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Longing for old-school journalism

Opinion: Columns

February 12th, 2019 3:21 PM

By John Rice

Columnist / Staff reporter

I just filled a recycling container with all of the newspaper articles I've ever written. The collection goes back to 1988 and I was a bit sad that we no longer had space for it. I occasionally mined my boxes for ideas and articles, when I couldn't come up with something new. I can still access these columns online and read hard copies at the Historical Society, but it was convenient to have them at my fingertips. 

Newsprint has been in my blood since I was a kid delivering them on a bike. I've always been an avid reader and used to buy the Tribune and Sun-Times every day. But something has happened to newspaper junkies like me. 

My neighbor used to love tackling fat Sunday newspapers and subscribing to the Review. Now, instead of paying money to turn pages, he scrolls the news for free. Who can blame him? The internet has been catastrophic for newspapers. They are facing sharp declines in advertising revenue and circulation, as more and more readers shift to online news.

I long for the days when print was king and I was reminded of that era by a recent documentary on Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill titled, "Breslin and Hamill, Deadline Artists." I wasn't familiar with Hamill but I've been a Breslin fan since I was in third grade.

That's the year I read Can't Anybody Here Play This Game? in which he chronicled the failures of the 1962 Mets. It's by far the funniest baseball book I've ever read. The documentary didn't dwell on this book; it celebrated the columnists as media rock stars during their prime.

Big city newspaper columnists were once celebrities and shapers of public opinion. Subway cars were filled with commuters reading their columns. 

We had our own newspaper icon in Mike Royko. He may have been based in Chicago but bore many similarities to Breslin and Hamill. 

These giants of journalism didn't attend college or journalism school. Writing columns was a craft they continually polished. Breslin recalls young journalists asking him how he found stories. All he had to do, he said, was walk the streets of New York.

That's because Breslin interviewed working-class people and had little interest in elites. After JFK's assassination, he famously focused on Clifton Pollard, the Irish-American grave digger, who said it was an honor to dig the president's grave at Arlington National Cemetery.

This kind of news-gathering was common before the internet age. I call it the Jackie Schulz School of Journalism. For over 40 years, Jackie roamed the streets of Forest Park with a canine companion. She literally stumbled on stories and brought the lives of many locals to light.

I was certainly a student of this method. Back when I started, it was easy to find stories. My kids were young and involved in sports and other community activities. All I had to do was write about the events I was already attending. When our kids grew up, though, we lost some of our connection to Forest Park.

I'm not ready to cover stories I find through the internet and social media. I'm still hoping to meet fascinating people to interview and discover new businesses, events and issues to write about. To paraphrase something I learned from the documentary, we still need journalists who come from the towns and neighborhoods they cover.

And if I ever need to interview a gravedigger, I couldn't ask for a better town to find one.

John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries. Jrice1038@aol.com