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Famous faces and secret handshakes

By Billy O'Keefe

By Marissa Newhall
American University
Media history in Chicago is broader than the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times, and it’s far more important to the history of American journalism than readers might realize.

A team member for his company-sponsored scavenger hunt finds one of the clues Thursday: a piece of Westminster Abbey embedded into the wall of the Chicago Tribune building. (Photo by Rachael Strecher, Columbia College)

A team member for his company-sponsored scavenger hunt finds one of the clues Thursday: a piece of Westminster Abbey embedded into the wall of the Chicago Tribune building. (Photo by Rachael Strecher, Columbia College)

Just as New York City has its media icons in Hearst and Pulitzer, Chicago has Medill and McCormick, whose legacies are as complex and controversial as they are significant. And yet, as strong a presence as those names occupy in the history of journalism in Chicago, the story does not begin, nor end with them.
SPJ’s story, however, did have an early start in Chicago.
The Chicago Headline Club is the largest of SPJ’s 250 chapters. Initiated in 1921 with a membership of 17, it evolved from the Sigma Delta Chi fraternity that was founded in 1909, a group that renounced its use of a secret handshake one year prior to the founding of the Headline Club.
SPJ President-Elect Christine Tatum said the handshake is reminiscent of SPJ’s roots as a fraternity.
“I don’t make people run around doing that craziness now,” she said with a laugh.
With or without a handshake, SPJ members converging on Chicago for the 2006 SPJ Convention and National Journalism Conference have become part of a rich local history peppered with some of the brightest minds and sharpest wits in journalism.
The Chicago Tribune
The Chicago Tribune, the flagship of a media company that today owns 11 daily newspapers, looms large over the Chicago River, just as it does in some of the most well-worn tales of Chicago’s past. For example, after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 leveled one-third of the city and most newspaper outlets, the Tribune survived and began to document the tragedy when it resumed publishing two days later.
But when Joseph Medill purchased the Chicago Tribune in 1874, the publication did more than just record history. It sought to shape it. Newspapers at that time often stood behind political ideals, far different than today’s ideal of objectivity.
Under Medill’s stewardship, the Tribune became a Republican powerhouse, helping to shape the emerging party and elect Abraham Lincoln as U.S. President. Medill’s grandson, Robert Rutherford McCormick, became Tribune’s editor- in-chief in 1925 and used the newspaper to advocate his staunch support for freedom of speech and the press.
Joseph Medill’s name now graces the Northwestern University’s journalism school and its Medill News Service.
African-American press
Chicago has long been a battlefield in the fight for press freedom.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Chicago was a hotbed of social and political discord, which filled many small-scale publications that favored economic freedom, radical politics and equality for ethnic and minority groups, according to the University of Illinois’ Illinois Newspaper Project.
Claude Barnett founded the Associated Negro Press, an international news agency, in Chicago in 1919. The ANP was the first news organization of its kind to address the specific needs of African American publications. It eventually became so popular that the work of its correspondents appeared in newspapers in Africa. Barnett’s failing health and mounting debt contributed to the ANP’s closure in 1964.
The Chicago Defender, started in 1905 by Robert S. Abbott, was another of the city’s successful newspaper ventures, though two-thirds of the weekly’s readership was outside Chicago city limits. The “unapologetically black” paper, a designation it boasts of in its slogan, is still published in Chicago. Its Web site boasts of its promotion of Langston Hughes’ career, its support for integration of the United States Armed Services and its establishment of the first newspaper section for children, launched in 1923.
Chicago is also home to Johnson Publishing Co., a pioneer of black publishing that began in 1942 on a $500 loan and the resourcefulness of John H. Johnson. JPC now owns the magazines Ebony and Jet, which johnsonpublishing.com says are “aimed at increasing African-Americans’ pride in themselves by presenting their past and present achievements to America and to the world.”
Famous faces
During the mid-1900s, Chicago was also home to several TV and radio personalities who became beloved household names. For example, Chicago was the birthplace of the career of Don McNeill, whose groundbreaking morning show, “The Breakfast Club,” lasted more than 30 years. McNeill was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1989.
Johnny Erp, an NBC Chicago sportscaster in the 1950s whose southern drawl made him a standout among his colleagues, reported the achievements of Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Yogi Berra and Muhammad Ali.
And no list of Chicago journalists would be complete without the name of Studs Terkel, a University of Chicago alum and a Pulitzer-prize winning writer and broadcaster. Terkel is best known for his writings on American oral history.
So how does Chicago’s present-day media industry measure up to the past?Steve Rynkiewicz, a producer for Chicagotribune.com, said “We’re living in a more responsible age.”
Rynkiewicz said one could easily identify old and clearly doctored newspaper photos in Chicago’s library archives, but in today’s media environment, excessive Photoshopping is considered an ethical violation for which some reporters have lost their jobs.
It’s not that rules have changed, but rather that they’ve been established.
“That was old school,” Rynkiewicz said. “Back then, the SPJ ethics code was in its infancy.”