The Last Rewrite Man

Far be it from us to paint Jerry Crimmins in romantic strokes. Portraits of lesser figures such as your general, your heart surgeon, your captain of industry–and your trench-coated reporter for sure–can stand some touching up in purplish hues. But in Crimmins’s case the unvarnished truth will do.

Jerry Crimmins is, in the parlance of our age, designated a “rewriter.” To place him in history, he is the last rewrite man at the Chicago Tribune. Number him among a vanishing tribe of giants who have borne the American newspaper on their backs.

“We have an intern here–” Crimmins told us the other day. “She asked me what I did. I said I’m a rewrite man. She didn’t know what that was. She had worked for another newspaper. She had gone through journalism school. I knew the time was coming–she was the first of our interns and new reporters who didn’t know what a rewrite man was.”

We were once a rewrite man at the Sun-Times. We can describe the breed with confidence. A rewrite man might be thought of as a literate reporter, a master of such advanced techniques as spelling and writing in complete sentences. Add to his virtues the stoicism it takes to sit at a keyboard, vised in lacerating ear phones, cajoling a bumbling correspondent in the field who can barely read his own notes, let alone make a coherent narrative of them. And when catastrophe breaks far from home, a great rewrite man’s genius emerges in full force. “Working the phones,” he will have questioned eyewitnesses, survivors, and all the proper authorities, and spun out his riveting tale hours before the braying lug under whose byline the tale will run careers into town in a rental car in pathetic search of someone to tell him what happened.

“I don’t know when rewrite men were created–it would be an interesting thing to find out,” said Crimmins. “Probably somewhere in the early part of this century, when newspapers started to have multiple editions and stories would develop, expand, change, contradict themselves in every edition until the editions ran out. Somebody had to keep rewriting them for every edition.”

Clearly, it was the advent of the telephone that brought the rewrite man to his eminence, and clearly it is the vanishing of deadlines that has spelled his decline. Crimmins, who’s 45, recalls that when he joined the Tribune 20 years ago there were at least three rewrite men on the day shift and two or three at night. But back then, he tells us, there were eight editions a day. Now, “we have the home edition and the final. Our first deadline now is roughly 9:30; the second one is roughly 12:30.”

A deadline at 9:30 at night is like no deadline at all to the new breed of day reporter. Thus, in today’s newspaper, the troubling combine of time on one’s hands and literary pretensions holds sway. “I can’t think of anyone currently working that doesn’t write his own stories,” said Crimmins. Last June, the Tribune moved veteran Dan McCaughna from the rewrite bank to the copy desk. Only Crimmins was left.

He comes in at 4 PM, warms up with a few obituaries, then bites into his serious work. “They’ll give me stories that aren’t complete–they call them queues–a story is missing this, missing that, and I will supply that stuff. Next they will say, Jerry, will you take a look at the story slugged such and such. It needs to be rewritten. But they never say ‘rewritten.’ They always say something like–see if you could touch it up a little bit; or, it’s a little rough, see if you can smooth it out; or, it needs a new lead, a new top. And then there’s also combining stories: it’s decided they don’t need two or three stories, they just need one, so I combine them.

“I do a story from scratch if there’s nobody around, or if they decide I’m the guy they want to do this. I do it all by phone. And several times a week they send somebody to the scene of some spot news event that is too close to deadline for them to come back and write a story. So that person, or those people if there’s more than one, will be told to call me and I will take down what they say, quiz them a little bit, and write a story.”

Sometimes he does far more.

“For instance, the plane crash at Sioux City–I ended up doing most of the reporting, too. Because the people who went to the scene couldn’t get there in time for the home delivery.” And there was the night Crimmins was asked to pick up the phone and found himself talking to some guy about vote fraud in the 39th Ward during the ’82 elections. The caller sounded so interesting that Crimmins actually left the office to meet him. And by the time Crimmins’s work was over, a federal probe had netted more than 50 convictions.

“I got three guys out of prison in Yugoslavia while I was a rewrite man,” Crimmins added helpfully. All part of the job.

“When I worked at the criminal courts,” he said, recalling a long-ago tour of duty as reporter, “I wrote my own stories for selfish reasons–because I wanted them to read the way I wanted them to read. [Rewrite men on temporary duty in the field tend to be like that.] And the city editor, Dave Halvorsen, objected to this. He said I was wasting my time. I should turn that stuff in to a rewrite man and spend more time gathering news.”

Crimmins did his best to ignore his boss. “But even then, I didn’t always write my own stories. The Hanrahan trial–maybe you remember Hanrahan [the state’s attorney] went on trial the latter half of ’72, along with the police officers who were in on the [1969] Black Panther raid and a couple of assistant state’s attorneys, a deputy superintendent of police, a whole bunch of guys. I rarely wrote that story, the reason being you had to turn it in during a break in testimony and race back to the courtroom trying not to miss anything.

“John R. Thompson took that story. He wrote almost the whole Hanrahan trial. He put my name on it, of course, but he wrote it.

“It doesn’t work that way in other towns,” mused Crimmins. “This girl who didn’t know what a rewrite man was–she’d actually worked with a rewrite man. But they called him an editor, and they put his name on the stories along with the reporters’ names.”

Power Advertising: Com Ed Gets Shocked, Pulls Plug

What does a magazine owe an advertiser who’s certain not to like an upcoming article? Advance notice, says Commonwealth Edison.

The utility didn’t get one from Chicago Times. “They were running an article written by a community-based group that has been not on the best of terms with our company,” says Ed Peterson, Com Ed’s director of advertising. “The editor knew that the article was going to run. The ad staff knew we had an ad running. The two didn’t get together.”

But ignorance isn’t the issue here. Publisher Todd Fandell knew about the article, “The Arrogance of Power” (written by Mary O’Connell, editor of the Center for New Technology’s The Neighborhood Works). And he knew about the full-page ad, “We’re There When You Need Us,” that Com Ed had bought for the September/October issue. For that matter, Peterson knew that Mary O’Connell had interviewed two Com Ed spokesmen for Chicago Times. But it didn’t occur to Peterson to call Fandell; and calling Peterson was the farthest thing from Fandell’s mind. Fandell believes he did his duty when he put the ad on page 8 and began the article on page 43.

“We would have said, we don’t want to be in the October issue; put us in the November issue instead,” Peterson told us. “We wouldn’t have taken business away from them. We’d just have asked for a little separation.”

How unhappy was Peterson? He told Com Ed’s account rep at Leo Burnett there would be no more advertising in Chicago Times.

“Our policy,” says Fandell, “is not to advise people about what the content of the magazine is. I’ve been in this business 30 years and I’ve never heard of a self-respecting publication that did that. . . . I think it’s ethically improper for a publication to do that.”

Fandell’s heart is pure, but he’s naive. They do do that. This summer Time and Newsweek came out with editions commemorating the 50th anniversary of the start of World War II. They carried virtually no advertising from Japanese and German firms. “We gave the advertisers the opportunity to be in or not, which is standard procedure,” a Time spokesman told us. “It’s a courtesy offered advertisers. You make it very clear the story’s going to run and it’s an option if they want to be in that is sue or not.”

As the only shop in town selling electricity, Com Ed advertises for just one reason, which is to pitch itself as a trustworthy public servant. With the local franchise up for renewal next year, and critics like Mary O’Connell pounding away, Com Ed’s image is of no small concern to the utility and Com Ed spends about $6 million a year to polish it. What Com Ed expects in return is “separation”–ample time and distance between its image ads and those occasional reports of rate hikes, acid rain, and nuclear meltdowns that make image advertising hopeless. In these cases, Com Ed reserves for itself the right to pull its ads–just as airlines reserve the right to pull their ads when a plane goes down.

“We don’t get mad at any media for voicing their opinion,” said Peterson. “But at the same time, when the placements are made they’re made with these particular stipulations, and we expect them to be abided by.”

But in this case, there was no stipulation. Leo Burnett sets conditions when it buys time and space for Com Ed on radio and TV and in daily newspapers. But magazines are an exception; a magazine ad can’t be yanked at the last minute. Peterson might wish Fandell had notified him, but Fandell wasn’t breaking any agreement.

Is this forever? we asked Peterson. “You never say forever,” he told us. “They’ve been pulled out of our media buys for the rest of the year. But tomorrow is another year.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.