A People With Passion Series
Chuck Sudo, August 26, 2011
Chuck Sudo's path to editor-in-chief of Chicagoist included stints in the military, slam poetry, and marketing, and though that sounds like an unusual road to travel on your way to being an online editor and food critic, when you speak with him, his journey makes as much sense as that of a college j-school standout turned journalism intern turned professional writer. That's some of the magic of life, I think.
In the sixth installment of Jack M Silverstein's Chicago journalism People With Passion interview series, Chuck speaks with Jack about the value of observation, and the eternal battle to fit great writing into small word counts.
I was on the student newspaper and took honors journalism at Lane Tech. And I wanted to study. I wanted study going into college, but I didn’t know if I was going to go to college or join the military. Opted for the latter. Main reason was I just wanted to get out of the house. My recruiter saw my aptitude battery scores – I scored pretty high, it wasn’t hard. They knew I wanted to be a journalist, but I think he saw dollar signs in his eyes, and what he did was he sort of steered me toward the Navy’s nuclear engineering program. He kept saying, “I think this might be a better fit for you. I don’t know if you’ll be able to get a journalism billet.” And, “Take this entry exam here and see how you score, and if you score well, then we can talk about it later. But you’re not obligated to do the program just by taking the test.”
From there the bullshit just flew. I took the exam, scored high, and said, “Let’s talk about the journalism billet.” And he said, “Well, I’m not sure that you’re going to be able to do that.” He kept saying it was a billet that was very competitive.
At the time I was thinking, “If it’s competitive, why can’t my test scores secure me that billet?” Every reason he gave seemed reasonable at the time, and in retrospect it’s probably part of the training for being a recruiter, being able to overcome those objections, like being a salesman, being a marketer, being a public relations expert. I finally told him to lay it out on the table: What’s in it for you? He told me the signing bonus that would be for him if he signed me up for the program. He also said that signing me up to study nuclear power would be like going to 26th and California and trying to find some juvenile delinquents that a judge said, “You need to shape up or you’re going to become recidivist.” I said, “Okay, I’ll do it, but I need assurances that if I don’t like the program that I can go to a billet that I’m happy with.” And he lied and said “Yeah.”
Damn. (pause) Did your military experience influence your journalism career? Your writing style? I mean, I know Royko talks a lot about having served in Korea, and Hunter Thompson was a sportswriter in the Air Force…
I think being overseas and trying not to do the standard serviceman thing –go to the first bar outside your naval base and get drunk – and trying to actually immerse yourself in the countries you visited, whether it’s Singapore or Indonesia or the Middle East or North Africa or the Caribbean – I think what it does is it opens your eyes. It trains you to look at the world around you and see what’s happening.
As far as the writing style, the writing style just developed from practice. Because it doesn’t matter where you start learning journalism. Whether it’s in high school or college, or if you just sort of stumble into it after not having studied it. The principles are the same. It’s who, what, when, where, why, how. Be objective, be fair, be honest, and have no conflicts of interest. You can learn them wherever. But I think it’s the observation. It’s learning those keen reporting skills. That comes with observation. That comes with looking at something and saying, “Something’s not right here, maybe there’s something else here that can corroborate that.” Or, “There’s something deeper,” and then you start digging.
After I was discharged, I came home to Chicago. The comedy boom was happening back then. This was, what, ’94 I think? I thought, “Maybe I can make people laugh, so maybe I’ll become a comedian.” I looked at it, and I saw all the comedy clubs that were open in Chicago were starting to close because that bubble was bursting. Slam poetry was starting to come up big, so I started doing open mics, and becoming involved with a local poetry collective. That lasted a couple years. Then I got a job as a marketer for an internet auction.
Marketing writing teaches you how to work within boilerplate and how to be concise, so that eventually leant bits to the writing style. As did the poetry. You know, poetry teaches you to use an economy of words, but try to show a lot of evocative imagery. So that all led to it. And then eventually when the time came where I finally joined up with Chicagoist, I had all this stored up, so I could actually work on developing my own style. Because internet writing, there’s room for long form writing. But the majority of it seems tailored to something within 3 to 400 words max. Especially with blog journalism: Get the word out. It’s a new medium, but good writing, like with print journalism, is still the fuel that drives the engine. There’s room for both. It’s how the writer keeps the reader’s attention that matters. And I think online media gets that.
Enjoy this interview? Click here to read more, as Chuck talks about the competition between online and print media, and the challenge of proving the legitimacy of a new site in a new medium.
PREVIOUSLY IN THE SERIES:
(NOTE: The dates below refer to the date of the interview. The order is the date they were run.)
August 17, 2011: Clayton Hauck, photographer
December 12, 2008: Alex Kotlowitz (re-edited August 15, 2011)
August 10, 2011: Mary Schmich, Chicago Tribune
 Location of Cook County Jail.