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 AJR  The Beat

From AJR,   December 1998  issue

The End of the Line   

Chicago's City News Bureau closes up shop.


By Keri P. Mattox
     


Chicago's City News Bureau --home of the motto, ``If your mother says she loves you, check it out"--will close its doors next spring, ending 108 years of covering cops, courts and local government.
The much-loved City News, known for its speed, accuracy and dogged reporters, fought a financial battle that this year produced a loss of $1 million. Its co-owners, the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times , decided in late October to shut down the wire service around March 1, 1999.
Larry Green , the Sun-Times' executive editor, says the move was purely about money. ``If we were making this decision based on emotion, it would still be open."
City News' star-studded list of alumni boasts Pulitzer Prize winners Mike Royko and Seymour Hersh , actor Melvyn Douglas and author Kurt Vonnegut , who all did City News stints early in their careers. Also on that list is Charles MacArthur , who, along with Ben Hecht , wrote the Broadway play ``The Front Page" based on his experience as a City News reporter.
Started in 1890 by 10 daily newspapers looking for more overnight cop reporters, City News became known not only for its gritty coverage of Chicago life, but for the excellent training and experience it gave reporters. The bureau's dispatches were used as a ``tip service" by its subscribers--Chicago papers, radio and TV stations, the Associated Press and others.
Pulitzer winner William J. Eaton , now curator of the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program at the University of Maryland and a former Los Angeles Times Washington bureau reporter, worked for City News in 1952 and '53. He recalls it ``was like going through basic training in journalism with really tough drill sergeants."
City News broke many big stories, including the 1982 cyanide lacing of Tylenol. According to newsroom tales, it also put out the first bulletins announcing the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the 1934 shooting of notorious bank robber John Dillinger in a Chicago alley. These triumphs weren't enough to make the wire service financially successful, however.
The bureau was subsidized for about 10 years by the profits of PR News Service, an associated business that distributed news releases. But in June 1997, City News sold off that operation. This summer, the bureau attempted to raise revenue by increasing its subscription rates, says Joseph Reilly , editor and general manager. But the rates, doubling or tripling in some cases, became too steep for City News subscribers, leaving the bureau and its staff of 44 little choice but to close up shop.
Reilly and others say the absence of City News will leave a hole in the news coverage of Chicago.
``People covered parts of the city that wouldn't have ever been covered," says Eaton. Chicago ``was better for it." Working at CNB, he adds, was like wearing a ``badge of honor."