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Trib axes 28, City News, WomanNews
December 2, 2005
A 115-year-old news service was killed Thursday on North Michigan Avenue, a victim of Tribune Co. belt tightening.
At least that's how generations of City News reporters were trained to tell it -- giving Chicago folks just the facts, fast.
The Chicago Tribune's stand-alone WomanNews section and a total of 28 editorial jobs died alongside it -- part of a news-side reorganization.
WomanNews will be folded into the Tempo section. The paper also plans to eliminate some special sections, scale back staffing and coverage in business features sections, eliminate two photo positions and eliminate some research and support staff jobs, according to a memo from Tribune editor Ann Marie Lipinski.
News-side changes will also include creating a 24-hour news desk aimed at bolstering Internet, broadcast and print coverage.
City News Service -- a reincarnation of the famed City News Bureau of Chicago that launched the careers of the late columnist Mike Royko, author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. and investigative reporter Seymour Hersh -- is set to send its last dispatch on New Year's Eve.
And with that final story ends the run of one of the world's most-storied news operations, again.
Covered the basics
In 1890, Chicago newspapers founded the City Press Association, which later became the City News Bureau.
City News shut down in 1999, when it was jointly owned by the Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times. The Sun-Times decided to pull out of the operation, saying it lost money. But the Tribune revived it in a smaller form and moved the bureau into Tribune Tower.
City News focused on covering the city's basic institutions -- such as the courts and City Hall -- as well as fires, murders and other major crimes. It offered 24-hour, immediate coverage to newspapers and, later, to radio and television. Broadcast outlets came to rely on City News, whose reporters were often the first ones on the scene when disaster struck.
One broadcast news executive reacted to word of the demise Thursday by exclaiming, "Holy crap!"
In general, news directors see the end of the service as a problem, though not an insurmountable one. Many said they use the service as a tip sheet, in particular the morning daybook that lists the day's events, including press conferences and court dates. Court coverage was seen as particularly useful to newsrooms.
City News also became known as a training ground for aspiring reporters, offering them unparalleled experience at low pay.
"I feel sad," said City News editor Paul Zimbrakos, a 47-year veteran. "All the kids that worked the City News Bureau and the 18 other kids who worked here [City News Service] are sad, as well."
'I just feel ripped off'
City News reporters and editors will receive severance packages, and some may be offered other jobs at the Tribune.
Some City News writers say they'll leave with fond memories and bitter feelings.
"Operating solely under the Tribune's control severely limited opportunities for City Newsers because the Trib got their labor dirt cheap and saw no need to hire them as full-timers," City News Criminal Courts reporter Matthew Vandenbroek said.
"Meanwhile, all the well-placed alumni throughout the Chicago media unfairly drew a negative distinction between the 'new' City News Service and the 'venerable City News Bureau, launching pad of Royko, yadda, yadda, yadda.' I'll always cherish my experiences and lessons learned at City News. But today, I just feel ripped off."
Media giant Tribune Co. is facing a host of challenges at a difficult time for media companies. Newspaper circulation across the country is falling, and Tribune's television stations are losing ratings. Tribune Co. stock has slumped 27 percent so far this year.
Recently, the Tribune found City News was competing with its Internet news outlets, a source said. City News stories would end up on the Web sites of local television and radio stations, which compete with the Tribune's sites in providing up-to-the-minute information.
BY SHAMUS TOOMEY Staff Reporter
The City News wire service is often referred to as a boot camp for journalists.
On Thursday, one of its most decorated foot soldiers sounded off on its impending demise.
"That's sad," novelist Kurt Vonnegut Jr. said when told of the Chicago Tribune's plan to shut City News down at year's end. "It was something to be proud of -- like being in the infantry."
". . . I learned how to be a tough guy [there]," Vonnegut, 83, said. "You know, it's something to boast about. And it won't mean anything anymore, I guess, except to a few old-timers."
Vonnegut was fresh out of the U.S. Army, having been freed from a German POW camp, when he took a job at the original City News Bureau of Chicago in late 1945. He scheduled his shifts around his University of Chicago graduate school classes, earning $27 a week to support his family.
Technique influenced future works
The paltry sum was "worth it," Vonnegut recalled, "Because it was the only way you could get a job on a paper in Chicago. And that was understood. That was why the pay was so low. And also it was like having a Purple Heart. You, no [bleep], had been a reporter."
Vonnegut's City News was not much different from the City News that closed its doors in 1999, only to be relaunched in a scaled-down form by the Tribune that same year. Street reporters used any phone they could find to call in stories to rewrite staffers.
"If we turned up anything, we would flash it to the office," Vonnegut said.
"There was a guy there, sitting at a typewriter with headphones on. It was a good way to learn to write because all of my stories began immediately with: who, what, where and when. And we would talk a lead into the phone. The guy would type it up, and there was a pneumatic tube system going to several papers."
Vonnegut said the rapid-fire reporting and seat-of-the-pants writing influenced "a lot" of his future works.
"People -- amateurs, beginners or whatever -- will start a story, and it's not clear where the hell it is, what century it's in or who these people are," he said. "And man, every one of my stories is -- bingo. It was a lead so the reader could start playing along right away, which is a good idea for any writer."
'All kinds of stuff'
Like most City News reporters over the years, Vonnegut's assignments led him to ugly scenes.
"I saw a lot of gory stuff. People dying in awful ways," he said. "I wrote one about a guy being crushed by an elevator. That's in one of my books. Sure, you saw gruesome stuff. And funny stuff. . . . We got to know the whole damn city and how to move around in it. .. .
"There was a mystery, a man's head found floating in a canal," he said. "It finally turned out his wife had killed him. And fires. And all kinds of stuff."
Veteran newspaper reporters would show up on the crime scene after Vonnegut and other cub reporters phoned in stories, stealing the glory.
"They would try to pump us for information. Yeah, we were definitely snubbed -- the way an officer would treat a Pfc.," he said.
The Tribune said some of City News will be folded into its Internet operations. Internet competition was cited as a reason for pulling the plug.
"Oh, hell, new technologies kill so many ways of making a living," Vonnegut said.
"It was entertaining. It was exciting and something to be proud of. I'm sorry nobody can get a hash mark like that anymore."