Posts Tagged 'Journalism'

Chicago Gets a Newspaper (11-26-1833)

Chicago had just been incorporated as a town.  There were already 300 people living here.  On this date, we got our first newspaper.

Our 21st Century media like to portray themselves as unbiased and non-partisan.  And sometimes they are.  But in 1833, newspapers let you know their agenda right up front.  That first local paper was named the Chicago Weekly Democrat.


The man behind it was James Calhoun.  He’d run a succession of unsuccessful papers in New York State, most recently in Watertown.  After hearing travelers’ tales about the boomtown on Lake Michigan, the young editor headed west.

Calhoun set up shop in a building on Clark Street.  Like anyone who owned a printing press in 1833, he depended on job-lot printing orders to make his living.  The newspaper was more of a sideline, a vehicle to publicize his personal views.

(Hmmm.  Sounds like a blog.)

Andrew Jackson, a Democrat, was president.  The opposition party was called the Whigs.  But the feature story in the first issue of the Chicago Weekly Democrat was not a political manifesto.  Instead, it was an account of a powwow between two Indian tribes, the Sioux and the Sac-and-Fox.

And that tells you something about the newspaper business in those times.  Calhoun had copied the whole powwow story from a St. Louis paper.  Was this plagiarism?  There weren’t any wire services yet, so editors got their out-of-town news by lifting it from other papers.  Hey, even Ben Franklin had “borrowed” stories!

The one piece of original work was the editorial.  There Calhoun came out boldly in favor of building a canal or railroad to link Lake Michigan and the Mississippi River.  Oddly enough, that was the type of editorial you’d expect to find in a Whig paper, not in a paper calling itself the Democrat.

Calhoun continued to publish, with some interruptions.  In 1836 a group of local party leaders bought him out.  The Democrat was later purchased by John Wentworth, who operated it for several years before finally closing down in 1861.  By then Long John was a Republican.

James Calhoun himself died in 1859.  Chicago’s first newspaper editor is memorialized in Calhoun Place, an alley between Madison and Washington in the Loop.


The Story of a News Photo

During the 1920s, a daily newspaper would go to outlandish lengths to top its rivals. If you were the first one with the big story, you sold more papers.  Ditto if you had an exclusive story—a “scoop.”  Ditto again if you had an exclusive photo.

Tom Howard being fitted with his ankle camera

Tom Howard being fitted with his camera

Tom Howard was part of this milieu. In 1928 the young Chicago Tribune photographer took one of the most famous photos in newspaper history.  And it all began with a scruffy little murder in Queens, New York.

Ruth Snyder was an unhappily-married housewife in her early thirties who was having an affair with a corset salesman named Henry Judd Gray. On March 19, 1927 they killed Ruth’s husband Albert for the insurance money.  They tried to make it look like part of a robbery gone wrong.

But the lovers proved to be inept criminals. The police quickly demolished their story, and they wound up accusing each other of dreaming up the scheme.  Ruth and Henry were tried for first-degree murder.  Both of them were found guilty, and sentenced to die in the electric chair at the state prison in Sing Sing.

The New York Daily News was a tabloid that had built its reputation on sensational news photos.  Ruth Snyder was going to be the first woman executed in several years, and publisher Joseph Medill Patterson wanted a picture of the execution.  Trouble was, photographing an execution was not allowed, and prison authorities knew all of the Daily News photographers.  So Patterson phoned his cousin, Chicago Tribune publisher Robert R. McCormick.

McCormick agreed to lend Tom Howard to the Daily News. In New York, Howard obtained press credentials to attend the executions as a writer.  On January 12, 1928 he arrived at the prison with a miniature single-shot camera strapped to his ankle.  A wire attached to the shutter ran up his trouser leg to a trigger-release concealed in his coat.

Howard waited while Henry Judd Gray was executed. Then came Ruth Snyder’s turn.  Howard edged forward.  As the current surged through her body, Howard squeezed the trigger release.  Then it was over, and he rushed back to the Daily News offices in Manhattan.

The famous photo

The famous photo

Howard had no way of knowing if the plan had worked, until the photographic plate was actually developed. But it had worked.  Four hours after Ruth Snyder’s execution, Daily News extras were on the street, the entire front page filled with Howard’s photo of her death throes.  The headline simply read “DEAD!”

Prison officials were outraged by the picture. They talked about bringing charges against Howard and the Daily News.  But since no laws had actually been broken, the matter was dropped.  Still, in the decades since, anyone admitted to an execution site undergoes a thorough search for concealed cameras.

Tom Howard returned to his career in Chicago. When he died in 1961, he was the chief photographer at the Sun-Times.


Fake News (11-2-1948)

Seventy years ago today.  Election night, 1948.

Like the rest of the nation, Chicagoans awaited the results of the presidential contest.  At about 10 pm, the bulldog edition of the next day’s Tribune hit the streets.  The headline read “Dewey Defeats Truman.”

Well, that was expected.  President Harry Truman was trailing badly in all the pre-election polls.  The election itself was a mere formality.  Thomas E. Dewey, the governor of New York, would be moving to the White House.

What’s that in Truman’s hands?

But don’t go looking up President Dewey in your history books.  Truman upset all the pollsters and won.  And the World’s Greatest Newspaper was stuck with its most embarrassing headline.

Many factors led to the Tribune screw-up.  The printers were on strike, so the first edition of the paper had an earlier deadline.  First returns showed Dewey with his expected lead.  The staunchly Republican Tribune was no friend of Democrat Truman. The paper’s political correspondent assured the editor that Dewey was in. So the editor gave the order: “Roll the bulldog!”

Over 150,000 Tribs were on the street when the paper realized its mistake.  Circulation trucks were sent to retrieve the bulldog edition, replacing it with papers headlined “Early Dewey Lead Narrow.”  By then, too many early copies had passed into public hands.

The next day, Truman was returning to Washington by train from his home in Missouri.  His victory was assured.  At the St. Louis railroad station, a reporter handed him a copy of the infamous Tribune.  Grinning broadly, the president held up the paper for photographers.

Fake News, 1948

Back in Chicago, the Sun-Times gloried in its rival’s mistake.  For two days after the election, the paper ran a cut of the Tribune‘s front-page, with the caption “The polls were off—so were some headlines.”  On the third day, the Sun-Times put the train-station picture of Truman on its front page.

The years passed.  By 1972, the new generation at the Tribune had come to terms with the paper’s legendary blooper.  Plans were made to present Truman with a replica plaque of the front page for its 25th anniversary.  But the former president died before this happened.

Today, original copies of the “Dewey Defeats Truman” Tribune are valued collectables.  However, if your budget is limited, a small ceramic mock-up of the front page is still sold at—where else?—the Harry Truman Presidential Library.


The Day the Smiles Ended (12-4-1921)

Today the United States government ordered Chicagoans to stop smiling.  It said so on the front page of the morning paper.

12-4--Smiles headline.jpg

The saga begins in late October, when the Chicago Herald-Examiner published an article about eccentric millionaire Harry Phillips.  He was passing out money to complete strangers, just to see them smile.

The Herald-Examiner was the Hearst-owned morning daily.  The paper was trying to overtake the Tribune, and the Phillips story was just the sort of bogus stunt that Hearst often used.

Then the H-E reported that Phillips had left town.  But never fear—Hearst’s paper would carry on the philanthropy.  Each weekday copy of the H-E would now contain a Smile Coupon with a different serial number.  On Sunday there would be a raffle, with a $1,000 grand prize.  That would keep Chicago smiling!

The drawing took place on November 13.  The $1,000 winner was a Sears clerk—and sure enough, she smiled.  So the H-E announced it was putting $25,000 into a pot, to be paid out in $1,000 daily raffles.

At first, the Tribune took no notice of its rival’s stunt.  But during the first weeks of the Smile campaign, the Hearst paper’s circulation jumped 25% to 500,000, about the same as the Trib.  And on Thanksgiving Day, the H-E increased its pot to $100,000, with $3,000 in daily prizes.

So now the Trib launched its own giveaway.  With Christmas approaching, the paper would start printing Cheer Checks.  And the Trib‘s program would be bigger and better.  The World’s Greatest Newspaper would be distributing $200,000—-$5,000 each day.

Now the whole city was caught up in the frenzy.  News dealers reported people buying armloads of papers, ripping out the coupons, and tossing the rest into the street.  Fights broke out among customers trying to purchase papers.  The daily prizes went to $6,000, then $7,000.  The special Sunday drawing reached $20,000.

By December 4, the circulation of each paper was over 1,000,000.  On that day, both the H-E and the Trib received telegrams from the Postmaster General, asking them to end their Smile raffles.  The explanation given was vague.

Both papers used the government message as an excuse to end their competition.  From now on, Chicagoans would have to find their own reasons to crack a smile.


“The Chicagoan” magazine—1973 version

City magazines have been around for a long time.  Their modern era dates from 1968, when New York magazine was launched as an edgier alternative to The New Yorker.

Something similar happened in our city.  By 1973 Chicago Guide had become established as the local city monthly.  Jon and Abra Anderson, a columnist couple at the Daily News, felt there was room for another magazine.  That October they launched a new monthly with an old name—The Chicagoan.

October 1973--The first issue

October 1973–The first issue

The first issue laid out a perspective.  The staff of The Chicagoan liked Chicago, but didn’t like “baloney.”  The magazine would be open to any stories that were truthful, interesting, and well-written.    Phony boosterism was out.  Still, as Jon Anderson noted, “we are not going to be nattering nabobs of negativity, either.”

Anderson also asked readers to be patient while the magazine found its way.  He noted that the new Channel 2 news team of Bill Kurtis and Walter Jacobson had been launched with a huge wave of publicity, but were only now finding their style.

The Chicagoan quickly achieved its own style.  Each issue began with an introduction from Jon Anderson, followed by a group of short, topical pieces gathered under the title “The Frontlines.”  Then came a listing of the month’s special events and entertainment.  Regular columns included Abra Anderson’s pieces about food and drink, as well as others devoted to music, movies, media, art and architecture, theater and dance, and books.

December 1973--What Fun To Be a Bear!

December 1973–What Fun To Be a Bear!

The feature stories were heavy on politics—after all, this was the era of Daley the First.  Will Ralph Metcalfe run for Mayor?  Will Dan Walker or Charles Percy run for President?  Will Jim Thompson run for anything?  And who will be the Machine Boss of the Future?

Like the political articles, the features capture the special flavor of their times.  Oak Park is trying to stabilize as a multiracial village.  The Near West Side is struggling to survive.  Fast food joints have overrun Elmhurst Road.  Circle Campus is killing its students with coldness.  A new movie called The Sting is filming in town.  The Bears are having a lousy season.

Then there were the light-hearted odds and ends.  A Chicagoan board game. Various trivia quizzes.  A survival guide to O’Hare.  A dictionary of “Talkin’ Chicawgo.”

After nine wacky and wonderful issues, the Andersons sold the magazine.  The new owners kept The Chicagoan going through October 1974, then closed up shop.


“Chicago”—a lost magazine of the Eisenhower Age

The current Chicago magazine grew out of the small monthly program guide for classical music radio station WFMT. When the publication expanded and began concentrating on stories, the title was changed to Chicago Guide. In 1975 it became simply Chicago.

June 1954--with Mayor Carter Harrison Sr.

June 1954–with Mayor Carter Harrison Sr.

Nearly forgotten today was an earlier Chicago magazine. That one first appeared in March 1954.

Introducing their new publication, the editors claimed that Chicago was really two cities. While the city was notorious for crooks, gangsters, and grafters, there was another, less-celebrated city which has been “the principle seedbed” for some of the most revolutionary aspects of American life. Chicago the magazine would attempt to cover both.

Each monthly issue opened with a listing of upcoming local events, followed by short snippets of city life gathered under the heading “West of the Water Tower.” Pictorial essays visited points of contemporary interest like Riverview, Sieben’s Bierstube, and Maxwell Street, as well as the annual Chicago Cat Show and the Old Town Holiday Fair. There was also poetry and fiction, either every good or very bad.

Chicago-the-city was tearing down and rebuilding in the mid-‘50s. The magazine did a story on the demolition of South Side slums. Another time there was a “Sidewalk Superintendent’s Guide” on where to best view the construction of the Prudential Building and similar architectural wonders.

Contemporary issues, like the recent racial conflict in Trumbull Park, were analyzed. Studs Terkel contributed regular articles about the newest medium, television. Reform-minded Alderman Robert Merriam wrote a piece titled “Why Reformers Fail”—and a year later lost the mayoral election to Richard J. Daley.

"Chicago" contributor Studs Terkel

“Chicago” contributor Studs Terkel

Feature articles profiled Admiral Dan Gallery, Sewell Avery, Fritz Reiner, Tom Duggan, and other local celebrities. Advice was proffered on “How To Beat a Traffic Ticket.” The opposite ends of the music world were covered, with visits to the National Barn Dance and to the new Lyric Opera. Another story tried to determine who was the richest Chicagoan (It was either Henry Crown or John Cuneo).

Chicago seemed to be aiming at upscale readers. The real estate ads were heavily geared to North Shore and Gold Coast properties. Art galleries, furriers, financial brokers, and high-end auto dealers regularly bought space.  So did the city’s “better” radio stations.

It was a fun magazine. Sadly, it didn’t last. Three years after rolling out its first issue, this version of Chicago magazine ceased publication.


Chicago’s Little Green Book

In 1966, as the so-called Cultural Revolution spread through China, Americans became aware of a little red book called Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-Tung.  The title said it all—here were 304 pages of observations on life, the universe, and everything, drawn from the works of Communist China’s dictator.  Millions of Chinese youth were seen carrying copies of this secular Bible as they ran amuck through their country.

Mao Book

Such a book was a natural for parody.  In 1968 U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson’s wisdom was collected in Quotations From Chairman LBJ.  Conservative pundit William F. Buckley was the subject of Quotations From Chairman Bill.

Meanwhile, back home in Chicago, longtime mayor Richard J. Daley had become a polarizing figure.  In June 1969, University of Wisconsin grad student Peter Yessne compiled a little green book titled Quotations From Mayor Daley.Daley Quotations

The book is 125 pages long, divided into 24 chapters.  Some of the chapter titles include How to Get Elected, The Correct Handling of Riots and Demonstrators, On the Power of Patronage, Graceful Concessions, and The Limits of Conviction.  There’s even a chapter called Bipartisanship—which consists of a single quotation from Daley telling how the Democrats will spread the word about their candidates in the upcoming election.

There are plenty of the famous Daley malaprops here.  Reading the book, it’s best to keep in mind the advice of the mayor’s press secretary, who told reporters to print what Daley meant, not what he said.  (Come to think of it, today we still hear political lackeys covering for their boss the same way.)

Quotations From Mayor Daley is an entertaining book for anyone interested in the golden age of the Chicago Democrat Machine.  Inexpensive copies are easy to find.