Shoptalk: Journo ‘Boot Camp’

By: Mark Fitzgerald

Reading the obits of the successor to the City News Bureau of Chicago, you might think the famed boot camp for journalists had trained just three men: the late columnist and Slats Grobnik drinking buddy Mike Royko; Seymour Hersh, investigative reporter and thorn to every sitting administration since Nixon’s; and novelist and granfalloon-buster Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

This trinity was not only highlighted in every single story I read about the Chicago Tribune’s decision to close City News Service on New Year’s Eve, but the names were invariably invoked in the same Father, Son, and Holy Spirit order.

But I think we’re all missing the point of the City News Bureau spirit by thinking of it as a “Front Page” relic, gone with the maze of pneumatic tubes that blew dispatches into the offices of Chicago’s many disappeared dailies.

No less an authority than Hersh himself dismissed the idea of being nostalgic in a business that’s all about what’s happening right now and what’s about to happen. “Ya don’t look back,” he said in an interview I did with him 14 years ago on the occasion of City News’ centennial. Ever the truth teller, he dismissed as fiction a wonderful and oft-repeated story that had him, as an impoverished Bureau reporter ravenously hungry one evening, bursting into a Tad’s Steakhouse and running off with a customer’s T-bone.

I’ve resisted encasing City News in amber for two other reasons. For one thing, the Bureau vets I’ve known personally are a lot younger than me, and are not (as yet, anyway) famous. They’re the business editor at a suburban daily, the assignment editor at a small TV station, and a journalism teacher.

The other reason is, City News lives on in this industry as it has virtually since the start of the penny press. For all its singular qualities — the old cooperative structure, the “If your mother says she loves you, check it out” motto, and the Marines-like elan of its graduates — City News at its core was a reporter’s baptism by fire revolving around a near-impossible workload, zero tolerance for inaccuracies, and a barking editor.

My City News was the Parsippany-Troy Hills bureau of the Herald-News in Passaic, N.J. My barking editor was Mike Stoddard. On my first day of work, he gave me my three municipal beats: Pequannock, a town I knew because I had once run a cross-country meet there; Kinnelon, which I had driven through once or twice; and Ringwood, a place that I had never heard of, despite living in New Jersey since I was a toddler.

“We’ll need at least six stories a day,” he said. In the next eight hours, I uncovered my first scoop as a professional reporter: There weren’t six stories coming out of these towns in a year. But over the next few weeks, under Stoddard’s patient and not-so-patient tutelage, I learned to find six stories and more that didn’t just fill our daily zoned pages, but meant something to the people of Pequannock, Kinnelon, and Ringwood.

There are hundreds of such bureaus out there — ask college journalism teachers. “Most students have pretty high hopes of going to larger papers in the bigger cities, but when I can I always encourage them to go to the smaller newspaper, where they’ll get more opportunities to do more things,” says John Irby, a longtime community newspaper editor who’s now a professor at Washington State University’s Edward R. Murrow School of Communications.

Irby steers his students to papers such as the Columbia Basin Herald in the small town of Moses Lake, Wash., or the Moscow-Pullman (Idaho) Daily News. New graduates “get a little burnt out in a year or two, but that’s all right,” he relates. “They should work their tails off, and then they can appreciate it at another, bigger, paper.”

At Kent State University’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Associate Professor/News Barb Hipsman leans on several papers, including The Repository in Canton, Ohio, and the Journal Star in Peoria, Ill., to help undergraduates learn to “scour and sponge up” news on a beat, and to smooth the edges of new professionals. “The smaller the paper, the better,” she says. “You know they’re going to get every single thing they need. There are lots of crusty city editors out there.”

One in particular is Dick Farrell — not the city editor, but the editor of The Times-Reporter in New Philadelphia, Ohio. Farrell hires kids right out of school, and keeps an eye on them. Three nights a week, he goes over their stories with them line by line. “I polish their stuff right in front of them,” he says, “They’re kids, you have to sit down and work with them.” New hires cover everything from school boards to county government to courts to features. “They even answer the phones,” he says. “We teach them how to answer phones.”

It’s a process no different than the City News boot camp — and with the same end result, Farrell notes. “I figure we have a year or two’s worth of coaching before you don’t worry about them being out there.” Do they get a big workload? Sounding like the legendary City News Bureau editor Arnold Dornfeld, Farrell answers, “We don’t like to see them sitting around.”

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