January 1, 2006

Chicago’s storied bootcamp for reporters closes

By James B. Kelleher

CHICAGO (Reuters) - The journalistic descendants of
novelist Kurt Vonnegut and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter
Seymour Hersh gathered at one of Chicago's venerable watering
holes on New Year's Eve to mourn the loss of another storied

City News, a just-the-facts wire service that covered
Chicago's cops and courts 24 hours a day, seven days a week for
more than 100 years, was about to file its last story on
Saturday night.

As they waited for the bulletin to appear, more than 100
current and former City News staffers crowded into the Billy
Goat Tavern, a nearby bar popular with journalists ever since
it opened in 1934, one year after Prohibition ended.

Yellow crime-scene tape hung from the Billy Goat's ceiling,
substituting for black crepe. Against the wall, the mourners
draped a banner bearing the wire's hard-bitten motto: "If your
mother says she loves you, check it out."

The shuttering of City News comes as the newspaper industry
grapples with the challenges posed by the Internet, which has
transformed the way consumers get information and turned
upstarts like Google Inc. into feared rivals.

Indeed, the Tribune Co., the wire's owner and publisher of
the Chicago Tribune, said it was closing the wire and laying
off its 19 employees, in part because competitors were using it
to get news to readers hours before the Tribune published its
paper editions.


For many Chicagoans, the closure represented another blow
to a city still reeling from news that two cherished downtown
landmarks -- the Marshall Field's department store and The
Berghoff restaurant -- were going away.

But if dry throats were hard to find on Saturday night at
the vigil, dry cheeks abounded. That's because City News, which
began in 1890 as a way for eight local newspapers to cover the
city on the cheap, was, as more than one ex-staffer put it, a
good place to be from -- not a good place to be.

It made reporters out of young men and women by pushing
them relentlessly, often forcing them to go back to sources and
get precise details -- the color of the dead baby's eyes or of
a corpse's socks -- that rarely seemed to advance a story.

"The happiest days of your life are the day you get hired
by City News and the day you quit," said J. Patrick Connelly, a
Chicago attorney who worked there in 1981 and 1982.

But the process worked, churning out some famous writers --
Vonnegut, Hersh and Chicago columnist Mike Royko among them --
and many more skilled journalists like James Furlong, who
toiled at City News in 1957 and 1958 and went on to work at
news agencies around the world.

Over the years, City News broke big stories including the
capsizing of the S.S. Eastland in the Chicago River in 1915,
the St. Valentine's Day Massacre in 1929, and the death of
Harold Washington, the city's first black mayor, in 1987.

Furlong, one of six family members hired by City News since
the 1920s, traveled 900 miles from his home in Mystic,
Connecticut, to attend the wake.

"Beats watching the ball drop in Times Square," he said.

Even as bureau chief Paul Zimbrakos left the Billy Goat
around 11 p.m. to send out the last story, there was talk that
City News might be revived -- as it was in 1999, after the
Tribune and then co-owner the Chicago Sun-Times briefly
shuttered it.

But this time there was no reprieve. City News was
pronounced dead around 11:30 p.m. after it moved its final
story, an obituary of itself.

Then Zimbrakos, who joined City News in 1958 and never
left, turned to the group and said simply, "Let's get out of
here, I'm thirsty."