The Final Deadline

Tough was its middle name. But the City News Bureau of Chicago taught generatoins of journalists the rules of the trade. Fact is, it will be sorely missed.

March 06, 1999|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM | MICHAEL PAKENHAM,SUN STAFF

It's a sad story. Stories about death are. But there's cheer in it: A whisper of immortality is louder than the screaming silence of death.

For something like 4,000 reporters and editors, living and gone, it's an historic obituary. It's an institution of towering importance to those who came through it, once a muscular living thing, the City News Bureau of Chicago.

It was the inspiration for "The Front Page." Otherwise, it was virtually unknown except among those who worked for it and the inside staffs of the newspapers, wire services and broadcast stations that for 108 years received and used its round-the-clock dispatches.

It was put to death at midnight last Sunday.

City Press, as most of us called it, was adored and detested, legendary and anonymous, sentimental and cruel -- an elemental news-gathering organization. Its death, however, is the apotheosis of the end -- long time coming -- not of an institution, but of a fashion of chronicling life.

Ten Chicago daily newspapers started the place in 1890, and there were more than that from time to time. City Press covered the city night and day. For 108 years, its newsroom was always working, its door never locked. Now the papers have dwindled to two, and news of crime and violence is on television screens in moments, sometimes from helicopters.

In the fullness of time, City Press, and its purpose, came to their ends, as all things must.

The two usages I was conditioned to deplore in this scribbling craft are the first person voice ("I" -- the Pestilential Perpendicular Pronoun) and journalism about journalists (whom experience instructs me hold little or no fascination for anybody but themselves). Rules are important.

So lock me up, or something. There's only one way to tell this story.

Before I got there, and after, many of America's news figures went through City Press. Lots rose to journalism's pinnacles, such as they are.

Mike Royko started there in 1956, two years before I did, and was one of the senior guys in my time, a first-rate reporter, a fine drinking companion and an unforgiving rewrite man.

I read somewhere the other day that Royko started off at $50 a week, which annoyed me richly. I began at $40 a week, having left a $125-a-week job as an editorial assistant at Newsweek to be humiliated and exhausted.

I was shy, and began by doing copyboy shifts at night.

The night city editor was A.A. Dornfeld, name of Arnold, which nobody used. He was called Dornie, except when he was called Mr. Dornfeld, which was a very good idea until he told you otherwise.

Mr. Dornfeld stood, as I remember him, about 7-foot-2, though it was probably about a foot less. He wore enormous plaid flannel shirts, which I think his wife, Edna, made for him in their house trailer, moored on the edge of a cornfield. He was a mountain of a man, articulate to the point of eloquence, obscene to the point of elegance.

He never called me by name. It was "Boy!" or "Copy!" or curt phrases best only alluded to in a family newspaper. When you got to be taken seriously, on good days he called you "chum" -- and on very good days, "laddie."

Somehow, early on, I got it into my head that Dornfeld was sympathetic, on my side. Then I was put on my first reporting assignment, night west police.

It was the dullest of the four police beats, but like reporters in all of the others, I was responsible for checking out something like 17 police districts. Every half-hour, I had to call the desk to report in or get instructions.

I had done my homework. I'd visited all of the police stations ahead of time. I'd clipped every published crime story in all of the papers as soon as I got notice I would start that shift. At 6 p.m., I made my first obligatory call to the desk. The phone rang three times. Then:

"Dornfeld, City Press!" the voice barked.

"Pakenham, west," I said as firmly as I could. "Anything for me?"

I was just short of terrified.

There was a pause. Then:

"Nothing but ineffable contempt."

The phone clicked dead.

A cruel business

The rules were firm, and they were clear. They were never written down. Well, almost never. Until the last few days of its life, the newsroom on Wacker Drive had on a wall above a row of filing cabinets a large banner bearing the motto: "If your mother says she loves you ... Check it out!"

Legend credits Dornfeld with coining that motto. Dornie said it was another longtime editor there, Ed Eulenberg, who actually said it first.

Anyway, it was obvious, sort of like putting up a sign in the Hershey factory: "Make it taste like chocolate."

You had to get facts straight, and you had to get them now. That was often a cruel business. You dealt constantly with death and dismemberment, with awful losses and terrible fears.

Another rule was that you never let a story get to you, touch you emotionally. Or anyway, you never let it show. Rules are important. That was a big one.

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