City News Bureau of Chicago
City News Bureau of Chicago, or City Press, was a news bureau that served as one of the first cooperative news agencies in the United States. It was founded in the late 19th century by the newspapers of Chicago to provide a common source of local and breaking news and also used by them as a training ground for new reporters. Hundreds of reporters have "graduated" from the City News Bureau into newspaper dailies - both local and national - or other avenues of writing.
The City News Bureau had reporters in all important news sites, courthouses, Chicago City Hall, the County Building, Criminal Courts, as well as having as many as ten police reporters on duty. It operated around the clock and all year round. The reporters, though young, worked in competition with some of the best reporters in the country, working on the same stories as all the others, questioning politicians and police, and fighting for scoops.
They covered every single death reported to the coroner's office, every important meeting, every news conference, every court case that had once been a news story, even if the trial wasn't newsworthy.
One graduate was Kurt Vonnegut. He described his work there in the late 1940s in terms that could have been used by almost any other City Press reporter of any era:
- "Well, the Chicago City News Bureau was a tripwire for all the newspapers in town when I was there, and there were five papers, I think. We were out all the time around the clock and every time we came across a really juicy murder or scandal or whatever, they’d send the big time reporters and photographers, otherwise they’d run our stories. So that’s what I was doing, and I was going to university at the same time."
A legendary story held that a young reporter who called in a story of the slaying of an infant was sent back to get the answer to the question, "What color were the dead baby's eyes?" Certainly, all the young reporters were sent back to get more information so that they would learn to get it in the first place. Another watchword: "If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out with two independent sources."
The City News Bureau had special operations for covering elections in Chicago and Cook County, providing regular updates precinct by precinct years before such coverage was common. A similar service reported on the scores of most high-school games in Chicago, but otherwise there was no sports coverage.
The City News Bureau broke the story of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre in 1929, but, for once, didn't quite believe its reporter, Walter Spirko, and sent the following bulletin:
- Six men are reported to have been seriously injured . . .
Spirko continued as a Chicago reporter for many years, breaking a story of thieving policemen known as the Summerdale police scandal.
Playwright Charles MacArthur, co-author of the play The Front Page, was a City Press reporter; several of the characters in the play were based on City Press personalities, notably the skittish managing editor Larry Mulay.
Other well-known alumni: syndicated columnist and Politico editor Roger Simon, reclusive media mogul Fred Eychaner, environmental journalist William Allen, investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, New York Times columnist David Brooks (author of Bobos in Paradise), pop artist Claes Oldenburg, public-television personality John Callaway, editor Russell Freeburg, consumer advocate David Horowitz, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Mike Royko, and Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Herbert Lawrence Block (commonly known as Herblock).
Clarence John Boettiger, son-in-law of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, became a Chicago Tribune police reporter after working for the City News Bureau to begin his career. Elizabeth Austin of the bureau later became a speechwriter for one Illinois governor and communications director for another.
Other mainstays of City News Bureau's staff included Arnold Dornfeld, Susan Kuczka, Paul Zimbrakos and Bernard Judge.
The City News Bureau had three teletype wires, one for the Chicago dailies, one for radio and television stations, and one for press releases. In addition, it owned a pneumatic tube system that connected all the Chicago dailies, including those that no longer existed.
As Chicago went down to only two daily newspapers, the City News Bureau slowly faded and was reduced to a minor operation. It was still widely used by both papers, the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times, until the Sun-Times decided to pull out of the joint ownership agreement it had inherited from the City News Bureau's original owners, for which the Sun-Times was a successor paper. The PR Newswire, which was part of City News, was sold; the Sun-Times decided it cost too much to keep City News running, and it was closed after its last dispatch February 28, 1999. Electronic news media—both radio and television—both used City News throughout the 1990s, until the Sun-Times, owned by Conrad Black's Hollinger International, decided to pull out. (After Black was indicted in 2005 on charges of looting Hollinger, some speculated his desire to squeeze cash out of the company's properties helped hasten the demise of the original City News.)
The New City News Service, owned by the Tribune, opened soon thereafter, and soon changed its name to the City News Service. Though smaller, it was run by Paul Zimbrakos, a 40-plus year employee of the old CNB, and the bureau's last editor. Sun-Times management had thought they would be able to create a new, cheaper wire service, staffed with few people. When that venture—called Alliance News—failed, for a while the Sun-Times used the part-time help of Medill News Service, staffed by unpaid journalism students from the Medill School of Journalism. The Sun-Times, however, was barred from receiving the New City News Service wire because of its being in competition with the Tribune.
Though the Tribune had been hailed by former City Newsers as a savior of CNB, on December 1, 2005, the Tribune informed the 19 employees of City News Service that their jobs were being eliminated as part of cost-cutting measures going on throughout the Tribune Company. (See Associated Press and other news stories of December 1 & December 2, 2005.) Tribune editors and executives reasoned that CNS was providing the Tribune's competitors' Web sites with news that the paper itself should have exclusively, the better to compete in an age of Internet news distribution.
The City News Service closed at the end of 2005, and was swallowed into a smaller Tribune Internet news operation.
City News lives on, in spirit, at least, at the Sun-Times. In February 2006, the Sun-Times worked to fill the void felt at the city's TV and radio stations by the demise of the old City News by starting its own 24-hour newswire, the STNG Wire. The key to the operation, staffed by veterans of both the original and the Tribune-run City News, is the Daybook, the invaluable daily listing of press conferences, court activity and other events throughout the Chicago metropolitan area, which is shared with subscribers and the Sun Times News Group family. The STNG wire also covers the blood and guts news—the fires, murders, shootings, stabbings, automobile accidents—that City News was known for, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Former City News Editor Paul Zimbrakos continues to teach young journalists through his City News Bureau course at Loyola University Chicago. Here is the course description from the Loyola School of Communication website:
"In fall 2009 the School of Communication started offering students access to a Chicago news gathering institution the City News Bureau. For over 100 years Chicago hosted one of the best news bureaus in the country. Young reporters learned at The City New Bureau of Chicago how the city worked and how they could best cover the city. We are re-launching that bureau in the form of a course this fall. It will be taught by two remarkable journalism veterans. Paul Zimbrakos was the Managing Editor of the bureau for a number of years before it closed its doors and tutored many of the best journalists in the country. Jack Smith was the former CBS Bureau Chief in Chicago and Washington DC. Together they will make this class a rich learning lab and help students discover how best to cover a city and its inner-workings."
- Dornfeld, Arnold; Behind the Front Page: The Story of the City News Bureau of Chicago (1983) ISBN 0-89733-070-6
- Reminiscences of CNB gathered by the Headline Club of Chicago
- Chronology of Kurt Vonnegut
- A reminiscence of CNB in the 1990s. The murder mentioned was at the Jarvis "L' Stop on the Chicago Transit Authority's Howard/Red Line.
- Claes Oldenburg biography on the Guggenheim Museum Website.
- AP story on City News Service closing.
- City News Bureau Records at the Newberry Library