My guest today is author and former writer/editor, John Blades. Welcome to OpEdNews, John. You retired in 1997, after 28 years at the Chicago Tribune. Over nearly three decades, you wore a number of different hats at the Trib . Can you tell our readers a bit about your career?
had the good fortune to start out (1961) when jobs on newspapers were
plentiful, while journalism was still considered a respectable, even desirable
career, and not one that ranked in public estimation (as now) between washroom
attendant and mortgage broker. After college, I'd worked as a cub
reporter on a Springfield (IL) paper for a summer, then went into the Army, as
most ambulatory males were required to do in those days. That brief
newspaper experience was enough to land me a job on the Miami Herald, where I started out on the copy
desk, editing stories, writing headlines, on the overnight shift.
lobbied to be a reporter, though, and after four or five months I got my chance
-- promoted to suburban reporter, which meant I was responsible for covering 27
suburbs. It was quite an education -- a daily crash course in politics,
economics, crime, animal husbandry, etc. I covered every kind of story,
comic or tragic, sacred and profane, many of which (especially those dealing
with the complex workings of municipal government) I wasn't prepared for.
I was also expected to cover non-suburban assignments -- breaking
news (fires, murders, drownings, all the stereotypical ambulance-chasing stuff)
plus write features (riding an elephant in the Orange Bowl parade, for
example) and interview or cover appearances by celebrities, diplomats,
politicians -- Richard Nixon, Eleanor Roosevelt, Cassius Clay (before he was
Muhammad Ali), and Miss Universe, to name a few among the multitudes.
Every Saturday night, I worked the police beat -- not covering crimes but monitoring a half-dozen radios at the central police station and alerting the city desk whenever a crime worth covering occurred. After three years of running from small-town council meetings and press conferences to drownings, murders, fires, and various other forms of mayhem, I saw no glamor or future in the pursuit of "hard news" and decided I'd was better suited to feature writing, which offered (eventually) more civilized hours and an opportunity to be a writer, rather than a straight-faced transcriber of human folly and misfortune.
We moved to Chicago in 1964, after I got a job at the Sun-Times. For the first year, I was still stuck on nights -- the copy desk from 6 p.m. to 2:30 a.m., with Tuesday and Wednesday nights off. But I was able to edge my way into the features department and day work: editing mostly, some writing, and ultimately full time as managing editor (on a staff of three) of Midwest, the Sunday magazine, now extinct.
There, I not only edited and wrote stories but
learned to do the graphics -- crop photos, lay out pages, work with
printers, photographers, designers. That was great preparation for a job
on the Tribune, allowing me to go
straight to the Sunday Magazine (a much better, more professional, and
successful magazine) without having to intern on Neighborhood News, as most
hires then were required to do. I was an odd man on the Trib staff because I'd crossed over from
the liberal Sun-Times to the arch-conservative Tribune -- but the
magazine was an exception, a "rogue" operation that would eventually
help liberalize the Tribune.
spent eight years on the magazine, as articles editor and staff writer,
and in my spare time, I was nominally the book editor, reviewing one book
a week for the daily paper for two years. This was separate from the Sunday
Book World section, which through a complicated partnership with the New York Herald Tribune was edited and published
in New York. When that arrangement broke up, the book operation moved back to
Chicago, and I shifted from the magazine, to Book World, as editor, a few years
later (1976). I was there for
eight years, assigning and editing book reviews, while writing for various
sections of the paper. When Book World was expanded in 1985, I became the
book critic/columnist, reviewing two books a week plus writing features and
From there, I moved over to Tempo, the daily feature section, where I spent the next dozen years as a feature writer, critic, essayist -- interviewing authors, covering the publishing industry, focusing on various cultural subjects, from artificial intelligence to micro-brewing."¨ I retired in "97, age 60, happily free of deadlines and the anxiety and stress that come from a career providing short-order words. I should mention that on weekend mornings, beginning in the late "80s, I wrote a novel called Small Game, published by Holt in "92, a feat I hoped to duplicate in retirement. Still hoping.
Well, it certainly sounds like you worked your way up through the ranks, developing many skills along the way. One thing you didn't mention: did you come out of college with a journalism degree or didn't it matter so much in those days?
I was a poor student in high school, even in English class, where a C grade was a mighty achievement for me. But I was always a compulsive reader, having learned to read before I went to kindergarten. I was in my late teens before my family got a TV set, so my idle hours were spent habitually reading, rather than watching, which was fortunate. I belonged to what amounted to a book club with my high school buddies -- we all read constantly, exchanging books, but it was mostly trash: Gold Medal and Signet paperbacks -- war, historical, crime novels, anything lurid, scandalous, and sexy, which was pretty tame stuff in those days. Among this steady diet of pulp fiction, we occasionally and accidentally read "notorious" books that had some literary merit -- Knock on Any Door, God's Little Acre, Studs Lonigan, From Here to Eternity, and The Naked and The Dead, to name a few.