When I was growing up, the newspaper business was as solid as Sears, which was as solid as General Motors, which was as solid as U.S. Steel, which was as solid as Pan-Am Airlines.
In the Chicago area in the 1960s and 1970s, the question wasn’t whether your family subscribed to a newspaper—the question was which newspaper: the Chicago Daily News, the Chicago American, the Chicago Tribune or the Chicago Sun-Times. A home without a newspaper on its doorstep in the morning was as unthinkable as a home without a TV antenna on the roof or an AM radio in the kitchen. At my house, we subscribed to the Daily News, and my father would bring home the Sun-Times after reading it on the train on the way home from work.
The Chicago Daily News was an afternoon paper—old media’s old-fashioned way of breaking the 24-hour news cycle. If there were a major fire at dawn or a politician died at 10 a.m., it’d be right there in the paper that afternoon. When the White Sox were playing the Oakland A’s on the West Coast and the game ended too late for the morning papers, the Daily News would give you the recap and the box score, no problem.
In the 1970s and through the 1980s and even the 1990s, there were few jobs that carried the prestige, glamour and clout of the newspaper columnist.
You think I’m kidding? When I started at the Sun-Times in the late 1980s the legendary Kup would occasionally rumble through the newsroom like the ex-footballer that he was, still robust and intimidating in his 60s. He was usually making his way from his expansive corner office to his private bathroom, to which only Kup had the key.
Kup? He was more like Hef. If an established newspaper columnist asked his editors for a private bathroom today, they’d put him on a mental health leave. And by the time he got back, either his job would be gone or the paper would be out of business.
Longtime heavyweight columnists such as Pete Hamill and Jimmy Breslin in New York, Jack Anderson in Washington, Mike Royko and Irv Kupcinet in Chicago—these guys were often more famous and more powerful than the subjects they wrote about. They were huge. (In some ways, Ann Landers, who had a Pepto Bismol-pink suite of an office at the old Sun-Times, was a bigger star than all the boys. Presidents came to her for advice. And of course Roger Ebert was already world-famous when I started at the Sun-Times. The first time I saw Roger in the newsroom, it took a moment to sink in: Holy shit! Oh that’s right, he works here!!) Kup’s gone now, but he has a bridge in his name, and a towering statue near the old site of the Sun-Times building.
Call me crazy, but I’m having a hard time envisioning a Perez Hilton Bridge in our lifetime.
When Royko dropped into a courtroom, the judge would stop the proceedings, invite the columnist into his chambers and ask Royko what he could do for him. Today’s entertainment bloggers are thrilled when they can post a picture of themselves with Ashlee Simpson and Pete Wentz; when Kup was in his prime, Bogie and Bacall were hanging with him on their honeymoon, and he was running around with Sinatra.
Jerome Holtzman, the legendary baseball columnist for the Tribune, invented the save. I mean literally invented it. Before Holtzman came up with the term and a definition for it, relief pitchers just ended games and shook hands with their teammates. Every modern-day closer who’s making seven figures a year should be sending a donation to charity in Holtzman’s name. A sports editor once called Holtzman into his office and urged him to stop using clichés, e.g., “the hot corner” for third base. Holtzman patiently explained that he had coined all those clichés and therefore felt he had a right to continue to use them.
Bob Greene, eventually brought down by a scandal—-before his fall, Bob Greene had a run that no columnist or blogger will ever come close to matching in the 21st century. It’s just not possible, given budget constraints and the changes in the relationship between the chroniclers and those who are chronicled. As a star columnist on the rise, Greene had an all-access pass to the latter part of the 20th century. Greene went on tour with Alice Cooper; he hung out with Elvis and Nixon; he became buddies with Michael Jordan. Greene parlayed his newspaper column into gigs with Esquire and “Nightline.”
You know what happens when you type “Bob Greene” into the Amazon.com search engine in 2009? You get a bunch of books by Oprah’s personal trainer before you ever get to Greene’s work. (No offense to Bob Greene the personal trainer—I’m sure he’s better than excellent at his work—but how do you make a fortune out of being Oprah’s personal trainer, when poor Oprah still looks like she did before she ever put down the cheeseburgers and got on a treadmill? Isn’t that sort of like being Yao Ming’s shortness coach?)
Just before the dawn of the Internet Age in the mid- and late-1990s, journalism students still had big dreams of one day writing a daily, general interest column for a major newspaper. You get a gig like that, you’d be set for life!
If you couldn’t be a baseball player or a rock star, a newspaper columnist was the next best thing. Hyperbole? Not really. Here’s a story for you. The scene was the famous Billy Goat Tavern of “Saturday Night Live” and “Cheeseborger, Cheeseborger” and Cubbie-curse fame, right around 1990. At the time, the Sun-Time was still at 401 N. Wabash Avenue (now home to the gleaming, blue-glassed Trump Tower), and the Goat sat squarely between and just beneath the Tribune Tower and the barge-shaped Sun-Times Building. Head down there any night after work, especially on a Friday, and the joint would be bulging with reporters, photographers, columnists, editors and other newsies—most of them smoking and all of them drinking.
On one such evening, Royko was there, and I was there, and at one point we wound up at the same table. Now, Royko didn’t like me. He didn’t like anybody. Well, I guess he liked his family and a few other people in life, but he sure as hell never liked any up-and-coming columnist, whether it was someone at his own paper or a punk at the rival rag. In an infamous Chicago magazine profile, Royko was asked to assess a half-dozen columnists in town, and he ripped every one of us.
A certain exchange that night was captured in an article Bill Zehme wrote for Esquire magazine a few years ago:
IN CHICAGO, A STORY has circulated among certain pockets of younger newspaper people for years…It takes place, circa 1990, at the legendary Billy Goat Tavern on Lower Michigan Avenue, where thousands of ink-stained hangovers were born. Mike Royko sat at the bar, as was his eternal wont, and a young Sun-Times columnist a couple of years on the job named Richard Roeper sat at a table with a handful of colleagues, and drinks flowed, as they will, and eventually Royko–the dean among them all, and all else–sauntered over to sit with them. And drinks flowed further, and Royko, who… loved to tease punks who moved anywhere near his turf, at one point bellowed: “Roeper! What are you doing at my table!” And everyone laughed. And then: “Roeper! Where the hell did you come from, anyway!” Then, minutes later: “Roeper! Do you use your column to get laid?”
ROEPER: “Excuse me?”
ROYKO: “You heard me! Do you use your column to get laid?”
ROEPER (half jokingly, keep in mind drinks flowing): “Of course not. That wouldn’t be right!”
ROYKO (pounding the table): “Well, what the hell is the point in having a column if you don’t use it to get laid!”
Zehme has his facts straight. That’s how the exchange happened, nearly verbatim as I recall it. If you were a newspaper columnist in a big city like Chicago 50 or 25 or even 15 years ago, you were more than a little bit of celebrity, and you were the envy of many, and important people courted your attention—and sometimes you’d meet someone who might not otherwise give you the time of the day, but because your picture was in the paper, she’d dance with you at midnight.
Not that this was the prime motivation for becoming a columnist; as I said nearly 20 years ago, that would be WRONG. What I’m telling you in 2009 is that in 1989, there weren’t too many better gigs in the world than writing a daily column for your hometown paper, especially if your hometown happened to be one of the greatest newspaper cities ever known to humankind.
When I got the job after just a year as an editorial assistant and a couple of quick years as a city side reporter, the reaction in the newsroom ranged from outrage to bloody outrage. Some hated me, while others merely resented me. Then there were those who openly mocked me, and let’s not forget the faction that simply pretended I didn’t exist. (To this day, one veteran reporter—who was a veteran reporter 20-plus years ago—has yet to say hello to me when we pass in the hallways. For a few years I’d say hello and chuckle as he scurried away, refusing to look me in the eye. One time I just said, “Oh, fuck you,” to him, and he STILL wouldn’t acknowledge my existence. Now that’s dedication.)
And why wouldn’t they resent me? I was given a golden ticket before I had earned that ticket. I was still in my 20s, and I had my mullet-headed mug on billboards and in TV ads, not to mention in the paper every day. In the years to come, when I would be the beneficiary of other career breaks, from radio shows to local TV to the co-hosting chair on “At the Movies,” when people asked me how I dealt with criticism, I’d just laugh. The sniping from the blogosphore regarding my “At the Movies” post was a sissified wet kiss compared to the shit I took when I first got a column at the newspaper. You survive that hazing, you’d be ready to take on Lynndie England at her most sadistically impish and smile your way through it.
(Of course, the great Siskel & Ebert were newspapermen who happened upon TV jobs. Their famous chemistry was fueled by that constant, genuine rivalry as competing reporters. Yes, they were film critics, but they both treated the job like any other beat—and each was always trying to scoop the other.)
When I went from part-time columnist and full-time reporter to full-time columnist—-complete with office, business card, fax machine, expense account and prime-time real estate in the paper four times in the week–it was at the tail end of the golden age for newspapers in Chicago.
It was 1989. The Tribune was a mighty monolith, the Sun-Times was scrappy but thriving, and the combined daily circulation of the two newspapers was well above 1 million (readership was more than 2 million, when you took into account the “pass around” effect.) My promotion to full-time columnist was enough to make more than a little bit of a splash in Chicago media circles. I was the subject of profiles in the free weeklies, I was asked to appear on various radio shows, I was invited to big parties at happening nighteries like the Limelight. (“You are invited to join Russ Meyer and Playboy’s Donna Edmondson for ‘Leave it to Cleavage’ Night…”) Somebody gets a column today, and the first question anyone would ask would be, “You mean like in a newspaper? Are they paying you?”
The newspaper column led to guest spots on radio shows. The guest spots on radio shows led to a weekend radio program. The weekend radio program led to a daily radio show. The daily radio show led to guest spots on TV shows. The guest spots on TV shows led to a regular commentator’s gig on TV. All of these things led to books. And eventually the column-to-radio-to-local-TV path took me to a guest-hosting gig with Roger Ebert, which led to many more guest-hosting stints, which led to the permanent co-hosting job in the summer of 2000, which led to nearly 20 appearances on “The Tonight Show,” becoming an answer on game shows such “Wheel of Fortune” and “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”, meeting untold show business legends, getting backstage at the Oscars, and a number of other fringe benefits and surreal moments far too numerous to list here.
Every once in a while, when I’d find myself talking about movies with President Clinton or playing softball with Michael Jordan or engaging in some other activity that was never a part of my wildest fantasies when I was taking journalism classes at Illinois State University in beautiful Bloomington-Normal, Il., I’d think:
If I didn’t get that column, this never would have happened.
I’m still writing four columns a week for the Chicago Sun-Times, every Monday through Thursday on page 11, which has been my home for two decades. (Often I’ll write a fifth column for the Friday or Sunday paper.) That’s roughly 4,000 columns on subjects ranging from local politics to movies to sports to dating to national events to human-interest stories. It works the same way it always has: I come up with a topic, I do some research and some musing and some reporting, I do a little more musing and research, and I dash off 900 words and hit the SEND button.
And then I get up and do it all over again. (That’s the trick to being a columnist. Everyone has a column in them. Most people have more than one. The challenge is to write 200 or so every year.)
It’s still one of the best jobs in the world. When I started writing books and doing TV, a lot of people in the business expressed surprise that I’d keep the column. To which I’d respond, why wouldn’t I?
Not that it’s just about the money. The column is the one pure thing I’ve had as my own for 20 years. Sure, I could spout off on the radio and crack wise about movies on TV—but you have a lot more bosses to deal with than you do at the newspaper level. Of course there’s a great responsibility that comes with having a column in a major news organization, and of course I’m always mindful of what I’m saying and how I’m saying it, and how it will affect the reputation of the Sun-Times—but at the start of each day, it’s just me and the world and a blank Word document, and I have the freedom to write. That is a gift. Why would I ever give up that gift?
As I celebrate my 20th year as a daily newspaper columnist, I cherish each and every day. Nobody is ever going to have the job I have at the salary I make, with the freedom I enjoy and the perks that come with the territory.
Not that there are fewer columnists today than there were in 1989. Hell, there are about a thousands times MORE columnists out there—getting up every morning, digesting the news, contemplating their own adventures, and sitting down at a keyboard to share their thoughts and experiences with the world.The difference is that about 99 percent of those columnists are called “bloggers.”
Today, the Sun-Times’ parent group filed for bankruptcy protection. We join the Tribune in that club. But as I write this, the Chicago Sun-Times is alive and fighting.
When a sports columnist at the paper exited in 2008, he trashed the Sun-Times by name and the newspaper business in general, telling everyone that the Internet was the future of journalism. Really, asshole? Thanks for letting us know.
In addition to my print column, I share my reports and opinions and musings via the Sun-Times web site, Twitter, Facebook and my own web site. I’ll continue to do so—but I’ll also continue to write for Page 11 for as long as there is a physical Page 11 to call home. I’ll continue to be grateful for this rare opportunity I’ve had.
My column has given me a front-row seat for everything from the Clinton impeachment hearings to the first Tyson-Holyfield fight to the Oscars. It brought me to New York just after 9/11, to dinner with Robert Redford, to Grant Park on the night Barack Obama was elected. At times I’ve felt as if I’ve had an almost Gumpian presence through the 1990s and the 2000s, whether I was playing softball with Michael Jordan, talking about “Chocolat” with Bill Clinton, kissing an Oscar winner on her big night, asking George W. Bush to name the capital of Illinois, playing poker with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, standing at O.J. Simpson’s front gate or inspecting the evidence in the decades-old case against John Wayne Gacy shortly before Gacy was executed. I’ve also covered stories big and small in Chicago, and offered my opinions on various trends and pop culture developments, from some misbehaving teenage girls named Hilton to this thing called the Internet.
I hope to be writing for the Sun-Times next year, and the year after that, and 20 years down the road. And I hope you’ll stay with me.