Thursday, September 21, 2017


King News by Moses Koenigsberg: Chapter 10 Part 1

 King News by Moses Koenigsberg

Published by F.A. Stokes Company, 1941

Chapter 10

Biggest Local Story of the Century (part 1)

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“Koenigsberg was in charge of the news affairs of the most strenuous period in the evolution of the most strenuous newspaper in all the field of journalism, to wit, the Chicago Evening American, property of William Randolph Hearst.”

This paragraph is from Terry Ramsaye’s A Million and One Nights, the most comprehensive and perhaps the most interesting history of the cinema art yet published. Ramsaye’s observations were made at first hand. He was part of the picture. So, even though some of the details lack accuracy, the general outline is at least illuminating.

“In the normal course of events,” Ramsaye continues, “on days and at hours when nothing especially happened, the Chicago Evening American went tripping out into Chicago’s Loop district at the rate of an edition about every forty-five minutes. Under the external pressure of vivid events or the internal pressure of even more vivid Koenigsberg inspirations, the American erupted editions fifteen or twenty minutes apart until relieved, and until the adjacent shores of Lake Michigan were knee deep in the lava, scoria:, ashes and hot mud of the current sensation. The normal schedule was seventeen editions a day, with a new whimsy, thrill or shudder roaring across the first page of each of them. This made it desirable for Koenigsberg to have or overtake an idea expressible in type of 480 point and upwards every few moments.

“The Chicago American was striving for a foothold and circulation, against the unanimous opposition of the old-line papers. The typographical excitement was only one of the phases of the strife. In time the struggle resulted in Chicago journalism seizing the motion picture as a weapon in the circulation war, with, as we shall see, considerable effect on the institution of the screen, creating, incidentally, careers for a sprinkling of luminaries from Mary Fuller to Marion Davies.”

James Keeley, who felt a keener interest as editor of the Tribune than did Ramsaye as an actual participant, seems to have been similarly impressed. In his case, the auditory nerves were unduly affected. He heard more than he saw. “When the Hearst newspapers came to Chicago,” he wrote in his autobiography (manuscript memoirs of James Keeley), “they brought with them all the known methods of circulation promotion and the exciting principle of selling headlines. Arthur Brisbane and Foster Coates, both romancers trained in the Pulitzer school and brought to exquisite flowering of technique on Mr. Hearst’s papers in New York, were visiting itinerants, pouring excitement into the Chicago Hearst staffs. They gave crackling orders and Moses Koenigsberg, resident news editor, vibrated in sympathy with the bosses and amplified their crackles into bellows and roars that became 400-point type on the first page of the Chicago Evening American!’

There would be more fun in accepting than in correcting these Ramsaye and Keeley sketches. But it’s impossible to assume responsibility for seventeen regular editions of an afternoon daily. Nine were plenty. And it is, in a way, regrettable to disclaim tutelage from that incomparable juggler of journalism, Arthur Brisbane. My direct contacts with him did not come until several years later. Then, they were mostly poker games, sometimes actually with playing-cards but in the main with newspaper features, which he usually dealt to me from stacked decks. His deftness in such dealings requires attention in later phases of this narrative.

If there were any culpability in 480-point type, it is here confessed. When it was used, on occasion, it filled the top of the first page down to the fold. The size of the lettering was limited only by the area available for display on the sales stand. Larger space would have been occupied with larger type. All news is relative in importance. It was my practice to assess the proportions of a story in the proportions of the heading. This was scarcely a novelty. It was an outgrowth of conditions that gave emphasis a master key to reader interest.

The use of “scare” or big type was buttressed with a theory by which questioning of good taste was subordinated to an approval of conscience. The primary function of a startling headline was to arrest attention. An analogy was found in the Salvation Army’s device to attract street crowds. The gaiety of the Salvationist band’s music—tunes often more befitting a sailors’ revel than a prayer meeting—was an ethical companion to the boldness of the daily’s head lettering. The evangelist musicians were sent forth to halt vagrant souls. The newspaper headline was set out to halt vagrant minds. The portion of spiritual solace the sinners ultimately received was painfully small compared with the amount of mental pabulum the readers eventually absorbed. With such philosophy mountains may be moved, though the critics remain! At least, it was a good talking point at meetings of women’s clubs.

It is true that during the greater part of five years, 1903-1907, the Chicago Evening American poured out a ceaseless torrent of sensational stories. Diligent research has failed to reveal an equal record elsewhere. But Terry Ramsaye’s more or less flattering appraisal of the cause must be revised. Providence must bear the onus. It had assigned to the Chicago of that period a surplusage of news-making ingredients. The city was the hub of highways and secret trails leading from the penitentiaries of five adjacent states. It was the center of operations of ex-convicts numerous enough to crowd the largest penal institution extant. Homicide was commercial. Human life lay on the bargain counter. Analysis of the testimony in fifty murder cases showed an average price of $3.65.

Sordid crime was only one phase of rampant violence. Chicago, at the opening of the century, was glutted with the raw elements of social turbulence. Vast throngs of unassimilated immigrants were milling around in alien misunderstanding of each other and of their new environment. Their clannishness aggravated the frictions. They congregated by nationalities into adjoining neighborhoods. Some of these sections became more populous than the newcomers’ homeland metropolises. The concentration of transplanted settlements, with their concomitant traditions, prejudices and jealousies, introduced few tranquilizing effects. The explosive content of this sprawling babel was always nearest the detonating point in the stockyards region. There, worked the most heterogeneous mass of labor ever assembled since the Caesars impressed toilers from each dominion of a ravaged world.

The “Windy City” then was largely a conglomeration of urban crudities. Refinements of a later period were delayed by a dearth of civic pride. Filthy feathers are not fit to plume, and Chicago’s wings were putrid. Scantiness of communal spirit favored the spread of vice and corruption. Opportunist sanctions of a “go-getter” generation facilitated this expansion. Perhaps the municipal crest was misunderstood. It consists of two words, “I Will!” Many a Chicagoan interpreted this too loosely.

From the maelstrom of happenings that swept out of this vortex, less ingenuity than perception was required to evolve striking headlines. The real task was to keep the boat steady. Capsizing was a constant hazard. Several of my predecessors had gone overboard on stories they misjudged. Each of these had selected for the main heading of an edition an item that dwindled into insignificance before the issue reached the news stands. That is an inexcusable blunder. Sometimes it demonstrates an egregious flaw in otherwise gifted journalists—a deficient sense of relative news values. In some cases it reflects a misplaced enthusiasm. In most cases on the Chicago American the responsible editor passed the dunce cap to the city editor. He blamed the chief of the local staff for misleading dope. My assumption of the city desk marked its twenty-seventh turn-over in thirty-seven months.

That procession of city editors included several men who attained journalistic distinction elsewhere. Edgar G. Sisson, afterward editor of Cosmopolitan Magazine, took three “whirls” at the job. Each time he quit to seek the ministrations of a nerve specialist. A bit of pungent satire tinged his third resignation. He described his departure as “an escape from a madhouse.” Sisson’s description clung to the Chicago American office for a number of years. It had a double effect. It simultaneously raised levels of compensation and standards of competence. Capable men on other dailies declined to join the Hearst paper except at salaries “that would absorb some of the strain.” And they wouldn’t make the change unless they felt sure they could make the grade. The result was a staff of superlative ability. A job “in the Madison Street madhouse” became a badge of professional merit. By analogic processes, this came to apply io the Hearst organization from coast to coast.

Walter L. Hackett relinquished the city editorship of the American to me. It was a simple ceremony. He brought a pair of sesquipedalian shoes down from a point three feet above his head, unwrapped his amazingly long legs from the desk that had served him more as a day-bed than a work-bench and, getting slowly to his feet, yawned prodigiously. Walter was a one-man Greenwich Village. With him, a veneer of artistry outweighed a weekly wage. He preferred play-writing to prosperity. He thanked me cordially for relieving him. His incumbency, as head of the local force, was one of the unsolved enigmas of the Hearst domain. It was also one of the principal reasons for Foster Coates’s presence in Chicago, with the result of my induction into the service.

Success was to be measured with only one yardstick—circulation. Its attainment seemed to me to depend largely on outstripping competitors in the collection of news. We must get more and we must get it more promptly. Any city editor could use the agencies and implements that were handed to him. To achieve notable results an executive should add tools of his own devising. My first step was to organize unused resources. A veritable dragnet for fresh intelligence was set up.

The coroner had eleven deputies. Nine of them were persuaded to act as confidential members of the American staff. They formed one of the most effective of our auxiliary corps. Time and again we were enabled to give the police department its first notice of a tragic event. Through the telephone switchboards of leading hotels, hospitals and institutional centers ran the threads of countless interchanges from which any number of stories might be plucked daily. A score of the supervisors or chief operators were enlisted among our tipsters. The Auditorium Annex, alone, over a long period furnished a weekly average of more than one tophead scoop. From a web woven around unofficial channels came much more exclusive material than was yielded by all our routine sources combined. Thus was installed the most efficient machine for the gathering of local news that has ever fallen within the range of my observation.

This was supplemented with a journalistic innovation. Ordinarily, trained reporters were employed on the assumption of competence to cover any assignment that arose. But reportorial skill fell into two main classifications. One was fact-finding. The other was fact-telling. Rare was the individual who found his forte in either field alike. Temperament was the dividing line. The urge for discovery seldom mated with the passion for portrayal. One delved among the roots of the tree; the other entwined the foliage. My plan first separated and then coordinated these talents. The staff was divided between the diggers and the spinners of tales.

The “leggers” or “leg men” were so called because their legs kept them close to the scenes of action. They were not required to visit the office. They telephoned their stories to the “rewrite men.” The latter appellation was partly a misnomer. Originally, it labeled editorial workers who revamped copy submitted by others. On the Chicago American it indicated carefully chosen writers who put into manuscript first-hand facts spoken over the wire by reporters “on the spot.” They wrote most of the local news that we published. The novelty was not in the handling of items by phone. It was in the different form of staff organization —the segregation of personnel “by foot and finger standards” as one wag phrased it.

To an incalculable saving of time was added a distinctive uniformity of product. It was the acme of institutional reporting. That was before the vogue of signed stories. The reporter was not an entity apart from his newspaper. He devoted no concern to a personal following. He wrote, not for a section, but for all the readers of the publication—-for their easy digestion without the need for saltcellars, filters or sieves. A coherent authority— a composite personality—dominated the news columns. They were not yet under the saddle of the columnist. The critic had not yet routed the publisher. Poe’s raven had not yet found its counterpart in a sanctum bugaboo. The editor still believed in himself. “Easy to read” was yet one of his cardinal commandments. He had not yet decided that it was worse to be accused of an inclination toward stereotyped forms than to be caught using a kaleidoscope.

Jack Lait
The first news coup credited to my city editorship of the Chicago American was clinched by a cub. But what a cub! Jack Lait was just twenty. Yet he proved a courage and resourcefulness matched by few veterans. The stunt was a precursor of his brilliant career as war correspondent, dramatist, short story writer, editor and for twenty years author of more printed words than were written during the period by any contemporary. Lait sent to prison John J. Brennan, Chicago’s most powerful and most notorious ward leader. The performance ran the gamut of a cinema thriller.

The Chicago American was intent on preventing the reelection of Judge Elbridge J. Hanecy. He had been unkind enough to rule that an editorial criticizing one of his decisions was in contempt of court. The freedom of the press was pleaded in defense. The case was on appeal. One of the judge’s political strongholds was the Eighteenth Ward. There, Alderman Brennan maintained a vote hatchery of unsurpassed productivity. It excited the awe of even such statesmen as “Bathhouse” John Coughlin and “Hinky Dink” Kenna, aldermanic jewels of the First Ward.

With the approach of judicial election day, May 1st, Lait was assigned to do some purposeful loafing in the neighborhood of Brennan’s ballot incubator. First, he borrowed from a printer a suit of soiled clothing. Next, he took a practical course in facial make-up. Several days’ growth of beard was convincingly smeared with the trademarks of the genuine hobo. Then Lait slouched over to the Salvation Army lodging house on West Madison near Halsted Street. He “signed in” as “Kansas City Slim.”

Droves of floaters had moved into the adjoining rookeries on “Bums’ Row.” Lait became one of them. He learned the fine points of voting early and often under the names of dead men, fictitious persons and absentees. There were thousands of these “ghost” electors. They were coached in accordance with bogus entries with which the registration lists had already been padded. Lait attended these rehearsals. He was soon “propositioned.” He accepted four names to vote in four different precincts beginning at 7:00 a.m. on election day.

After each vote was cast, Lait received fifty cents. In between, he managed to reach me over the telephone. In the first three polling places, the money was paid by underlings. At the fourth, Brennan himself dealt with Lait. The boss stepped into the booth and marked a ballot for “Kansas City Slim’s” use. Then he walked with Jack to the box. On the way, Lait contrived to print his initials on the back of the sheet, unobserved by those around him. This was the evidence that convicted Brennan. His lawyers hurdled all the other testimony. Bill Stewart, a Chicago American reporter, swore that, waiting across the street, he saw Brennan hand the bribe to Lait. His statement was corroborated by an election board official who stood beside him and whose presence had been arranged at my request. None of this seemed to bear much weight. On Lait’s shoulders alone fell the vengeful storm whipped up by Brennan and his friends.

Between the arrest and the conviction, Jack dodged bullets and billies. The American engaged Pinkerton men to guard him day and night. But his work as a reporter was not interrupted. With Brennan partizans dogging him and Pinkerton men trailing alongside, he led a bizarre procession wherever he went. The close of the sensational trial brought me mixed relief and astonishment. The betting had favored Brennan’s acquittal. He served a year in the Bridewell, or House of Correction, dying shortly after his release. Judge Hanecy was defeated. That became a minor incident beside the dethronement of Boss Brennan. The cub reporter had “stolen the play” of his newspaper.

Chapter 10 Part 2 Next Week   
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