Chicago when reporters were writers

"Find a writer who has something American to say, and nine times out of ten you will find he has some connection with the Gargantuan abattoir by Lake Michigan- he was bred there,or got his start there, or passed through there when he was young and tender." (Henry L. Mencken/American Mercury 1933)


Photo: Peter V. Bella

The Chicago Tribune article, Chicago's Jazz Age gangsters were covered like celebrities, detailed the creative license taken by reporters and editors during the 1920s-30s. Reporters (or their copy editors) were writers. They used creative and theatrical license to report news of mobsters and their activities. Their prose was sparkling, descriptive, and at times over the top.

Modern reportage is staid, puritan, and boring compared to stories written during the early part of the last century. The Jazz Age was a time when Chicago reporters were writers. Chicago had many newspapers vying for readers. Competition was brutal.


Chicago Tribune

Headlines had to capture the imagination. They "screamed". The headline had to get people to read the first sentence of an article. The first sentence had to force them to read on. Reporters wrote to appeal to the average working man in language he could understand. It was the arts of copy writing and script writing combined.

Some examples from the article:

"In a 1925 editorial, the paper noted: "Why should the criminal worry? If he's caught, there's the grand jury. If he's indicted, there's the trial. If he's convicted, there's the Supreme Court. If his sentence is upheld, there's still the board of pardons and parole and a governor widely heralded for his benevolence. And through all these vicissitudes the constant aid of shrewd and unscrupulous lawyers, lax bail laws, and the sort of help that can be bought with crooked money."

"Sammy (Samoots) Amatuna will be laid away, barring police interference, in a festival of death probably as elaborate as that funeral of funerals, that of the late Dean O'Banion,"

"Love, in the span of twenty short months made her a connoisseur of coffins," the paper noted." (Chicago Tribune)

Then there were the "picture thieves". Many famous reporters and photojournalists started their careers as "picture thieves". If the paper needed a photograph of a victim, the "thieves" would use all their wile and guile to convince the family to depart with one. If not, they would distract and steal it. They did not dare go back to the office without that photo. Ben Hect started out as a picture thief. Weegee, the famous New York photojournalist also started as a picture thief.


St. Valentines Day Massacre. (Peter V. Bella)

But, that was not all. Photographs showed all the blood and gore of gangland killings. The most iconic were those of the St. Valentines Day Massacre.

The whole idea was to get people to read your newspaper and not the competition. The two biggest competitors during that age were the Chicago Tribune and the Hearst papers. They competed in headlines, reportage, and bloody distribution battles on the streets. The battles were described as the same tactics the mobsters used.

Reading the news today is relatively sober compared to news reportage during the Jazz Age. Creative license is discouraged, theatrics is taboo, and one story reads like the next.The only papers left that put excitement into their headlines and writing are the New York Post, New York Daily News, and supermarket tabloids. Shocking or entertaining the public is strongly discouraged. Boring people is not. With competition white hot, and profits shrinking, maybe it is time to rethink the writing process.



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