Belatedly: J. Scott Schmidt, 1937-2003

Former managing editor at Chicago Today and the Chicago Tribune, he died in his sleep a couple weeks ago. The obits focus mostly on the work he did in Southern California from 1975 on, when he moved west to take charge of a paper the Trib had just bought (the Green Sheet, which he turned into the Los Angeles Daily News). I remember him for his generosity and willingness to listen to a hot-headed copyboy — me — when he was Today’s managing editor.

The anecdote, in brief: Shortly before the 1972 election, Nixon declared a temporary halt to  bombing above the 20th Parallel in North Vietnam. Chicago Today was an afternoon paper, and our second edition (as I recall it) bannered the news with a headline saying something like, “Nixon halts N. Viet bombing” or something like that. I was convinced the headline was wrong to make such a flat statement; bombing would continue in North Vietnam, though the country’s two largest cities would be off-limits for awhile.

One of my jobs as a copyboy was to distribute copies of the latest edition through the newsroom. When I handed out the edition to the news and copy editors, I brought up the headline, said I thought it was wrong and should be changed. I got a polite hearing, but no one agreed. (Looking back at what an excited, long-haired, cock-sure kid I looked like, and looking at things from the perspective of an editor — me, again — who’s not always immediately receptive to such entreaties from others, it’s not so surprising no one jumped to do anything about the headline.)

The very last stop on my newspaper run, I think, was Scott Schmidt’s office. I generally didn’t say more than “hi” to him when I dropped off the paper, but this time I told him my what I thought about our banner headline. He didn’t brush me off. He asked me to explain.  I did, referring both to the wire-service story we had published and the accompanying map. He asked me a few questions about details, I remember, then got up and walked down the hall to the newsroom. He ordered the headline changed (though I honestly can’t remember whether we replated the front page, which would have been a big deal, or just fixed it in the next edition).

In the vernacular of today, that was huge for me: I was 18, so it was partly personal vindication; but also a demonstration first of patient listening and second that our main job was to get the facts right.

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