The first citizen journalist
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.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.
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.
“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.”