The Chicago American, an afternoon newspaper published in Chicago, Illinois under various names, was the last full flowering of the aggressive journalistic tradition depicted in the play and movie The Front Page.
Its first edition came out on the July 4, 1900 as Hearst’s Chicago American. Its companion Morning American came out in 1902 (Examiner as the Sunday Edition) and was replaced by the Examiner in 1907.
Distribution of the Herald Examiner after 1918 was controlled by gangsters. Dion O'Banion, Vincent Drucci, Hymie Weiss and Bugs Moran first sold the Tribune. They were then recruited by Moses Annenberg who offered more money to sell the Examiner, later Herald-Examiner. This "selling" consisted of pressuring stores and news dealers.
Under pressure from his lenders, Hearst consolidated the American and the Herald-Examiner in 1939. It continued as the Chicago Herald-American until 1953 when it became the Chicago American. The American was bought by the Chicago Tribune in 1956, and was renamed as Chicago's American in 1959. As with many other afternoon dailies, the paper suffered in postwar years from declining circulation figures caused in part by television news and in part by population shifts from city to suburbs. The paper continued as an afternoon broadsheet until 1969 when the Tribune converted the paper to the tabloid-format Chicago Today. Measures to bolster the paper were unsuccessful, and Chicago Today published its final issue on September 13, 1974. The Chicago Tribune inherited many of the Today's writers and staff and became a 24-hour operation.
The American was the product of the merger or acquisition of 14 predecessor newspapers and inherited the tradition and the files of all of them.
As an afternoon paper, the American was dependent on street sales rather than subscriptions, and it was breaking news that brought street sales. The American was noted for its aggressive reporting. Its editors, writers, and photographers went hard after every story. It was not uncommon for them to pretend to be police officers or public officials to get a story, although many of them could simply talk their way into any place.
These techniques were usually used legitimately. Reporters would demand information as if they had a right to it and would often get it. With its connections to news sources and its bravado, the small staff of the American regularly scooped its larger, more respectable afternoon competition, the Chicago Daily News.
When Frank Lloyd Wright announced plans to build a mile-high building in Chicago, the American stole the drawings and printed them. " The tradition was exemplified by the longtime night city editor of the American, Harry Romanoff, "Romy," who could create news stories almost at will with only a telephone. Running the city room at night with the help of two rewrite men (including Mike McGovern, noted below), one night photo editor, a sports desk editor (Brent Musburger's first job out of journalism school) and one night copy boy who "cut and pasted AP and UPI wires for Harry's review). Since the afternoon paper was put together the previous evening, the night city editor was the key news editor. Moreover, "Romy" a stout, cigar-chomping, suspendered, order-barking commander of the city desk enjoyed the fearful but absolute regard of pressmen, the composing room and the entire night staff of the Tribune Tower which owned and housed the Chicago's American operations in its final decades.
One night floods threatened Southern Illinois, and the American did not have a big story for the front page. Romanoff called fire departments and police stations throughout the region, posing as "Captain Parmenter of the state police" (a nonexistent individual) urging them to take action. One fire department, bemused by the call, asked what they should do. "Ring those fire bells! Call out the people!" Romanoff then turned to his rewrite man to dictate the lead story:
- Fire bells rang over southern Illinois as police and fire departments called out the people to warn them of impending floods.
It never did flood, but the American had its banner headline. These headlines were necessary for sales of the early editions. Later in the day, breaking news would generally replace them or reduce their importance. Of course, many stories developed in this way were genuine scoops that would be expanded in later editions.
The American gave the same attention to smaller stories as to large ones. It was always first with police news. One notable headline:
- Mother of 14 kids kills father of 9 in police station
In addition to Romanoff, notable American staff members included:
- Wendell Smith, the African American sports reporter requested by Branch Rickey to travel with Jackie Robinson when he was breaking into baseball.
- Roger Treat, vocal critic of segregation and editor of the first Pro Football Encyclopedia.
- Brent Musburger, night sports editor of the American who became a prominent television sports personality; while writing for the paper he penned his infamous column describing Tommie Smith and John Carlos as "black-skinned storm troopers" for their protest of racial injustice in the United States during the 1968 Summer Olympics.
- Buddy McHugh, thinly disguised as "McCue" in The Front Page
- George Murray, who was once sent to Central America and told to "find a lost city", which he promptly did. Murray wrote a memoir about the paper called The Madhouse on Madison Street.
- Jack Mabley, investigative columnist, whose most famous article measured water pressure during commercial breaks on national TV broadcasts and determined that viewers were using the toilet during the breaks.
- Michael McGovern, New York Daily News investigative reporter. McGovern once went door-to-door through Evanston, Illinois asking each woman in one neighborhood if she was the illegitimate daughter of Warren G. Harding.
- William Veeck, Sr., a sports columnist who was hired as team vice-president by the Chicago Cubs' William Wrigley Jr. after a series he wrote criticizing the team.
- Wallace Smith, screenwriter.
- John F. Kennedy, the future U.S. president worked as a reporter at the Chicago Herald-American after serving in the Navy during World War II in 1945, where he covered the United Nations Conference held in San Francisco and the elections that ousted Winston Churchill in 1946 from London. The job was lined up by JFK's influential father, Joseph P. Kennedy.
In the end, TV news brought an end to most afternoon papers, but up until the 1970s, Chicago had a competitive journalistic scene unmatched by most other American cities, five daily newspapers and four wire services in competition, and none more competitive than Chicago's American.
The American's predecessor and successor newspapers
- Morning Record, March 13, 1893 – March 27, 1901 (originally News Record aka Morning News aka Chicago Daily News (Morning Edition) beginning July 24, 1881)
- Chicago Times, June 1, 1861 – March 4, 1895
- Chicago Republican, May 30, 1865 – March 22, 1872
- Inter Ocean, March 25, 1872 – May 10, 1914
- Chicago Daily Telegraph,March 21, 1878 – May 9, 1881
- Morning Herald, May 10, 1893 – March 3, 1895
- Times-Herald, March 4, 1895 – March 26, 1901
- Chicago American July 4, 1900 – August 27, 1939
- Record-Herald, March 28, 1901 – May 10, 1914
- Chicago Examiner, Mar 3,1907-May 1, 1918
- Chicago Record Herald & Interocean May 11, 1914- June 1, 1914
- Chicago Herald, June 14, 1914 – May 1, 1918
- Herald-Examiner May 2, 1918 – August 26, 1939
- Herald American August 26, 1939 – April 5, 1953
- The Chicago American April 6, 1953 – September 23, 1959
- Chicago's New American Sep 23, 1959-October 24, 1959 (purchased by the Chicago Tribune)
- Chicago's American October 25, 1959 – April 27, 1969
- Chicago Today American April 28, 1969 – May 23, 1970
- Chicago Today May 24, 1970 – September 13, 1974
- "1934" Chicago American on March 4, 1935 published a huge article about Holodomor. (English)
- Dave Zirin, After Forty-four Years, It's Time Brent Musburger Apologized to John Carlos and Tommie Smith, The Nation, June 4, 2012, Accessed September 10, 2012.
- Murray, George The Madhouse on Madison Street (Chicago: Follett, 1965).