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Final deadline looms for a storied news service

Plug to be pulled on outfit where legends cut teeth

CHICAGO -- This may be the quintessential City News story: An editor orders a reporter to find a way into the house of a missing girl and says he doesn't care if the guy has to set the place on fire to do it. A few minutes later, the reporter rushes in behind firefighters after a pile of newspapers mysteriously catches fire on the porch.

Or maybe it is the story about the reporter who was on a police station phone with an editor when he was shoved up against a wall by a gunman who had stormed the place. After police killed the gunman, the reporter resumed his conversation with, ''Now, as I was saying before the interruption . . ."

At the end of this month, the news service that spawned those stories and countless others -- not to mention the axiom, ''If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out" -- is set to shut down.

The Chicago Tribune, which owns the City News Service, decided to eliminate it and its 19 jobs to cut costs and to stop serving up news to the newspaper's online and broadcast competitors. City News will be replaced with a 24-hour news desk to serve the Tribune's websites only.

There is talk about efforts to save the news service, the successor to the legendary cooperative news service called the City News Bureau of Chicago. But if the decision to shut it down stands, it will mark the end of a journalism institution that since its founding in 1890 has provided breaking news via streetcar messengers, pneumatic tubes, Teletype machines, and finally, computers.

Chances are you have never heard of City News. But it is a good bet someone at your local newspaper or TV or radio station has. The country is littered with journalists, writers, and others who once were City News cub reporters. Newspaper columnist Mike Royko worked there. So did investigative reporter Seymour Hersh.

Playwright Charles MacArthur worked there, and with Ben Hecht turned his experiences into ''The Front Page." Actor Melvyn Douglas worked there. ''Cheers" actor George Wendt wanted to, but a City News staffer found out he couldn't type and advised him to forget about filling out a job application.

Kurt Vonnegut learned his trade by calling in dispatches to City News, such as the one he phoned in after seeing the body of a man who had been squashed by an elevator.

''It taught me how to tell a story," said the author, who worked at City News in the late 1940s, pulling down $28 a week.

Vonnegut recalls being told by a staffer to get more information from a just-widowed woman -- a story he recalled in his book ''Slaughterhouse-Five."

''Tell her you're Captain Finn of the Police Department," Vonnegut wrote the staffer told him. ''Say you have some bad news. Give her the news, and see what she says."

Which is what Vonnegut did.

''I was taught to lie to gain people's confidence on the phone," Vonnegut recalled, chuckling at the memory.

The job was certainly not for the meek. City News was the kind of tough place that former staffers like Vonnegut talk about the way military veterans talk about boot camp.

Hersh recalled the time he was ordered to telephone the family of a girl who had been killed in a plane crash to get a photograph of the victim, only to learn that the family had not yet been notified.

''I call up the mom, this is like Christmas, and tell her her daughter is dead," Hersh said.

But that wasn't the end of the story. An hour later, Hersh was back on the phone, telling the family the girl wasn't dead at all, that it had all been a mistake.

''After that you can do anything," he said.

Reporters were also expected to collect a seemingly endless number of details from police officers, medical examiners, firefighters, and lawyers, whether they felt like talking or not.

There was the reporter who turned in a story about a child who swallowed a Christmas ornament. ''And the rewrite sent him back, asking him to find out what color the ornament was," said Paul Zimbrakos, who joined the news service in 1958 and is now the bureau chief.

City News over the years broke its share of stories. It was the first to report that Chicago Mayor Harold Washington had died in 1987, Zimbrakos said.

It also was first to report, he said, that several people had died after taking poisoned Tylenol in 1982.

Legend has it that the City News reported the bombing of Pearl Harbor first because somebody -- a staffer or neighbor of a staffer -- heard about it on a short-wave radio.

''Everyone else thought it was an Orson Welles kind of hoax, or misinterpretation of some naval maneuvers in Hawaii," wrote A. A. Dornfeld, a longtime City News editor, in his 1983 book ''Behind the Front Page." The Associated Press could not confirm the story, but City News ran with it. Fifteen minutes later, the bombing was verified, Dornfeld wrote.

There were, however, some not-so-great moments. Like the time a reporter named Walter Spirko told his editor in 1929 about the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, in which Al Capone's henchmen machine-gunned some of Bugs Moran's men in a garage.

But the editor did not accept the story and sent out a bulletin that began, ''Six men are reported to have been seriously injured . . . " wrote Dornfeld.

Like most stories about the City News, even this one about the scoop that got away has, in its own hard-bitten way, a happy ending.

As he walked around the garage where seven men, as it turned out, were gunned down, a City News staffer is said to have remarked: ''Some of us guys have got more brains on our shoes than we have under our hats."

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