The announced closing of the New City News Service last week left River Forester Paul Zimbrakos uncertain of his future after 48 years with City News.
Zimbrakos, City News bureau chief, said he didn’t know what he’ll do when the wire service closes at the end of the year.
“I’ll see what’s on the horizon,” Zimbrakos said, adding that he’s already received some offers to teach. “Retirement is not one of the things I want to do.”
City News is a legendary sort of “hard knocks” school for young journalists. The service covers breaking news (crime, accidents, fires), courts and news conferences, providing information on a news wire, originally for all of the daily papers in town when it was the City News Bureau. Since 1999, the Tribune has owned it. Published reports say Tribune Co. is jettisoning the service as part of widespread cost-cutting and in favor of stepping up news coverage on its web site.
But teaching young reporters at City News isn’t the same as teaching kids in school, which might be too tame for Zimbrakos.
“There’s a big difference. I’m not sure I can handle that,” said Zimbrakos, whose persona is an unlikely mix of gruff reporter and big-hearted teacher.
City News reporters have to learn diplomacy, and how to cajole hard-boiled cops and firefighters while they work them into giving up information. “You learn how to talk to these people,” he said.
Without the service, where will young reporters get that training? Nowhere, Zimbrakos said.
“Chicago media is going to suffer from the lack of that kind of training.”
But discussions are underway, he said, to reform City News in a similar format, much like what the Tribune did in 1999 when the Sun-Times backed out of supporting the service.
Radio and television news outlets would be hurt most by the closing because they “don’t have the resources to cover police and fire 24 hours a day.” News outlets will also miss the service’s Day Book, a compendium of news events in Chicago area. Media executives are discussing pooling resources to fund a revamped City News, Zimbrakos said.
He said a college might also get involved, but he would not name the school. Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism has a news service, but he said that was not it.
Zimbrakos hopes that if a new service is created that it happens soon, while his 19-member staff is still in place, which would make the transition easier.
Zimbrakos took a pay cut?#34;from $35 a week to $25 a week?#34;in leaving his job as a copy boy at the Chicago Daily News to become a reporter at City News. But Mike Royko was his editor, and Bob Billings, who went on to co-author a book with Dick Butkus and become Mayor Richard J. Daley’s chief of staff, was on the rewrite desk.
Other notables have gotten their start there, including Oak Parkers Redd Griffin, Hanke Gratteau (the Trib’s metro editor), Susy Schultz (associate publisher/editor of Chicago Parent, a sister publication of Wednesday Journal) and her Pulitzer Prize-winning father, Bob Schultz.
“You know, City News was really always a behind-the-scenes operation,” Susy Schultz said. “If you weren’t in journalism, chances are you didn’t know about it. But the ripple effect of no City News hits readers. Because of it, they got better journalists who were better at gathering news and better at asking questions. And now we are looking at less people gathering news at a time when people in power are getting better at obfuscating the important news.”
If City News closes for good, Zimbrakos said he’ll miss working with young reporters.
“I think that’s what really keeps me going. That’s what kept City News going, the energy of the kids.”