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Chicago Says So Long to 'City News'

Chicago's legendary City News Bureau is about to close. The wire service has been in business since 1890, and produced great journalists from Mike Royko to Seymour Hersh.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

These are the last days of Chicago City News Service. The wire service that has strived to report every stiff, stick-up, rub-out, jumper, floater, ballot, crash and box score in Chicago since 1980 will close on December 31st. The Chicago Tribune, which saved it from extinction a few years back, has decided the wire service is antiquated in this age of mobile phones and instantaneous e-mail. City News is down to just 19 reporters.

Many great journalists--Mike Royko, Seymour Hersh and David Brooks are about the best-known names now--got their first jobs there. But Charles MacArthur, the playwright, also went through City News, as did Klaus Oldenberg, the sculptor. And Kurt Vonnegut, who said seeing all those stories day to day made him a novelist.

At City News, analysis was bunk. Cold, hard details, like the color of a dead man's eyes, how much change he had in his pockets, or the words his pet parrot could say were the muscles that made a story move. Reporters, including me, can sound almost like parsons these days, talking about our weighty responsibilities. Maybe the public would trust us more if we remembered that many of us got into reporting, the word I prefer to journalism, because it's fun. It's fun to have a third-row seat to history and fun not to have responsibility for what happens.

It is not always high-minded. We disdain today's televised car chases and celebrity non-news that in the so-called glory days of newspapering reporters peaked through keyholes, crossed palms with fibers and fooled widows to win their confidence. They did too many stories about playboys, moguls and glamorous gams and too few about people who were poor and trapped. They often preferred a good story to a real one.

In Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's classic 1928 play "The Front Page," an old City News scribe named Hildy Johnson tells his colleagues that he's leaving the business. `Journalists,' he wails, `peaking through keyholes, running after fire engines like a lot of coach dogs, waking people up in the middle of the night to ask them what they think of Mussolini, stealing pictures off old ladies of their daughters that got raped in Oak Park--a lot of lousy, daffy buttinskis swilling around with holes in their pants, borrowing nickels from office boys. And for what? So a million hired girls and motormen's wives will know what's going on? I don't need anybody to tell me about newspapers. I've been a newspaperman 15 years, a cross between being a bootlegger and a whore. I'll only miss it every day.'

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. DOC CHEETHAM: (Singing) I guess I'll get the papers and go home, like I've been doing ever since we were apart. I get some consolation when I read of someone else's broken heart. Oh, yeah. And I wonder...

SIMON: Doc Cheetham at 18 minutes past the hour.

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Simon SaysSimon Says NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small