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City News Bureau of Chicago

City News Bureau of Chicago, or City Press, was 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.

The City News Bureau had reporters in all important news sites, courthouses, 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.

The training was rigorous. The reporters were all amateurs when they came to work, but the rewrite men were pros, accustomed to teaching in a hard school.

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."

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 film Call Northside 777, in which Jimmy Stewart plays a reporter whose articles free an innocent man from prison, was based on a story that originated at the City News Bureau.

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 former 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 Roger Simon, reclusive media mogul Fred Eychaner, environmental journalist William Allen, investigative reporter Seymour Hersh, David Brooks, author of Bobos in Paradise, pop artist Claes Oldenburg, consumer advocate David Horowitz, columnist Mike Royko, and editorial cartoonist Herblock. Another is artist Claes Oldenburg.

Other mainstays of the staff of the City News Bureau were Arnold Dornfeld and Paul Zimbrakos.

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 controlled by the Chicago Tribuneby the 1990s. [Actually, it was still widely used by both Chicago-based newspapers, the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times until the Sun-Times decided to pull out of the joint ownership agreement it had inherited from some 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 [see above], 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 widely used City News throughout the 1990s, until the Sun-Times, owned by Conrad Black's Hollinger International, decided to pull out. A New City News Service, owned by the Tribune, opened soon thereafter. Though smaller, it was in 2003 still run by Paul Zimbrakos, a 40-plus year employee of the old CNB, and the bureau's last editor. And still widely used by Chicago-area news media. The Sun-Times management had thought they would be able to create a new, cheaper wire service, staffed with few people. When that venture--caled 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, and to this day at times misses notice of news events because it has been unable to replace the sought-after City News daybook, which lists items such as daily court activity.]

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