Last bulletin for a legend; Tradition: After 108 years, Chicago's City News Bureau writes its own obituary.


CHICAGO -- It was the sorriest dispatch in the 108-year history of the oldest news service in the United States:

"CNB-108/SUPPLIED -- EXAMINER CASES -- City News Bureau of Chicago, 108, of 35 E. Wacker Dr. (formerly of 188 W. Randolph St., 155 N. Clark St., and other addresses), unknown causes/lack of funding, pronounced dead 11: 59 p.m., no hospital, no police. (3/1/99)."

That news bulletin appeared on T-shirts and posters and handbills in Chicago as the doomsday clock ticked up to midnight last night. At that instant, the City News Bureau of Chicago was destined to die -- the end of one of the most distinguished, legendary and often outrageous institutions of American journalism.

Last night, the newsroom door was locked for the first time since 1890. Reporters and editors had been on duty every minute in between. Until its last few months, even in lean times, it had a staff of about 45, 30 of them reporters who worked around the clock covering Chicago -- crime, courts, city government, virtually every out-of-the-ordinary death and serious fire.

To translate the mock death-notice bulletin: CNB-108 is the title form of each CNB news dispatch, with the 108 in this case standing for its age, rather than its place in the day's cycle. "Supplied" means the information came from an outside source. "Examiner Cases" is the standing title for transmitting to clients' news desks every death reported to the Cook County Medical Examiner. Name, age, address, cause and time of death were obligatory.

Tens of thousands of those CNB mortality dispatches for generations included the hospital where the death occurred or was confirmed and the police district responsible for the investigative file, so client newspapers and broadcasters could check for themselves. Thus the "no hospital" and "no police" carried a special poignancy of oblivion.

Celebrating the past

On Friday, a properly raucous wake was held. About 500 to 600 alumni and friends drank, reminisced and out-shouted each other on the 95th floor of the John Hancock tower.

There was recognition for Joe Reilly, editor and general manager, and for Paul Zimbrakos, managing editor, who estimates he handled 30,000 homicide stories in his 41 years there. Equal honor went to the memories of hundreds of others, present and past.

In the intimate din of nostalgia and legend-polishing, veterans took sober moments to write farewell messages on the outfit's famous banner, removed from its home on the newsroom wall for this final occasion.

It reads: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out" -- the motto and supreme general order of the City News Bureau for more than two generations.

The staff had dwindled to 25 by last night. The end had become virtually inevitable months -- or maybe years -- before, because of fundamental changes in news and newspapering and lack of demand for the bureau's output and thus lack of support for its funding. Much of the remaining staff will be absorbed as an adjunct of the Chicago Tribune. But the traditions, title and independence are gone forever.

Its roots stretch back to 1881 as the privately owned Chicago City Press Association. It counted its birth, however, as June 19, 1890, when it came under cooperative ownership of the city's newspapers.

That was an era, and a city, that throbbed and jangled with news of violence and crime, for which there was insatiable public appetite. The papers collectively decided to hold down costs by hiring ambitious youngsters at subsistence wages to cover fires, courtrooms and cop shops with more thoroughness than any single paper could prudently afford.

Ten papers were publishing at the beginning in 1890. That number rose to 16 -- two of them publishing in German, one in Danish. It has fallen to two today, the Tribune and the Sun-Times.

For those 108 years, the institution was officially designated the City News Bureau of Chicago, but it was better known as "City Press" or "City News," as well as by the acronym CNB.

Its history overflows with firsts. One of its reporters first told the world that John Dillinger had been gunned down in a North Side alley outside the Biograph Theater -- through CNB's client papers, of course. Another broke the Black Sox scandal in 1919. In almost every legendary Chicago disaster or crime, City Press was first at the scene.

Nobody ever said it was polite. Its reporters covered violence unrelentingly, day in, day out. That built callouses on the heart.

In the St. Valentine's Day Massacre in 1929, seven members of the George "Bugs" Moran mob were machine-gunned to death in a garage at 2122 N. Clark St. A City Press reporter -- one of a long-debated number who went to the scene -- became a legend by reporting that "Some of us guys have got more brains on our shoes than we have under our hats."

Originally, copy was rushed to clients by delivery boys. Later, it was spewed out with purple ink on a hand-cranked predecessor of the mimeograph machine and sent via pneumatic tubes that ran for miles beneath city streets. Once, when someone complained of bugs in one of the news-copy canisters, a can of roach powder was sent barreling back in a tube.

The pneumatic tube system was abandoned in favor of teletypewriters. That gave way to a shared computer system in 1982.

Tough training ground

Only a small corps of senior editors and managers were permanent employees. The bulk of the reporters, often first graduating to rewrite desks and editing, moved on, usually to Chicago daily newspapers, but often outside the city.

Those apprenticeships were notoriously demanding. Many aspirants dropped out after a few weeks or months. No small proportion of them were fired. To survive and move on became regarded as having passed through the most demanding rite of passage in American journalism.

Nobody kept records, but the number of people who once worked for the City News Bureau is estimated at 3,000 to 4,000. They included Mike Royko, Seymour Hersh, Michael Sneed and many other familiar writers, hundreds if you have lived long in Chicago.

Many alumni have become top editors or publishers at papers throughout the country. Other veterans ended in television, among them ABC News political director Hal Bruno and ABC reporter Carole Simpson.

Lots of others rose in different crafts and trades -- including actor Melvyn Douglas and sculptor Claes Oldenberg. Charles MacArthur worked at City News, where he accumulated everything that constitutes the classic play "The Front Page," which he wrote, after graduation, with Ben Hecht. Famously, Ernest Hemingway applied for a job and was turned down.

Kurt Vonnegut, who did a stint in the mid-1940s for $28 a week, reacted to the news of its likely demise last fall with shock: "I'm prouder of that than anything I ever did," he told the Tribune's Peter Kendall and Monica Davey, also City News alumni.

There is no certain record, but it is widely accepted among the regulars that City Press never received a journalism award until May 1983, when it broke the Tylenol cyanide-poisoning case by tracking seven unlikely deaths. That award was from the local press club, which gave CNB another in 1988. But by and large, City Press was anonymous. There were no bylines, little public visibility. Public kudos went to the newspapers that used City Press' information.

The institution had never been operated to yield a profit, and rarely did. The operating expenses had been assumed by the newspapers for value received -- an immense flow of local news and, above all, a never-sleeping tip service that triggered the papers' city desks and photo staffs into action.

Changing economics

As the number of papers dwindled, the services were sold to broadcasting stations' news operations, offsetting some of the swiftly increasing pro-rata costs to the newspapers. For many years, a subsidiary operation that distributed press releases added considerable income, though its value was diminishing in the face of Internet and fax technology and competing services. That PR news wire was sold in 1997 for $3 million, which was put back into City Press to operate it until it could be made self-supporting.

So for several years, CNB's difficulties had been evident. Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune executives sought to control escalating financial losses.

Joseph Leonard, assistant editor at the Tribune and president of the board that governed CNB, said negotiations with subscribing broadcasters to raise income were unsuccessful. "This operation costs $1.8 million a year, and we were trying to run it on a break-even basis, but the TV stations did not want to pay more," he said.

Leonard said the Sun-Times and Tribune each had been paying $250,000 a year, while TV stations were each paying about $19,000. The board wanted to raise that sum to $120,000 in stages, but bargaining never came close to that figure.

So negotiations were abandoned and the Tribune announced establishment of the "New City News Service," which will operate out of the Tribune's newsroom.

CNB's Zimbrakos will run it, with the title of bureau chief, and many of the remaining CNB staff will work for him. Its news report will be used by the Tribune and its broadcast and Internet operations will continue to be sold to Chicago broadcasters. The Sun-Times will have no role and will not receive its services.

Just before midnight last night, before the door was locked for the first and last time, the staff moved a final story to its clients: the obituary of the City News Bureau of Chicago, running about 3,000 words.

It was almost certainly the longest single article in City Press history. And its saddest.

Pub Date: 3/01/99

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