News Hole

The obits for old-time Chicago journalism were rolled out again last week when the Tribune made the wrenching announcement that it’s shutting down its New City News Service at the end of the year. These obits had been out of service since 1999, when the Tribune made the wrenching announcement that it was shutting down the hallowed City News Bureau, leaving only a vestige, the New City News Service.

The death of that vestige is a small detail of a large catastrophe. The Tribune Company has announced in recent days that it’s eliminating jobs by the hundreds at its newspapers–doing what it must because fading circulation and advertising revenues have cut into the profit margins Wall Street expects. The spectacle of proud dailies in retreat isn’t easy to stomach, and some observers refuse to. The Prickly City comic strip that ran October 3 in the Tribune and six dozen other papers offered this exchange:

“Another round of layoffs in the newspaper biz, Winslow.”

“If the newspapers are in such bad shape, shouldn’t they be firing the editors and publishers instead of newsroom folk? After all, they’re the ones who rammed the ship into the iceberg.”

Cartoonist Scott Stantis told me he was protesting the Tribune Company’s “declaration of war against editorial cartooning.” The Los Angeles Times had just fired its cartoonist, and the Tribune hasn’t had one for five years. Civic Action launched an online petition drive in Chicago, Los Angeles, Baltimore, and Orlando–all cities where blood is flowing at Tribune Company papers. Readers were asked to sign a statement asserting that as “corporate owners reap large profits…there is no excuse for them to force our paper to abandon its responsibility to deliver strong watchdog journalism to the public.” This week the drive was expanded to Hartford, Allentown, Newport News, and Long Island.

Orlando Sentinel columnist David Whitley meditated in print about the Tribune Company laying off 21 people at his paper while offering Rafael Furcal $50 million to play shortstop for the Cubs. That’s life, Whitley concluded.

The Web magazine, edited by recently fired LA Times columnist Robert Scheer, carried a long discussion of the Times’s troubles by former Times books section editor Steve Wasserman, who quoted former Tribune editor James Squires calling Tribune Company brass philistines, only dumber: “You cannot imagine how intellectually inferior three of the last four chairmen of Tribune Company were.” Wasserman undercut his own credibility by allowing an unnamed “former high official” of the Times to sneer that the Tribune Company is run by “midwestern white men obsessed with only two things: the Chicago Cubs and accounting.” Any Cubs fan will recognize the ignorance of that remark.

The fate of the New City News Service, and by extension of the City News Bureau, isn’t the fate of the newspaper industry in microcosm. But it’s a good, sentimental story that CNB alumni around the country have happily weighed in on. Their eulogies identified CNB, which was founded cooperatively by the daily newspapers of Chicago in 1890, as the boot camp where Mike Royko, Kurt Vonnegut, Seymour Hersh, and thousands of nascent reporters were taught “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” For decades recruits heard this from CNB’s curmudgeonly night editor, Arnold Dornfeld, who explained why in a 1983 interview with Channel Five’s Leonard Aronson:

“I am the outstanding authority on libel in the city of Chicago,” Dornfeld said, “because after I’d been in the business two months [at CNB] I brought on the six newspapers of Chicago libel suits totaling on its face a half a million dollars–and this is 1928, when you could still buy something with a half a million dollars. A girl died from the effects of what was then called an illegal operation, an abortion, and I was given the case to work on, which they shouldn’t have given to a kid with two months’ experience.”

Dornfeld’s big mistake, he recalled, was confusing the doctor who performed the abortion with the doctor “who was called in after the girl was in a desperate way and tried to save her life but couldn’t.” The papers all picked up Dornfeld’s story identifying the heroic doctor as the abortionist. “He rushed in with a lawyer in each hand, and he filed against the six newspapers of Chicago. And I was promptly laid off, and I was bawled out. However, they couldn’t quite fire me because . . . I was a desk guy and I was a two-month kid, for God’s sake. However, this got burned and branded into my hide. Get things right. Never mind the nuances. Never mind the psychological subtleties. Get the facts!”

Here’s a fact worth getting. The New City News Service will be survived–inside the Tribune and outside. In her December 1 message to the staff announcing that 28 editorial positions were being eliminated–19 of them at New City News–Tribune executive editor Ann Marie Lipinski explained that the decision to kill the service was driven as much by competition as by economics. She said New City News “as currently configured is of value to a variety of local news providers and competitors, many of which use the information as the backbone of their local news reports.” So the Tribune will create 13 jobs and build up its own 24-hour Internet news desk, while those other local news providers fend for themselves. The Tribune has created a need.

Besides the local news that New City News feeds to its radio and TV clients it gives them a “daybook”–an exhaustive list of daily events that helps city editors plan their coverage. “It provided us with great information,” says Ron Gleason, program director of WBBM, the all-news AM station that now has to figure out some other way of getting it.

A possible source–the Hollinger papers. The Sun-Times triggered the collapse of the old City News Bureau in 1999 by withdrawing its annual subsidy (Conrad Black and David Radler had better things to do with the money). When the Tribune took over New City News it refused to sell the daybook to either the Sun-Times or Hollinger’s Daily Southtown, but they’ve had six years to learn how to live without it. (Though according to Wikipedia, the Sun-Times “to this day at times misses notice of news events because it has been unable to replace the sought-after City News daybook.”) Now this knowledge might be marketable. “It’s certainly something that we’ll explore,” says John Cruickshank, the Sun-Times publisher who oversees all 100 of Hollinger’s Chicago-area papers.

Then there’s the Medill School of Journalism’s ten-year-old news service. It sends students downtown to cover stories that are sold to half a dozen print clients, though on a Tuesday-Thursday schedule that accommodates the students a lot better than the news. “We certainly don’t operate 52 weeks a year or seven days a week,” says director Mindy Trossman. “It would be a huge change in curriculum. Could it be done? Could we at least pick up the daybook?”

Medill asked itself these questions six years ago when the City News Bureau was going under. Now they’re back on the table. Like it or not, Medill could soon find itself running the only operation that even pretends to call itself a training ground for local reporters. The J-school at the University of Missouri–my alma mater–publishes a city newspaper 52 weeks a year six days a week. But Mizzou’s always been more willing than Medill to act like a trade school. For a few years back in the 60s the City News Bureau ran an internship program with Medill. Students earned college credit covering fires and murders. The program worked, recalls Paul Zimbrakos, who runs New City News and had been the City News Bureau editor since the 60s, but got dumped anyway. Trossman’s assistant director, former Sun-Times reporter Adrienne Drell, told me she wants the Medill news service to hire Zimbrakos. Despite degrees from Northwestern and Yale, Drell says, “City News is my real alma mater.”

This is a bad time for Medill to plan anything as big as a revamped news service. Dean Loren Ghiglione is leaving, and nobody’s in line to take over. But, says Trossman, “I think it’s something we’ll talk about.”

Medill alumnus Doug Faigin runs the City News Service of Los Angeles, which operates in LA, San Diego, and Orange County, and is about to move into Riverside County. “We have a lot of happy subscribers,” he told me. “Well over 100. We usually say 130.” New City News has 14.

Faigin was ready to expand to Chicago in 1999. He’d run a help-wanted ad in Editor & Publisher and was signing up Chicago clients when the Tribune’s decision to sponsor New City News chased him off. Now he’s moving quickly again. He told me this week that “the interest and enthusiasm is as great as it was [six years ago]. The technology has improved. We have delivery systems now we didn’t have then which are capable of getting started and operating very quickly.”

I asked about the daybook. “We have our version–the ‘budget,'” he said. “We run separate budgets for Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego, and Riverside. We have week-ahead budgets and entertainment budgets. We know how to work budgets. But in addition to that, subscribers in southern California depend on us for stories, and they use them on air and in print all the time.”

Faigin said he hires trained journalists, pays them living wages, and charges clients accordingly. His newspaper clients routinely run bylined City News Service stories–an honor almost unheard-of among City News Bureau reporters–and TV and radio stations don’t hesitate to read the raw copy over the air.

He’s no Dornfeld. He doesn’t run a boot camp. Like all MSM reporters his staff might wonder from time to time if the world loves them anymore, but they don’t have to double-check if their mothers do.

News Bite

8 The Tribune’s Aamer Madhani told a discouraging story on December 2. In the eyes of his American colleagues, Iraqi air force captain Ali Hussam Abass was a hero: three weeks before his death in a plane crash last May he’d saved the life of an American officer when their light plane made an emergency landing in the countryside. Abass told his companion to hide from approaching farmers, then talked the group into dispersing by warning them that American forces were surely on the way.

The unsettling piece of the story was Abass’s fear that these unknown farmers would kill the American or turn him over to insurgents. I asked Madhani by e-mail if the point of his article was its implicit message that the war was going badly. No, he replied, he just wanted to describe a “pretty gripping encounter.”

Is it fair to say, I wrote back, that the story tells us Americans in Iraq must assume that anyone they don’t know is an enemy?

“I think that is a reasonable read,” he answered.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/courtesy Paul Zimbrakos.