all better subjects have been exhausted, perhaps some scholar will compose a dissertation charting “The Evolution of Literary Fashion in the 20th Century Chicago Newsroom.” Some important spadework has already been done by Chicago exile Peter Smith, whose ancestors occupied the newsroom of the Daily News virtually nonstop from 1899 until that paper folded in 1978.
Peter Smith has preserved a key document in this saga, a memo posted on the newsroom bulletin board in the early 50s by crusty city editor Clem Lane. Lane must have decided one day that enough was enough. “By and large, your writing is clean and sharp,” his note began. “But not always. And there are still laggards among you.”
The reporter who can no more write a graceful sentence than assemble an airplane has long been a newsroom staple. But Lane was not addressing this turgid yeoman.
“So—” his memo continued. “Short words. Anglo Saxon words. The King James version has some fine ones. So has A. Lincoln. Let’s use some of them. Let’s make it little Latin and less Greek.
“Short sentences. Old J.P. Harding, the restaurant man, told his meat cutters: ‘Slice it thin and it’ll never be tough.’ Keep sentences short and you won’t puzzle the customers. Nor the city desk.
“Short leads. What’s the copywriter going to say in the headline? Your lead should be the same thought with a bit of flesh over the skeleton. Ease the customer into the story.
“Short paragraphs. Easy on the eye. Short story. Easy on the makeup man AND the customer.”
Lane was an old-school editor who, his obituary would one day say, “ruled the city staff . . . in fiery justice.” John Justin Smith, serving under Lane, revered him to the point of naming one son Clem. (Another son was Peter.) He swiped the memo off the bulletin board, and until he sold his house in Libertyville in the late 70s kept it tacked to the kitchen wall by the telephone. These were his words to live by.
Peter Smith cites Lane’s memo in his recent memoir, A Cavalcade of Lesser Horrors. Smith spent most of his career “pretty much steering clear of newspapers and not taking advertising too seriously,” with the result that “I’ve been able to write the way I like to write.” An adman most of his adult life, he got out from under the family legacy by leaving town, and he’s gained a public following on Minnesota Public Radio in recent years with his simple, subtle meditations. It’s a quiet style of writing that in any era never caught on big in Chicago.
His book is largely about growing up in Chicago and Libertyville, and as it charts the author’s complicated feelings about his father it is unsparing about his limitations as a writer. These were limitations that Peter Smith, wagging a finger at Lane’s memo, says came with the territory.
“My father gave the man what he asked for,” Peter Smith writes. He “pared his writing down and punched it up until it read with the subtlety and the erratic staccato bump-clunk rhythms of a wire service teletype machine. Call the style Chicago City Desk. It was great in its way. . . . There wasn’t a news story in the world that was so complicated that it could withstand the battering power of the Chicago City Desk simple sentence.”
Now comes the but. When John Justin Smith wrote, Peter Smith continues, “he tended to send away anything that wasn’t who, what, where, when, why, or how. What’s more, like that of a lot of other newsmen, his version of the style seemed to treat the reader as if he or she weren’t intelligent enough to figure the story out for him- or herself. With clarity came didacticism. It was the price of doing business.”
Peter Smith doesn’t leave it there. “When he was out of sorts, an alcoholic dudgeon would creep into his work. Like every other newsman back then, he went to bed drunk every night, and in order to bury the flaw and buffer the guilt, he appropriated an impossibly high moral ground—a fortress of rectitude from which he passed judgment, belabored points, led readers down paths, and then bludgeoned them with his outrage.”
John Justin Smith joined the Daily News out of high school as a library assistant in 1937. He came home early from World War II after being wounded in the Pacific, went back to the Daily News, and over the years was an editor assigned at various times to the city, sports, and travel desks. “I think of him as one of the great utility infielders of Chicago journalism,” says Peter. “He could do anything.”
In the early 60s he was briefly the Daily News‘s page-three columnist—before Mike Royko took over the spot. Royko: A Life in Print, Richard Ciccone’s biography, mentions him in passing. It says the Daily News needed a columnist and offered the job “to John Justin Smith, the charming nephew of legendary editor Henry Justin Smith”—who didn’t work out. That gratuitous charming chews at Peter, and he’s quick to defend his father from the calumny. “Charming won’t get you anywhere on the city desk,” says Peter.
Late in his memo, Clem Lane cut his stars some slack. “After you have mastered these rules,” he ended, “you’ll know enough to know when you may break them.”
Royko broke them. Royko didn’t do Chicago City Desk—though Ciccone tells us that at first Royko was so frustrated by the way his column was edited he offered to give it up: “His cheeky stories contrasted with other news reports that prized brevity and tedium. But the copy desk didn’t get it. They began editing out everything but the tedium.” Chicago City Desk isn’t how Peter Smith writes today. And it isn’t how his great uncle, Henry Justin Smith, wrote a century ago.
Henry Justin is, as Ciccone put it, “legendary.” The author of many books, he joined the Daily News as a reporter in 1899 and with the exception of two years at the University of Chicago remained there the rest of his life, dying as managing editor in 1936. He’s identified with a city room roughly as brainy as Athens in its heyday and with writers such as Carl Sandburg and Ben Hecht whom he licensed to commit literature. In his intro to Hecht’s 1922 collection of columns, A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago, Henry Justin’s praise can be read as a credo:
“Just under the edge of the news as commonly understood, the news often flatly and unimaginatively told, lay life; that in this urban life there dwelt the stuff of literature, not hidden in remote places, either, but walking the downtown streets, peering from the windows of sky scrapers, sunning itself in parks and boulevards. He was going to be its interpreter. His was to be the lens throwing city life into new colors, his the microscope revealing its contortions in life and death. It was no newspaper dream at all, in fact. It was an artist’s dream.”
I ran this passage by Peter Smith. “HJS’s prose always feels just a little theatrical to me,” he e-mailed back. “We’ve simplified language since then. He ran that newspaper for writers. He used to call his staff, ‘My little Baudelaires’ and encourage them to write in that near-poetic, near over-the-top style. Fifteen years after he died, we have Clem Lane advocating short words, short sentences and short paragraphs and Nelson Algren writing Chicago hipster. To my way of thinking, Algren begat Royko.”
I picture Clem Lane, some 30 years after Hecht and Sandburg moved on, coming to the conclusion that changed everything—that “none of these goddam ‘Baudelaires’ has any idea how to construct a simple declarative sentence.”
Peter Smith doesn’t give Lane that much credit. It was, after all, just a memo. “I think the Chicago City Desk style probably had its roots in taverns like Andy’s (which followed the Daily News across the loop from W. Madison to the lower level of Hubbard) and whatever watering hole the Tribune and American people frequented. Lane’s memo was simply a kind of codification of a few practical elements of the style.”