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A Writer’s Paper

By Robert O’Connor.

In Robert Boynton’s book “The New New Journalism” he calls the Wall Street Journal of the mid-1980s a “writer’s paper,” where “[its reporters were allowed] to compose long narrative articles on topics that had little, or nothing, to do with business.” He also told the story of Charles Dana, the legendary editor of the New York newspaper The Sun in the 1880s, who saw the newspaper as an art form. He wanted a relevant and timely product, but he also wanted well-written stories. His only rule for the writers he hired was “be interesting.”

One of Dana’s admirers was Henry Justin Smith, who also saw the newspaper as an art form – or as an assistant put it, “A daily novel written by a score of Balzacs.” Smith was the editor of the afternoon newspaper the Chicago Daily News in 1913 when he began hiring the writers who would write his daily novel. He ended up creating another “writer’s paper” and became one of the most prominent figures in the Chicago Literary Renaissance.


Riverside Plaza, formerly the Chicago Daily News building, where the newsroom was from 1928-1959

The Chicago Literary Renaissance was overseen by many influential editors. Harriet Monroe was one of them, creating Poetry magazine in 1912. Margaret Anderson was another, creating The Little Review – most famous for serializing Joyce’s “Ulysses” – in 1914. But Henry J. Smith stood apart from them. He nurtured good writers, but he was also on a daily deadline.

Today is Here

The Chicago Daily News had been founded by Melville Stone in 1875, boasting a price of two cents. The following year, Stone appointed Victor lawson as publisher, but he stayed on as editor. Lawson had been a classmate of Stone’s at Chicago High School and had made an early fortune in real estate. In 1881 they began a morning paper to accompany the Daily News, the Chicago Morning News, which changed its name to the Chicago News-Record, and again to the Chicago Record. In 1888 Stone left and Lawson took over as editor.

Victor F. Lawson (Grad.)

Victor F. Lawson, owner and editor

Early on the Record and the Daily News attracted notable writers. Finley Peter Dunne got a job as a reporter there in 1884, before starting the humor column, supposedly written by a Mr. Dooley, that would make him famous.

Humorist George Ade got his start at the Morning News in 1890 where he wrote a column “Stories of the Streets and of the Town.” His famed “fables in slang” first appeared in the column, as did Artie the office boy, Doc Horne, a gentleman liar, and Pink Marsh, a black shoe-shiner. All three would appear in his later fiction. The column was illustrated by John T. McCutcheon (younger brother of novelist George), who would go on to be a famed political cartoonist and foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune.


George Ade and John McCutcheon, c. 1894-5

Eugene Field wrote the column “Sharps and Flats”, one of the first columns with a byline, where he wrote verse and humorous pieces. His most famous work is a collection of poems “Poems of Childhood” (a later edition was illustrated by Maxfield Parrish) which includes some of his most famous poems like “The Dinkey Bird“, “The Duel” and “Wynken, Blynken and Nod.”

The Daily News also attracted serious people like Ray Stannard Baker, who reported on the Pullman Strike (led by Eugene Debs) and Coxey’s Army for the paper in 1894. Baker would go on to write for McClure’s and later The American Magazine, which he co-founded with fellow McClure’s writers Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell. He eventually wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Woodrow Wilson.

Henry Justin Smith started at the Daily News as a reporter in 1899. He later was elevated to City Editor in 1901 and Assistant Managing Editor in 1906.

One of the people he admired at the newsroom was a young reporter named Paul Scott Mowrer. In his lecture “It’s the Way it’s Written” given to the Medill School of Journalism in 1921, Smith recounted how Mowrer would stay in the office long after his colleagues had left and would fill waste paper baskets with poems and other things, saying he was “trying to develop a style.” As told in Paul Maxwell Hamilton’s book “Journalism’s Roving Eye”, Lawson assigned Mowrer to Paris in 1910 against the protests of the staff, including Smith, who thought the Daily News’ foreign correspondents “puffed up and useless.” In Smith’s satirical novel “Deadlines” he even has a character named John Goode, nicknamed Sinful and called “Young-Man-Going-Somewhere.”

In 1910, his future assistant, Ben Hecht, started writing for the paper. His first poems were published by the Little Review. He also contributed an essay on Ezra Pound, a frequent contributor, to the magazine. After the First World War, Hecht was sent to Berlin as a foreign correspondent, but he was bored with his assignment. He returned to Chicago with his first novel, “Erik Dorn,” in 1921 and started writing a column “One Thousand and One Afternoons” for the paper. Like Ade, Hecht told stories and sketches of the city. However, unlike Ade, he didn’t have morals for them and didn’t use slang. When these columns were collected in the book “1001 Afternoons in Chicago,” Smith wrote that the column was a new concept in journalism:

the idea that just under the edge of the news as commonly understood, the news often flatly unimaginatively told, lay life; that in this urban life there dwelt the stuff of literature, not hidden in remote places, either, but walking the downtown streets, peering from the windows of skyscrapers, sunning itself in parks and boulevards.

Hecht was Smith’s assistant who recommended various writers to him to be hired by the Daily News. He was dismissed from the paper in 1922 after his second novel “Fantazius Mallare” was confiscated for being obscene (D. H. Lawrence didn’t like the book either). Even though he hired famed attorneys Charles Erbstein and Clarence Darrow to defend him, Hecht would no longer be at the Daily News. Instead, for the next two years, he published the Chicago Literary Times with his friend Max Bodenheim and his second wife, Rose Caylor.


Ben Hecht, c. 1919

Hecht would go on to have a legendary career as a playwright and screenwriter, writing the one-act play “The Front Page” based on his time as a newspaperman, as well as the screenplays for “Scarface”, “Angels Over Broadway,” “Spellbound,” and “Notorious” among many others.

Rising Lights, Literary Stars


Carl Sandburg

Carl Sandburg was a well-known writer when he joined the Daily News in 1917. His “Chicago Poems” was published earlier that year after many of them had run in Poetry. The first and most famous of them is “Chicago” with its famous first lines:

Hog Butcher for the World
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler.
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:

Sandburg continued publishing poems while at the Daily News, the ones from this period later collected in “Cornhuskers.” The last poem in that collection, “Four Brothers” appeared in Poetry in November, 1917 and is patriotic, cheering on the Allied Powers.

His first major assignment at the Daily News was covering the American Federation of Labor conference in Minneapolis. It’s purpose was to express the leaders’ support of the government in war time. Sandburg praised pro-war socialists in his articles like Winfield Gaylord and John Spargo, while condemning anti-war socialists.

Sandburg briefly left the Daily News for the Newspaper Enterprise Association, reporting for them from Stockholm. He returned to the Daily News in 1919 as a labor reporter.

Sandburg’s greatest contribution to the Daily News were a series of articles (later printed in the book “Chicago Race Riots“) he wrote about African-Americans in Chicago, many of whom had migrated north to escape the lynchings of the south and with the promise of jobs spurred by the labor shortage cause by World War I. Many had settled in Chicago thanks to its black newspaper, the Chicago Defender, that encouraged northern migration.

Sandburg examined the living conditions and relations with whites for the Daily News in the summer of 1919, when a series of race riots erupted across the nation. On July 27th, race riots erupted in Chicago and Sandburg wrote the poem “Hoodlum” in response. The poem appeared in his next collection, “Smoke and Steel.”

Later on, Sandburg was given the job of film critic for the paper, but his work wasn’t among his best. David Elliot, the last film critic for the Daily News, said Sandburg was remembered as a “poet and celebrity, much less as a pioneering movie critic. Even Studs Terkel didn’t really remember the Sandburg newspaper days.”

When Smith left the paper in 1924*, the Daily News put out a special issue commemorating him. Sandburg wrote a poem about Smith that appeared on the front page that includes the line:

And he says, says he, it’s hell to be alive,
But he’d rather be alive than dead.

Other contributors included Paul Leach, normally a very serious political reporter (who would later write a biography of Vice-President Charles Dawes) who portrayed Smith as a folksy old man. Charles E. Dennis, the managing editor also contributed a piece. Victor Lawson is described as “putting the ‘the’ in ‘The Daily News.'”

One of Sandburg’s friends at the Daily News was Henry Blackman Sell, the book editor from 1916 to 1920. Chicago folklore says he was given the job after promising to pay for the lunch every day of all the reporters at Schlogl’s Restaurant and Saloon, down the street from the Daily News’ offices. His editorship of the weekly book page gave aspiring writers a chance to show their work. Sell left in 1920 to be an editor at Harper’s.

Writers would join the reporters for lunch at Schlogl’s. Sherwood Anderson, Theodore Dreiser and John McCutcheon were among the regulars. Sinclair Lewis, Upton Sinclair and D. W. Griffith would occasionally join them as well. These meetings would go on for a decade after Sell left.

Vincent Starrett was one of the regulars at these meetings. He covered the Mexico revolution for the Daily News, but gained more fame as a mystery writer (and co-founder of the Chicago chapter of the Baker Street Irregulars) and for writing a weekly book column at the Chicago Tribune.

One of Sell’s classmates at the University of Chicago was Harry Hansen, who was one of the first editors of the University of Chicago Magazine when it started in 1907. In 1913, Hansen went to the Daily News, writing for the real-estate section of the paper. During World War I, he was a foreign correspondent in Europe. By the end of the war, he was reviewing foreign language books for Sell’s weekly book section.

Later Hires

In 1924, Henry J. Smith left the Daily News to serve as the assistant to the president of the University of Chicago. He would return two years later, but in that time, many alumni of the university would start their literary careers at the Daily News. One of them was John Gunther, who had been the literary editor of the school newspaper, the Maroon. Gunther was posted in London in 1924 and Vienna in 1930 as part of the Daily News’ foreign service.

Drew Pearson and Robert Allen published “Washington Merry Go Round” in 1931 and it sold well – they eventually started a legendary column of the same name for the Washington Post. Cass Canfield, president of Harper & Brothers, wanted a similar book on the dictators of Europe, and he found Gunther to be the right person to do that. Gunther wrote “Inside Europe” in 1936. He followed it up with several more “Inside Books” (after leaving the Daily News) about Asia, two about Latin America, two about Russia, another about Europe, Africa, Australia, and the United States.

Gunther’s most famous book is his memoir “Death Be Not Proud” in which he tells the story of his son, Johnny. Johnny Gunther was a brilliant young man who died of a brain tumor at the age of 17. The agonizing experience of watching his son slowly die along with the moving story of the young man’s potential made Gunther’s book a bestseller.

In 1930, Smith hired Lloyd Lewis as a drama critic. He later became the sports editor and wrote a column about art. The previous year the two of them had written a popular history of Chicago, “Chicago: A History of Its Reputation.” Lewis would later write the play “Jayhawkers” with Sinclair Lewis (no relation) and later write acclaimed biographies of two Union generals of the civil war: William T. Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant.

Lewis helped the Newberry Library become the literary treasure trove that it is now, giving them his papers and encouraging his colleagues to do the same (it’s where Smith’s papers are kept and was a huge help for this story).

Another U of C alumnus, Meyer Levin, became a reporter for the Daily News in 1925. He left to become an assistant editor and film critic at Esquire when it first started in 1933. His most notable work is his 1956 novel “Compulsion.” It’s based on the Leopold and Loeb murder and trial that captivated the nation in 1924. James Mulroy and Alvin H. Goldstein covered the case for the Daily News and solved the case before the police did, earning the Daily News’ first Pulitzer Prize in 1925.

Bild 102-00652

Leopold and Loeb

Levin was a student at the University of Chicago at the time of the murder. It was a dramatic, semi-fictional retelling of the murder of Bobby Franks by U of C students Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, and a faithful retelling of the trial. Everyone’s name is altered – Leopold and Loeb are Judd Steiner and Artis Strauss, Clarence Darrow is Jonathan Wilk and Bobby Franks is Paulie Kessler.

In the introduction, Levin admits fictionalizing some details because they weren’t in the official documents, and calls the book a “contemporary historical novel” and a “documentary novel.” He notes more famous fictional works that are inspired by true crimes like Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy” and Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” Levin wrote the book ten years before Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” popularized the non-fiction novel. In 1959 it was filmed, with Orson Welles in the role of Wilk. Nathan Leopold – who by then was out on parole – tried to stop its production on grounds of invasion of privacy, but his suit was dismissed.

Today, Levin is probably best known for his role in the publication history of “The Diary of Anne Frank.” He found a copy of it in France in 1951 – before it had been published in English. He campaigned for it to be published in English and conceived a theatrical version of the book. When it was published in English, his play was rejected for being “un-stageworthy” and the publishers commissioned a play by the writing team of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, whose play was awarded the Pulitzer Prize and the film adaptation won three Oscars. Levin fought for the rights of his play for years and while he won compensation for appropriation of ideas, his version is still unauthorized by the holder of the dramatic rights to the book. Levin wrote about all this in his book “The Obsession” which inspired Rinne Groff’s recent play “Compulsion.”

Sterling North had attended the U of C, but left in 1929 without graduating to write for the Daily News. He would eventually rise to become the literary editor of the paper. His most famous work is the book “Rascal“, about a year in his childhood when he raised a baby raccoon named Rascal. It won a Newbery Honor in 1964 and was filmed by Disney in 1969.

Tomorrow is the Sequel

The Chicago Literary Renaissance cemented the city’s place on the literary map. H. L. Mencken called Chicago the “literary capital of America.” The literature’s emphasis on working people and ordinary concerns, coupled with a simple language – no slang, no purple prose – probably came from the fact that many of the writers were journalists who wrote for newspapers like the Chicago Daily News.

Even after Lawson passed away, its purchase by Knight Newspapers and later by Field Enterprises, it still attracted good writers like Bill Newman, Sidney J. Harris (who ended up on Nixon’s enemies list) and, of course, Mike Royko.

Mike Royko’s column became the most influential in the city, and arguably in the nation. He won a Pulitzer for commentary in 1972, the 13th and final Pulitzer given to the Daily News. When the paper ended, Royko’s column moved to the Chicago Sun-Times and while there, he was credited with giving Illinois Senator Charles Percy a turn around in his campaign for Senate in 1978. He also may have given Jane Byrne an upset victory in her race for mayor of Chicago after he wrote a series of columns criticizing incumbent mayor Michael Bilandic for his lack of action during a series of snowstorms in 1979.

“Mike Royko wrote simply, but with depth and poetry,” said Rick Kogan, who wrote for the Daily News in its final years, along with his father Herman. “And a lot of Daily News reporters wrote in that style,” including Bill Newman, whose style Royko imitated, eventually developing his own.

Bill Newman, brother of NBC correspondent Edwin, had been at the Daily News since 1945, eventually settling in to the editorship of the entertainment supplement “Panorama.”

“Part of the Daily News‘ value to me and other arts writers was that they had a terrific insert magazine published on Saturdays, Panorama,” said David Elliot, the film critic for the paper, “which was easily the best arts section I have worked for. And the arts staff was the best in the city.”

Other later writers included Henry Smith’s nephew John, who wrote for the paper beginning in 1937 and stayed until the end.

The Daily News was sold to Field Enterprises, which also owned the Sun-Times and WFLD in 1959. In 1977, the newspaper was losing readers and revenue. Marshall Field V appointed Jim Hoge, the editor of the Sun-Times, as editor of the Daily News and gave him two years to turn it around. Circulation was dropping for afternoon papers due to the television evening news and city newspapers were losing money as readers moved to the suburbs. A year early, Field decided it was time to end it.


The final edition ran on March 4, 1978. Staff, current and former, had pieces in that final edition eulogizing the loss. Mike Royko wrote an obituary which appeared on the front page compared the closing of the paper to the last day of summer before school. John Chancellor, then the anchor at NBC Nightly News, had started off as a copy-boy at the Daily News and called its closing “a death in the family.” Alan Mutter, the former editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, began his career at the Daily News and wrote a moving obituary of it on his blog a few weeks ago.

Bill Newman wrote an obituary for the paper on its front page with the headline “So Long, Chicago.” It begins:

The Chicago Daily News, the writer’s newspaper, ends as it began – a momentous Book of Life. It took 102 years to finish, and these are the final pages.

But the story isn’t over – just the Daily News’ part of it. A newspaper dies, but newspapering goes on. Life goes on. Tomorrow is the sequel, and all the tomorrows after that.

Henry Justin Smith advocated for newspaper writing as an art as high as novels or poems. He saw his newspaper as a daily novel of life, written by a team of Balzacs. He believed that journalists wrote literature as profound and as important as poets and novelists.

The Chicago Daily News left a 102 year legacy of writing that was bold, great and quirky written by good writers. It helped the Chicago Literary Renaissance, which Carla Cappetti said “brought the world to Chicago and Chicago to the world.”

And probably its most glorious expression of that is its legendary foreign service, that brought the world to Chicago, and Chicago to the world.

[Coming up in Part two: The foreign correspondents of the Chicago Daily News]

* The edition is dated October 13, 1924 and is part of the Henry Justin Smith Papers, Midwest Manuscript Collection, Newberry Library, Chicago.

Robert O’Connor is a journalist, writer, adventurer and a few dozen other things (including a Co-Editor of 3:AM). His stuff has appeared in the Twin Cities Daily Planet, Hot Press, KFAI and a few other places. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, March 25th, 2011.