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Life Arts    H2'ed 8/16/10

Reflections of Veteran Chicago Newspaperman, John Blades

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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?

I 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.

I 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.

I 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 interviews.

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.

When I got to college, Washington University, I had no idea what I was going to major in, but I liked Freshman English, and even though I struggled, I managed to write creditable essays. WU had no journalism school, just a handful of basic classes, taught by one professor, as part of the English curriculum. I was drawn to it, influenced in part by the romantic myth attached to newspaper work, perpetuated by books and movies. I majored in English, specializing in journalism, taking all the available J classes and filling in with English lit and playwrighting courses, which helped prepare me not only for newspaper work but specialized work in book criticism, etc., when I came to work at the Chicago Tribune. While at WU, I worked on the school newspaper, eventually becoming the managing editor. All of which helped me land the summer job on the Springfield paper and, farther down the path, at the Tribune, 10 years after I graduated from WU.

You could say that the lack of a TV kept you from becoming a couch potato and propelled you into what ultimately became a satisfying career. Actually, I might be putting words in your mouth: you didn't say that you found it satisfying. Am I wrong to assume so?

The words you put into my mouth are better than the words I put there. It's true, I consider it a blessing that we (my family and my friends' families) didn't have TV sets, otherwise we would've spent all our down time watching junky TV shows, rather than reading junky books. The addiction to reading proved to be useful in my mature years, where my other teen addictions didn't. (We were incorrigible moviegoers, and I compulsively watch old movies on TCM now, no matter how awful, justifying it as "nostalgia.")

Yes, I did find the newspaper career serendipitous and satisfying -- what could be better than interviewing and hanging out with authors like Budd Schulberg and Nelson Algren, whose books I read as a teenager? But I was still eager to retire as soon as I could, at age 60. I had other work (and non-work) I wanted to do. I was glad to be free of the anxiety and stress of deadlines, unlike real journalists, who seem to thrive on them (or claim they do).

I think it's safe to say that the years spanning your career up to the present have seen a cataclysmic reconfiguring of American journalism. Would you care to talk about that? Were there intimations of it while you were still at the Trib ?

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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