The wisecracking, street-smart newspaperman was something of a stock character in old movies (notably The Front Page in 1931). Such movies often portrayed aggressive, ambitious reporters competing against one another for stories while working for morally-challenged editors and publishers seeking to boost circulation by any means necessary.
For the most part, journalism was a rough-and-tumble man’s world. To be sure, the “Women’s Pages,” gossip columns, and the Society section were largely a distaff province, but the hard news rooster club was only occasionally disrupted by a news hen.
Today when newspaper circulation is declining and many papers are close to going belly up, the very idea of print journalism may seem quaint. Daily newspapers offer less and less in the way of content at inflated cover prices (pocket change used to be sufficient to buy a paper; now a lot of big city dailies go for $3.00).
Sure, it was more than a century ago, but newspapers were the media before the 1920s (Chicago, for example, had nine dailies at the turn of the 20th Century), but after radio swept the nation, the demand for newspapers decreased and some went out of business. The same thing occurred with television in the 1950s. The TV evening news basically killed off afternoon papers, but most morning newspapers have somehow managed to hang on. Today with the internet and a 24-hour news cycle, even they are on borrowed time.
In order to survive, print newspapers must re-invent themselves. There are no indications this is happening, as a cursory glance at any big-city daily reveals. The quantity and quality of the writing leave a lot to be desired. Most of the news items derive from wire services available to all media, and the same syndicated op-ed columnists pontificate within predictably narrow limits.
Any large metro area has plenty of good writers, but the corporate honchos don’t want to rock the boat with any articles or opinions that might upset some segment of the readership. Yet there was a time when a star reporter or columnist was given a long leash because he motivated readers to buy papers.
Perhaps the last of the classic big-time, big-city columnists was Mike Royko, who was a one-man institution in Chicago journalism. A lifelong resident of the city, he knew all the ins and outs of Chicago politics and he called ‘em as he saw ‘em. Chicago politics had a long tradition of corruption, yet the mantra remained “Chicago ain’t ready for reform yet,” so Royko was never at a loss for topics. If you follow the news coming out of Chicago these days, nothing has changed for the better in the Second City (actually, Chicago is now the Third City, having been surpassed in population by Los Angeles).
Royko once said, “Being the smartest alderman [city councilman] in Chicago is something like being the tallest midget in the circus.” Did he ruffle feathers when he made statements like that? Of course, but three Chicago papers were happy to publish him.
Royko started with the Daily News in 1959 and was awarded his own column in 1964. After the Daily News closed, he moved on to the Sun-Times in 1978, but when Rupert Murdoch bought the paper in 1984, he went to work for the Tribune. People wanted to read what he had to say no matter which paper published his column. Does any newspaper columnist today wield that sort of influence?
Born in Chicago on September 19, 1932, Royko was the spawn of a Ukrainian father (a bartender) and a Polish mother. He embodied the white working class ethos in a city that was renowned for its vast quilt of ethnic neighborhoods.
Royko started out writing for an Air Force base newspaper, then went on to the City News Bureau of Chicago, and finally to the Lerner Papers, Chicago weeklies published in an assortment of neighborhood editions. His apprenticeship served him, well, so when he hooked on with the Daily News in 1959, he was ready for the daily grind of a big-city newspaper.
In his columns, Royko was typically an advocate for the little guy (the fictional Slats Grobnik, a working stiff, was a recurring character in his columns) who was being oppressed by the powers that be in the city of Chicago, Cook County, Springfield (the Illinois state capital), or Washington. Royko was no fan of big business either.
Royko’s Chicago was one of ethnic neighborhoods, modest bungalows and apartment houses. He was a shot-and-a-beer (sometimes known as a boilermaker) kind of guy, as was everybody else in his circle.
Given his background, it’s no surprise that he was no fan of the feminization of men. He invented a fictional character called High-Rise Man, which was more or less the answer to the question, “What sort of man reads Playboy?” (another Chicago institution).
High-Rise Man went to singles bars and discos, jogged and roller-bladed, and got his hair styled. He was highly brand-conscious and almost obsessed with the latest consumer gadgets. Shallow and trendy – maybe even faggy – were fitting adjectives for him. In Royko’s world, High-Rise Man was not a suitable male role model. So who was?
In his June 13, 1979 column (“John Wayne’s True Grit”), Royko expounded on his love for the Duke – not his politics, but the characters he portrayed in the movies. “He shot people in the heart, and drank whisky, and treated his horse like a horse,” wrote Royko. “In fact, he treated women like he treated his horse. He seemed real because he reminded me of the men in my neighborhood.”
Well, it’s rather difficult to imagine something like that appearing in a newspaper today. But that was just Royko being Royko. Readers ate it up.
In a subsequent column (“Hogging the Jogging Path,” August 3, 1979) he vented his distaste for High-Rise Men who complained about having to dodge road apples when they jogged on bridle paths. Reminiscing about the old days, Royko evoked an era when “The only people who ran in public were thieves and the coppers chasing them.” And then to really put things in perspective, he stated, “This country did not become great by jogging. Men on horses pioneered it. Name me one movie in which John Wayne was shown in a tailored jogging suit and Adidas shoes.”
In “Bottoms Up, L.A.!” a December 16, 1979 column, he commented on the trend of California men undergoing plastic surgery to have more shapely rear ends: “I find it shameful and alarming. I think it is a definite indication of the decline of this country’s virility and moral standards. In a crisis, how could we put together a real army with men who are concerned about the pert shape of their rear ends?”
Feminism was not on the front burner when Royko’s career began, but it provided him with plenty of material for columns from the late 60s onward . A classic example is his August 28, 1979 column, “A Leery Survey,” dealing with a survey of female state employees who were polled to determine if they were being leered at by male state employees:
Of course women will say that men leer. Even women who are never leered at will say they are. Pride.
Some female persons will become angry at me for saying this, but there are times when a male person can be provoked into leering, as well as smirking, gawking, and gaping.
If women persist in wearing slit skirts, skin-tight jeans, see-through blouses, and other immodest garments, there are bound to be men who are too weak to fight off the urge to leer, smirk, gawk, etc.
If government is going to step in and outlaw leering, it must also take a stand on swiveling, slinking, wriggling, and waggling.
Of course, today such statements would evoke the predictable responses of “blaming the victim,” “toxic masculinity” and maybe even “hate speech.”
During the Vietnam War, Royko was no fan of the draft. More specifically, he felt there should be no exemptions for college men. In a January 25, 1980 column (“No ‘Selective’ Service”), while espousing equality, he left himself open to charges of misogyny by stating, “Why should someone spend his time squeezing coeds’ bottoms because he happened to be born into a family that could pay his tuition?”
Royko was hardly a bigot but he often said things that could be interpreted as such today. For example, in a June 3, 1980 column (“A Poll Cut on the Bias”) denouncing nativism, he managed to work in some ethnic jokes that would never appear in a newspaper today no matter what the context – not even with a trigger warning! To wit:
Did you hear about the two Polaks who hijacked a submarine? They asked for a million dollars and two parachutes.
Do you know why Irish wakes last three days? So they can make sure the guy is dead and not just drunk.
Do you know how a Lithuanian pilot navigates an airplane? By reading street sighs.
You know why a Puerto Rican can’t use a checkbook? Because it’s too small for him to spray his name on.
Imagine submitting a column with the likes of the above to an editor today. Yet in 1979 newspaper readers (and editors) were a heartier breed. Today you wouldn’t tell such a joke to anyone – even a trusted friend – without looking over your shoulder. Even if the coast was clear you would probably speak in hushed tones.
It’s a rare bird indeed who can denounce prejudice while passing along ethnic jokes. As Walt Whitman once said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” Royko was also large. At the peak of his popularity, his column was syndicated in more than 600 newspapers. He was never in any danger of losing his job. Sure, he made enemies, but more people liked him than disliked him. And he was making money for his employers, who weren’t as woke then as they are now.
A hot topic Royko took on in the 1970s was the Equal Rights Amendment, which had been working its way through state legislatures in the 1970s. It had stalled out at the end of the decade largely due to women’s concerns about being drafted – a thorny issue to this day. On February 19, 1980, Royko proposed a female special forces regiment of “very tough broads” to compete with the Green Berets. But in his column (“Hopes Fade for the Green Bras”) he noticed women’s lack of enthusiasm for military service. He had met many women who asserted they would dodge the draft by getting pregnant. Nevertheless, he offered a suggestion on how to pass the ERA in Illinois: “by bribing the state legislature like everyone else does.”
By the 1990s, however, political correctness was becoming a force in journalism. In his June 1, 1990 column (“A Nose Rub of Sorts for Ditzy Word Jocks”) he pondered the recommendations of the Multicultural Management Program at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. The nabobs of the program had decreed that certain words, formerly acceptable, were now taboo. Royko inveighed against the “dizzy new-age journalistic airheads.”
He related a list of 23 words and phrases (e.g., airhead, burly, buxom, dingbat, gyp, lazy, petite, sweetie), which could be interpreted as offensive to women or minorities and so should be avoided. Just as revealing were the words not included on the list, noted Royko. “They don’t include ‘honky,’ which many blacks call whites, or dago, wop, heeb, kike, mick, herring-choker, frog, kraut, bohunk, or polack. Ain’t us honkies got feelings, too?” (If you’re wondering, a herring-choker is a Scandinavian – that was a new one on me – so Royko’s columns were also educational.)
Even during the 1990s the term “illegal alien” was coming under fire. It worked for Royko, however. “Why not ‘illegal alien’? It’s specific. It means an alien who is here in violation of our immigration laws.” Today among those who wield the blue pencil in the legacy media “migrant” or “immigrant” would be subbed. (“Undocumented worker” had its day but seems to have gone out of fashion.)
On July 12, 1990, Royko probably dropped a few jaws with his opinion expressed in a column (“Message on AIDS Gets Lost in Poster”) pertaining to a controversial Chicago Transit Authority poster that depicted two men kissing. The basic theme of the public service campaign was that “love doesn’t kill.”
Royko admitted, “I’m a bit puzzled by the statement that love doesn’t cause AIDS. Love isn’t an issue at all, unless you define love as having anal sex with a stranger in a bathhouse, which would be kind of stretching love’s definition.”
It was the height of insensitivity, yet there it was in black and white and read all over Chicago and anywhere else Royko’s column was syndicated. To be sure, the column met with a fair share of opprobrium, but Royko never apologized. It’s hard to imagine a writer getting away with that today, but Royko’s readers were legion. He had more leverage than his critics and he knew it. They probably realized it also.
Royko’s book publishing history largely consisted of collections of his columns. Yet Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago, his 1971 book on the longtime Chicago mayor, proved he was capable of lengthier efforts. For the most part, however, he stuck to being a columnist, or an essayist, as he might have been characterized in previous generations. In that capacity he stayed busy. His lifetime output consisted of 7,500 columns.
Royko soldiered on till died of an aneurysm on April 29, 1997. His obit headline in the New York Times dubbed him “the Voice of the Working Class.” Nevertheless, it was probably an appropriate time to clock out, as the internet was starting to steal the thunder from print journalism.
Though Royko was only 64 when he died, his passing was probably not a complete surprise to those who knew him well. True to the image of the hard-drinking newspaperman, he was probably done in by too much booze (he was also a heavy smoker). Royko had the unique ability to consume large amount s of alcohol (he was a regular patron at Chicago’s legendary Billy Goat Tavern) without suffering hangovers. This might sound like a highly desirable trait, but without the ill effects of hangovers, he had no motivation to curb his consumption. Meanwhile, his body was paying the price in other ways.
If he were still around today, he would certainly not be lacking in topics. I think I know what he would say about a lot of them, but I’m sure his views would never be printed in a newspaper. And it’s hard to imagine big tech letting him post his honest opinions on the matters of the day. In his heyday he would have been classified as a liberal; today he would probably be vilified as a homophobe, a misogynist, and maybe even a white supremacist. If there were a statue of Royko in Chicago, it would have been toppled by now – or at least defaced.
In 1972, however, Royko was riding high when he won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary. In 2011 he joined such luminaries as Saul Bellow, Theodore Dreiser, Ernest Hemingway, Carl Sandburg, Upton Sinclair, Thornton Wilder, and Richard Wright when he was posthumously inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.
In one of his last columns, “Arrrgh! Disney Walks the Plank for Politically Correct,” published on January 10, 1997, he remarked, “Sometimes life in these strange times is just one can of worms after another.”
Almost a quarter of a century past his death, it is obvious that there are no heirs to the throne he left vacant, no one to wield a journalistic can opener, inspect the contents, and crack wise.
And that may be yet another big reason why newspapers are dying.