Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The first citizen journalist

The irascible and spectacularly talented Mike Royko didn’t merely invent citizen journalism, but burnished it to a fine art in 32 years as the premiere newspaper columnist in the nation.

The Pulitzer Prize winner died 10 years ago this month at the increasingly youthful-sounding age of 64. He deserves to be remembered not just for his incomparable body of work but also as an inspiration to the modern journalists who are trying to sustain the continuing relevance of newspapers in their communities.

Unlike most of today’s columnists, who can’t get beyond scribbling self-absorbed drivel about the ho-hum things that happened to them in their cubicles, at the breakfast table or while getting their hair cut, Mike wrote about real things happening to real people in a very real way.

In the days before “crowd” and “source” became a single word, Mike effectively deputized the entire population of Chicago as his legmen, relying on readers to feed him the outraged and outrageous tips that enabled him in his prime to generate five gem-like columns a week.

A working-class kid who grew up over his father’s saloon, set pins in a bowling alley and conned his way into journalism while in the Air Force because it looked like easy duty, Mike built a connection with his readers that was so strong that they dropped dime on him every time a bureaucrat bungled, an alderman fleeced or a city crew loafed.

At Chicago’s Daily News, then the Sun-Times and finally the Tribune, Mike stood up for mothers fired for taking their kids to the doctor or a tavern keeper dispossessed by urban renewal. He deftly pilloried racists, liars, phonies, cheats and hypocrites of all sorts, which is to say he covered a lot of politics. And he never stopped needling the Chicago Cubs, the team he hated to love.

Mike built his columns with facts and hard reporting, a craft he mastered at City News Bureau of Chicago, the original hard-knocks school of journalism.

He delivered the results in the wry and seemingly effortless voice of a gifted storyteller swapping yarns in a bar. Writing about Richard J. Daley after the mayor's death in 1976, Mike unintentionally revealed the insight that informed his perfect pitch:
Daley was not an articulate man, most English teachers would agree. People from other parts of the country sometimes marveled that a politician who fractured the language so thoroughly could be taken so seriously.

Well, Chicago is not an articulate town, Saul Bellow notwithstanding. Maybe it's because so many of us aren't that far removed from parents and grandparents who knew only bits and pieces of the language.

So when Daley slid sideways into a sentence, or didn't exit from the same paragraph he entered, it amused us. But it didn't sound that different than the way most of us talk.
Mike won his column in 1964 after he and several other reporters were asked to audition for the role by writing sample columns. The other writers saw this as an opportunity to slide some favorable ink to their favorite sources, recalls Ed Baumann, a legendary Chicago newsman in his own right.

“But Royko ignored the self-important big shots,” says Ed. “Instead, he wrote weekly vignettes about the little people on his beat, like the elevator operators who doubled as bookies, taking bets as they rode passengers up and down in their cars.”

The column about little guys by a writer who sounded like a little guy himself was an instant hit.

In return, Mike’s devoted band of cops, pols, barkeeps, fixers, flacks, sports nuts and other self-appointed citizen journalists gave him all the raw material he needed to keep the magic going. Their loyalty probably kept the Daily News alive far longer than the struggling afternoon newspaper otherwise might have lasted.

Mike’s work had passion, personality and real people – lots of people – that readers could identify with. And he even earned the respect of his targets.

When photographer Richard Derk trekked across the blizzard-paralyzed city to take pictures of a street that had been plowed perfectly clear for a mafia kingpin, he was surrounded by a menacing group of thugs when he arrived at his assignment.

“What the #$%& are you doing?” the leader asked Richard, who today is photo editor of the Los Angeles Times. Richard nervously told the men about the upcoming column.

“Royko!” the soldier laughed. “I read him. Get your pictures and get lost.”

3 Comments:

Blogger Ryan said...

Great post. Curious for your thoughts on Herb Caen, I recall he was similar.

10:39 AM  
Anonymous Ari Soglin said...

Growing up near Chicago in the '60s and '70s, I read Royko religiously. He not only was one of the reasons I got into journalism, but greatly influenced my sense of what kinds of stories and what kind of storytelling resonate with readers.

11:47 AM  
Blogger Newsosaur said...

The following was submitted by Jerry Pritikin of Chicago and I'll add a short comment at the end

From Jerry:

I couldn't help thinking about my only meeting (via a telephone conversation) with Mike Royko, after reading your article. Sometimes, first impressions can last a long time, and for me it did.

Back in the mid-70s, when Mike was still writing his column in the Daily News. I had called him in regards to witnessing a lakeside arrest, and thought he might be interested in the account leading up to the event.

I was visiting Chicago from San Francisco, and was at the Belmont Rocks, an area that was popular for gay sun bathers during the summer months. There was no hot dog stand near by, so a young man made sandwiches and sold them at a reasonable price.

This particular afternoon, I noticed a great cloud of dust and was surprised to see nine Chicago Police cars and several three-wheelers heading towards the crowd of onlookers. I thought they were raiding the gay beach, but instead proceeded to arrest and handcuff the young man for selling food without a license....

I had heard that Mike Royko championed the"little guy," so I called him at the Daily News and told him about what I had seen and even had photos of what happened. After hearing me out, he said, "THEY SHOULD ARREST ALL THE FAGOTS!" And then he hung up on me.

Newsosaur comment:

There's no way to confirm whether this happened but I can attest to hearing that particular f-word, as well as certain other f-words, from Mike on numerous occasions.

He could be a jerk, especially when he was drinking. But he was still the best columnist of his generation, if not all time. That doesn't excuse his occasionally inexcusable behavior. He was who he was.

4:59 PM  

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