Fifty, But Not -30-

Chicago Today, 5-Star Final (in other words, the afternoon paper’s first edition of the day), May 1, 1972.

Fifty years ago today, I started my first newsroom job.

But wait a second. Let me set the stage first.

I had graduated from high school a semester early. I was inspired in part by a friend whose desperation to get out of school drove him to take a bunch of classes early and graduate a full year ahead of us in the Crete-Monee Class of 1972.

Getting out four months ahead of my remaining classmates seemed as close as I was going to get to any kind of high school accomplishment. I was as average as average could be gradewise, the result of doing occasionally brilliantly in English and history classes and barely achieving passing grades in math and science. I believe I ranked 158th among the 314 students who graduated in ’72, which I joked made me the valedictorian of the bottom half of the class.

And I did get what I considered a valedictory moment: My final semester at Crete, I took a drama class with a teacher named Tommy Thompson. He told me a few weeks into the class that he had a part for me in the school play, which would be put on in January, just before I was done with school. The part turned out to be Nick Bottom, the bombastic fool who’s transformed into an ass in “A Midsummer NIght’s Dream.”

A future newsman holds forth ...
... and then dies a piteous stage death.

So this was January 1972. I didn’t have a plan laid out beyond a position I had staked out a couple years earlier that I didn’t want to go right from high school to college. It wasn’t clear what this non-college period would look like beyond getting together with friends and smoking whatever it was popular to smoke, but I eventually had one idea about that.

We lived in a sort of rural, informal, woodsy subdivision — this was about 35 miles south of downtown Chicago — and among our neighbors out there were the McCrohons — Max, an Australian immigrant, his wife Nancy, an immigrant from Westchester County, New York, and their kids Sean, Craig and Regan.

Max was a newspaperman. He’d first come to the United States in the early 1950s as a reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald. By the time our families met, in the mid-1960s, he was an editor at the Chicago American (a former Hearst paper that the Chicago Tribune had bought and rechristened “Chicago’s American.” But I digress.) In 1969, Max was one of the editors who led the redesign and relaunch of the paper as Chicago Today.

My family was always engaged with the news. For most of my time growing up, I think we got two papers a day — the Tribune, and later the Sun-Times, in the morning, and the Daily News, and later Chicago Today, in the afternoon. We watched the early evening news, national and local, and then the late news. There was no NPR back then, but we would have been listening to that all the time, too, probably.

And “news” just wasn’t whatever happened to be in the papers or on the national and local TV news. For me, the stories that at least in my memory were woven into our daily lives all grew out of the the civil rights struggle and the Vietnam War.

As I wrote a while back, Max and Nancy McCrohon were always welcoming to my brothers, my sister and me. They indulged my presence for hours at a time on weekday nights, where often we’d talk about what was in the papers that day. They’d invite me to stay for dinner, and though it was less than half a mile back home, Max would insist on driving me at the end of the evening.

By the time I was done with high school, Max had been appointed the Tribune’s managing editor, the same position he held at Today. One night when I was over and we were watching the 10 o’clock news, we were talking about what I was going to do now that I had graduated. I don’t remember the particulars, really — the only thing I feel reasonably sure about is that I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do — but I think I asked him what it would take to work at one of the papers. And that’s how the idea of applying for a job as a copy boy at Chicago Today came about. It was a sort of prized entry-level position, and he said he could get my name “shuffled to the top of the list” of candidates.

That was in February ’72, maybe. A couple of months later, probably, I got a call asking if I could start May 1. Yes. I could and I would.

I wish I had a picture of 18-year-old me on that first day. I don’t remember a lot of details. I got to take the Illinois Central — the I.C. — from Richton Park, our station at the southern end of the commuter line, up to the last stop downtown, Randolph Street. The best exit was the one out onto East South Water Street. From there, it was about a five-minute walk to Tribune Tower, where Chicago Today shared space with its parent paper. There were two entrances — the grand one at 435 N. Michigan Avenue, and the more modest one next door at 445 N. Michigan that Today employees used. The newsroom was on the fourth or fifth floor.

Former copy boy at Nathan Hale Court, 445 N. Michigan Avenue, Chicago.

I had the same long hair that I had sported in my “Midsummer Night’s Dream” performance, but for some reason, I thought it would be more dressy or neat or something to wear it in a pony tail, which I could just barely get my unruly mop into. I also wore a pair of corduroys help up by some braided leather suspenders my girlfriend had made. I must have cut quite a figure as I walked into the city room for the first time. I don’t remember whether someone said something or I just saw a couple of smirks, but I reconsidered my style, and the pony tail and the suspenders were retired after the first day.

What did that first newsroom job involve? Well, the term “copy boy” has been retired, too, but basically, you were there to run any kind of errand the reporters or editors or front office secretaries needed. Heading down to the mailroom to get the edition that was just coming off the press. Getting coffee and making sure you remembered just how every editor on the news and copy and city desks liked theirs. Getting lunch for said editors — the most memorable purveyor of which was a basement dive about a block from the paper called The St. Louis Browns Fan Club, whose specialty was a really greasy cheeseburger. I’d be painting less than a complete picture if I left out the shouting and swearing and other indecorous behavior that you’d encounter on at least a daily basis.

None of that sounds like it has much to do with news. Here’s the part that did.

On deadline, our job was to run the typed copy from reporters to the city, copy and news desks. Depending on the shift, there would be somewhere between three and six rewrite men — and they were all men — taking dictation from reporters somewhere out there in the city. They’d write their stories one paragraph at a time on a tissue-thin sheet of paper backed by four carbon copies (also tissue thin). When a paragraph was finished, the rewrite guy would pull it out of his typewriter and call (usually shout): “Boy! Copy!” Or “Copy!” Or “Copy boy!”

Whereupon you’d hurry to the grab the copy and separate the top sheet from the carbons as you walked to the city, news and copy desks, which were clustered at the center of the city room. You’d give the top sheet to the city desk, and the other desk would each get one of the carbons. On edition, that routine could keep you busy.

One of the other jobs we did was watching the wire room, the semi-sound-proofed space where all the wire service teletype machines were spitting out stories from all over. If you were assigned to the wire room, you separate each new story as it came off the machine, then ran it to the desk editor who needed to see it. You also had to make sure the teletypes didn’t run out of paper — the big rolls (which also included carbons) that ran through the machines hour after hour.

Of course, that’s all stuff I had yet to discover on that first day, which was spent “learning the ropes” — how to get down to the mail room and the composing room, say — and filling out paperwork, and maybe hearing about which reporters and editors you had to watch out for.

Fifty years later, and I’m still working in a newsroom — or at least for a newsroom, given pandemic realities. I have thought a lot about what it means to have been lucky enough to get to do this work for so long — not all of the last 50 years have been spent in news, but nearly all of that time was what people might now call “news adjacent.”

I’ve thought a lot about that half century as this day approached. About the technological changes. About all the changes in perception of what news is and what facts are. About the shortcomings of journalism and its triumphs. About the changes in who gets to do the work — it’s very clear in my memory that the Chicago Today newsroom I walked into was all white; there were just two women working in the department as I recall it — and about how much further those changes have yet to go. About all the people I’ve worked alongside. About how we treat each other in the news business. About my own failings. And even about my successes, such as they are.

I’ve thought a lot about all of that, and yet, you know, it takes me a while to gather myself for the challenge of writing about some of it. But yeah, maybe, sometime during this 50th anniversary year that will happen.

For now, I’ll sign off with something I didn’t remember from that first day at work.

You can see our early edition headline at the top of the column here. I have to say, without having read the story in question, that it must have been a really slow news day for a “doctor shortage” to become the lead story in a big-city tabloid.

What I’d forgotten before I spent an afternoon spooling through microfilm at the Chicago Public Library was how the front page evolved that day.

The lead in the next edition was “Lift wage, price curbs for millions,” which is another yawner.

Then something happened less than a mile away in downtown Chicago. Our next-to-last edition, the Green Streak, bannered: “Car rams crowd in Loop, 6 injured!” Yes, there was an exclamation point — it appears to have been a Chicago Today specialty.

The story detailed an incident where a car jumped a curb at State and Washington streets and crashed through one of the display windows at Marshall Fields. It was clear people were hurt.

The story evolved rapidly. The last edition, the Final Streak, is below.

Chicago Today Final Streak, May 1, 1972.

No, They Don’t Write Ledes Like This Anymore

The Berkeley Gazette, February 17, 1896.

Doing impromptu research on railroad mayhem of yore — unwary yard workers and pedestrian getting their feet caught in frogs and then run over by trains and the like — I found myself looking through old, old numbers of the long dead but still remembered Berkeley Gazette.

For a town that had maybe 10,000 people in the mid-1890s, Berkeley seems to have more than its share of dreadful rail episodes. The Gazette did not hold back on details, though it sometimes illustrated an odd sense of priority (no, not propriety) in how it ordered its facts.

An example from the front page of February 17, 1896.

An Awful Death.

Little May Quill Decapitated by the Local.

Only One Eye Witness to the Tragedy, and She Can Give But Very Little Information. 

One of the saddest yet most terrible accidents that has ever taken place in the history of Berkeley occurred last evening at Dwight way, by which May Quill, the thirteen year old daughter of Anthony Quill, a grocery man at the corner of Twenty-sixth and Alabama streets, San Francisco, lost her life by having her head cut off.

I know the style of the day was to provide layers of detail in the descending series of headlines and subheads above the story, but I can’t help but admire the writers and editors who managed to work in the employment details of the victim’s father in the lede without touching on how the victim suffered her gruesome injuries.

Here’s how the San Francisco Call of the same date, on page 11 under the heading “Interesting Report of Up-to-Date News Items From Alameda County”:

Awful Death at Berkeley.

Young Girl Crushed Under the Wheels of a Local Train. 

Was Killed Instantly.

The Wheels Passed Over Her Neck and Severed the Head from the Body. 

There Was But One Witness. 

Little May Quill the Victim—The Train Went on to the Next Station—Who Is to Blame?

Berkeley, Cal., Feb. 16.—May Quill, a girl of 13 years, who lives with Mrs. Michael J. Powell at the corner of Magee [sic] and Allston way, Berkeley, was instantly killed by the 7 o’clock south bound local train this evening while attempting to alight from it near Dwight way station. The wheels passed over her head, completely severing it from her body and crushing it beyond description. No other injuries to her body were sustained save a few bruises. Her clothing was not even tattered. 

(Brutally explicit descriptions of streetcar victims seems to have been a specialty for the Call. Here’s how it described a 1906 incident in which a teenage girl was struck by a car at Mission and Third streets in San Francisco: “Mowed down by the thirty-ton juggernaut, her body was churned round the forward wheels and mangled so frightfully that it became almost welded to the [car] and could not be removed for more than an hour. When it was finally recovered the appearance it presented unnerved the great gathering that had watched employees of the United Railroads working round the car with primitive wrecking apparatus, and heads were turned away as it was borne to the Morgue wagon.”)

I see regular reports about rail deaths in the Bay Area today — mostly involving BART and Caltrain. The prevailing presumption is that most of these cases involve people taking their own lives. BART generally describes these incidents only as “major medical emergencies.” Perhaps the next day, BART police will refer to the incident by saying that they responded to “a report of a person under a train” and adding that the local coroner was called to the scene.

I often feel like those reports are overly sanitized and we ought to know more about the circumstances. How much more? Well, enough to have some insight into whatever the authorities know about the circumstances. The further gruesome details so frequently printed at the turn of the 20th century — no, I don’t need those. But those old accounts do make me wonder about the public appetite for that kind of reporting back then and about how sensitivities appear to have changed so much, at least in some respects, today.

Walter and Rudy

I admit to being unmoved at news of the passing of Walter Cronkite. I'm sure he was a decent guy on a personal level. And professionally, yes, he became the news industry's voice of authority for a time. But that age, that industry, passed long, long before Cronkite did. I never liked his "and that's the way it is" sign-off. It bespoke a certainty that the papers, the networks, and the wire services understood stories and could be relied upon to get them right, a certainty that the product never justified. Some notable exceptions aside, I'd argue that the strength of the news media then was the persistence to get the story right eventually. The process might take years, but you'd get there. In the meantime, you settled for what appeared to be a straightforward recitation of the facts. Sometimes, you'd get more, as with Cronkite's famous pronouncement against the Vietnam War; but remember that Cronkite and many other journalists arrived at that view and became willing to voice it only after years of seeing that our government's story about the war didn't hold water.

Listening to a radio show this morning on which Cronkite's name came up, I considered how I'd convey to my kids the scope of Cronkite's reputation. Then I thought: Rudy Vallee. He was still kicking around on TV throughout my teenage years and beyond. I was given to understand that he was a big, big star once. The impression I had was a guy in a raccoon coat and funny hat, crooning corny ballads. Impossibly quaint and dated stuff. There was no way to look at him from the culture in which I'd grown up and understand why anyone would have cared.

Unlike me and my siblings, whose TV news world was dominated by Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley, and Howard K. Smith, my kids grew up in an age where the vision of "Network" had started to become reality. Rather, Brokaw, and Jennings presided over shows increasingly infused with entertainment values; their audiences shrank as CNN, Fox News, and the rest of the cable menagerie came to life. Like many people of their generation and mine, they've come to see comic versions of news as a more compelling reflection of reality than network news is inclined to offer. The culture in which they've grown up simply doesn't have a Cronkite. He's the guy in the raccoon coat.

I Look This Stuff Up, So You Don’t Have To

I read a piece in The New York Times in the last couple of weeks that suggested a common sense way of doing — what would you call it? — historical lexicography, maybe. Or in plain English: investigating when certain words and terms came into common use.

Here’s the technique: Go to Google Books, then search on your term. Sift through the pile of results until you get a rough sense of the earliest references. It gives an approximation of when terms appeared — sort of a quick and easy way of what the Oxford English Dictionary’s researchers and informants have been doing for more than a century in tracking down words to their original uses and contexts.

As I said, you’ll have to sift through a lot of results to get an idea of when your word or phrase appeared, though Google helps with an advanced search that lets you look for publications by date. For me, anyway, the sifting is part of the fun.

I’m curious about when the idea of “ethics in journalism” or “journalism ethics” gained currency. I’m not surprised to find lots written about it, including works that deal with the invention of journalism ethics, published in the last ten, twenty, thirty years. Searching for stuff written before 1970, I find a 1922 essay in the International Journal of Ethics, “Journalism, Ethics, and Common Sense.” It starts:

“Several books and many articles have been published lately on the far from fresh subject of journalistic ethics–rather the lack of ethical standards and principles in contemporary journalism. Some writers have not hesitated to indict the entire newspaper business or profession on such charges as deliberate suppression of certain kinds of news, distortion of news actually published, studied unfairness toward certain classes, political organizations, and social movements, systematic catering to powerful groups of advertisers, brazen and vicious faking and reckless disregard of decency, proportion, and taste for the sake of increased profits. Other writers have been more moderate and have recognized that there are three species of newspapers–good, intelligent, honest newspapers, morally pernicious and intellectually contemptible newspapers, and colorless, indifferent, innocuous newspapers.”

I want to go further back. Here’s an entry for a 1918 publication, “Instruction in Journalism in Institutions of Higher Education,” from the Department of the Interior’s Office of Education. I’m amazed who I find there.

A page from 1918 Department of Interior bulletin on journalism education.
March 1869: Robert E. Lee, president of Washington College, puts forward proposal for a journalism program.

(Washington and Lee’s Department of Journalism says this about the program’s inception: “To help rebuild a shattered South, the college developed several new programs; among them were agricultural chemistry, business and journalism. It is not clear how many young men, if any, actually received the scholarships that Washington College widely advertised, but it is certain that the program lasted only a few years.” A permanent school was established in the 1920s.)

The Office of Education’s account includes the warm welcome Lee’s idea was accorded by the doyens of the profession. “Frederic Hudson, the managing director of the New York Herald, when asked, ‘Have you heard of the proposed training school for journalists?’ promptly replied, ‘Only casually in connection with Gen. Lee’s college and I can not see how it could be made very serviceable. Who are to be the teachers? The only place where one can learn to be a journalist is in a great newspaper office. ”

That reaction puts me in mind of what I still hear from long-time journalists; except now they’re all for journalism education, and they’re decrying all this online stuff that’s breaking down their walls and their bottom lines.

(And as to the original question: the earliest instance I can find of “journalism ethics” — actually “ethics of journalism” — is 1846.)

New and Old News

It occurred to me a month ago that it’s been 10 years since I left The Examiner — “The Examiner” being The Monarch of the Dailies, The San Francisco Examiner, William Randolph Hearst’s first newspaper.

Leaving the paper was much more than leaving a job: I was headed to an online startup — talk about a step into the unknown — from a world I had nearly always loved and almost never stopped complaining about. I was so excited about getting a chance to work at The Ex — I started as the midnight wire editor, a job no one there really wanted — that I remember honking and waving at one of the Ex delivery trucks on University Avenue in Berkeley the day after the news editor broke down and decided to give me a tryout. I liked The Ex going in, but my real passon was for news itself: being close to the flow of information and creating something from it that might help readers understand the world a little bit better.

I was there for 12 years. Since I walked out of the newsroom, just after midnight on January 2, 1996, I’ve been on the payroll of more than half a dozen other places. My longest run was three years and change in the newsroom at TechTV (a good job with a great group of people; the channel was killed by a bad new owner). I have spent all or part of several years free-lancing doing all kinds of different writing from investigative journalism to marketing hackery to academic grant-writing. I’ve made editors happy; I’ve made them unhappy — usually with my seeming disregard for deadlines; and they’ve done the same for me. I’ve found myself, several times, in the startup world. In short, they were 10 years I didn’t see coming. The only things I’d change about them would be to learn more from the mistakes I’ve made, to not spend so much time worrying about what’s going to happen next, and to make my deadlines.

But I’m really writing to look forward, not back. Since the first week in January, I’ve been back in the start-up world. I’m working with Ted Shelton, someone I crossed paths with at my very first startup, on a news project called The Personal Bee (www.personalbee.com; and yes, I have a new blog that goes along with the project, too). It’s an exploration of using RSS feeds — a method of syndicating the content on frequently updated sites like blogs and those maintained by newspapers — to create a new way of editing, packaging and reading the news. Ted’s strong preference is to call the current very early implementation of the service “an experiment” instead of “a beta.”

Will the experiment be the next big thing? Well, there’s lots of competition out there in what’s commonly called the Web 2.0 space. Obviously, I hope the project succeeds, that investors reap a big reward for taking a risk on a new idea, and that a decade from now people might know what the heck I’m talking about if I mention its name (unlike the site I went to work on 10 years ago, which is nothing more now than a bunch of good yarns to swap, unpleasant memories of repeated layoffs, and an empty URL).

In a personal sense, though, the Bee’s success would be just icing on the cake. I feel lucky to have a chance to work on something that allows me to put some of my old and new news knowledge to work — I’ll write more about that on the other blog. And for bonus points, I get to work with a friend I respect very highly and do it close to home (my commute is a 17-minute walk to downtown Berkeley).