A People with Passion series
August 4, 2011: Rick Kogan
For the first interview of his new oral history series, Eye on Chi's Jack M Silverstein sat down with the Chicago Tribune's Rick Kogan at the Chicago Theatre before a taping of ChicagoLive!, the Tribune's live radio program. In this discussion, Kogan tells of his introduction to journalism, his love of the term "newspaperman," and how journalism became hip.
Memory is always unreliable, but my first memory is truly the sound of the typewriter in my father’s office. He was writing books about Chicago history. And even at a very, very young age, I was hanging around the newspaper offices when he would work on weekends. He would bring my younger brother and myself down there. Not in any sense did I think of it as the family business, but being around words my whole life, I knew at some early stage – it may have been fourth grade when I wrote a story for the LaSalle School about the Chicago Fire – I was drawn to writing. I am not sure I was drawn to journalism until some point later on after writing a bunch of shitty short stories in my youth in Spain, I thought, “Well maybe it would be really good if I want to be a fiction writer to get like a real job.” And I knew newspapers. I’ve been reading newspapers since I could read. It just seemed like a logical place for me.
The word “newspaperman” always appealed to me, more than “journalist.” Because I did grow up in a newspaper family, and the house was always filled with newspaper guys, and some women. It was a gradual falling into it. I certainly now would call myself a newspaperman. But I’m not sure there was any moment, any cathartic moment, where I said, “Gee, I’m really a newspaperman now.”
What was the appeal of that term? Newspaperman?
There was something very, very old fashioned about it. It had the same appeal that, to me, the word “janitor” has, as opposed to “building superintendent.” There’s nothing lofty about it. There’s something a little rough-edged about it, I think. And it also has the word “newspaper” in it. I mean, it is certainly journalism that’s being practiced. But you’re working for a newspaper, know what I mean? You’re working for a newspaper. And god knows if I’ll be doing that, or if there will be things called newspapers in twenty years, but that’s how I will always refer to myself.
When I got into the business, there were very, very, very few people coming into it from journalism schools. I think All the President’s Men kicked that up – I don’t know when the craft of newspapering became journalism, and I don’t know when it became respectable. Royko didn’t finish college. I didn’t finish college. My father was a Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Chicago, but it was not in journalism. It was in English. The business drew people from various walks of life and various backgrounds, and in many ways I think that’s why newspapers were more interesting. There was not some kind of straight career path the way there is now. Not to diminish any of these people out there, especially younger ones now – they’re not calling themselves “newspapermen” because there’s a fearfulness that there will not be newspapers in their future. Some 25-year-old getting a job at the Tribune – it’s impossible, and rightfully so, to imagine that he would be writing for a newspaper in 40 years. I don’t see it.
I think something changed in the business along the way. It has become a little too easy to stay chair-bound and computer-bound, and not go out and wander the way Ben Hecht did, the way Herman Kogan did, the way Mike Royko did, and hit the streets. There are stories all over the place. There’s a story about the alley being closed here that I have not read about in the papers. Because some stuff blew off a building, the city closed this alley. I can make a story out of that. The sort of quiet stories I do in “Sidewalks” seem to be, if not out of fashion, at least dimmed by the glare of celebrity. I don’t need twenty stories about Paul McCartney coming here, as much as I admire him and like him. I want a story about the guy in Austin who is trying to make a go of it with a little shoeshine repair shop. The stories I do on “Sidewalks” are fabric-of-life stories about this city. That’s what interests me.
Enjoy this interview? Click here to read more, as Rick tells stories about Studs Terkel, Mike Royko, Rupert Murdoch, and lists some of his favorite Chicago journalists working today. A separate audio file of Rick and Jack talking about Chicago sportscasters is also available.