People with Passion: Rick Kogan
A People with Passion series
August 4, 2011: Rick Kogan
For the first interview of his new oral history series at Eye on Chi, Jack M Silverstein sat down with the Chicago Tribune’s Rick Kogan at the Chicago Theatre before a taping of ChicagoLive!, the Tribune’s live radio program. In this discussion, Kogan tells of his introduction to journalism, his love of the term “newspaperman,” his approach to reporting, and shares stories about Chicago icons Studs Terkel and Mike Royko.
“I had my first byline in the Sun-Times at 16, when Jim Hoge, the editor of the paper, asked me to review a book called How to Get a Teen-Age Boy, and What to Do with Him When You Get Him. I was indeed a teenage boy at the time, and I wrote a scathing review of this book. And they – talk about a narcotic – they played my photo bigger than I’ve ever seen a photo in a newspaper. I thought, ‘My god. This is what I was born to do.’”
Memory is always unreliable, but my first memory is truly the sound of the typewriter in my father’s office. He was writing books about Chicago history. And even at a very, very young age, I was hanging around the newspaper offices when he would work on weekends. He would bring my younger brother and myself down there. Not in any sense did I think of it as the family business, but being around words my whole life, I knew at some early stage – it may have been fourth grade when I wrote a story for the LaSalle School about the Chicago Fire – I was drawn to writing. I am not sure I was drawn to journalism until some point later on after writing a bunch of shitty short stories in my youth in Spain, I thought, “Well maybe it would be really good if I want to be a fiction writer to get like a real job.” And I knew newspapers. I’ve been reading newspapers since I could read. It just seemed like a logical place for me.
The word “newspaperman” always appealed to me, more than “journalist.” Because I did grow up in a newspaper family, and the house was always filled with newspaper guys, and some women. It was a gradual falling into it. I certainly now would call myself a newspaperman. But I’m not sure there was any moment, any cathartic moment, where I said, “Gee, I’m really a newspaperman now.”
What was the appeal of that term? Newspaperman?
There was something very, very old fashioned about it. It had the same appeal that, to me, the word “janitor” has, as opposed to “building superintendent.” There’s nothing lofty about it. There’s something a little rough-edged about it, I think. And it also has the word “newspaper” in it. I mean, it is certainly journalism that’s being practiced. But you’re working for a newspaper, know what I mean? You’re working for a newspaper. And god knows if I’ll be doing that, or if there will be things called newspapers in twenty years, but that’s how I will always refer to myself.
When I got into the business, there were very, very, very few people coming into it from journalism schools. I think All the President’s Men kicked that up – I don’t know when the craft of newspapering became journalism, and I don’t know when it became respectable. Royko didn’t finish college. I didn’t finish college. My father was a Phi Beta Kappa at the University of Chicago, but it was not in journalism. It was in English. The business drew people from various walks of life and various backgrounds, and in many ways I think that’s why newspapers were more interesting. There was not some kind of straight career path the way there is now. Not to diminish any of these people out there, especially younger ones now – they’re not calling themselves “newspapermen” because there’s a fearfulness that there will not be newspapers in their future. Some 25-year-old getting a job at the Tribune – it’s impossible, and rightfully so, to imagine that he would be writing for a newspaper in 40 years. I don’t see it.
I think something changed in the business along the way. It has become a little too easy to stay chair-bound and computer-bound, and not go out and wander the way Ben Hecht did, the way Herman Kogan did, the way Mike Royko did, and hit the streets. There are stories all over the place. There’s a story about the alley being closed here that I have not read about in the papers. Because some stuff blew off a building, the city closed this alley. I can make a story out of that. The sort of quiet stories I do in “Sidewalks” seem to be, if not out of fashion, at least dimmed by the glare of celebrity. I don’t need twenty stories about Paul McCartney coming here, as much as I admire him and like him. I want a story about the guy in Austin who is trying to make a go of it with a little shoeshine repair shop. The stories I do on “Sidewalks” are fabric-of-life stories about this city. That’s what interests me.
The landscape of this area is so vast and so interesting and so organic. It’s always changing. I haven’t been to Austin, for instance – the beleaguered Westside neighborhood – in about a month. And I guarantee you if I drove through that neighborhood I would see something I didn’t see a month ago. One of the great joys is that newspapers pay me to do this kind of urban exploring. Most people – you work at a certain place, you eat at a certain place, your friends live in certain places. Maybe Daley did it. Maybe Daley wound up driving around the whole city. But cops don’t do it. Mailmen don’t do it. Repairmen don’t do it. There are certain areas that you stick to. And that has been my faith. “Sidewalks” is now pushing 13, 14 years, and there’s never been a day when Osgood and I have gone out and not found a story. We don’t have to gin it up, either. The stories are there.
It’s something that was taught to me by my father, and by Mike, and by Studs. I like to think I have a very heightened sense of curiosity. Plus I am paid to say, “What is this? Who are you?” There’s a certain license involved in being a newspaperman that allows you to explore. Not just explore and look, but to go beyond the looking and say, “What is this? Why are you here? Why are you doing this?” It’s a combination I think of the curiosity and the license.
As a reader, if you want to read people other than yourself, who are the other people out there who you feel really get it, they’re finding stories…
Well, Mark Konkol at the Sun-Times does a good job of it. Dave Hoekstra at the Sun-Times – I’ve always admired his work and his eye. He does a lot of road stuff, which intrigues me. He’s a little too hooked on minor league baseball for my taste, but I love Dave and I love his writing. I think in the mainstream press, you don’t get a lot of it anymore. You got people writing about wearing shorts to work. Steve Johnson, who’s a fine writer, but I don’t care that he wore shorts to work. It’s not important at all in my life. And I think over the last maybe twenty years, there has been a little bit too much of that “I” journalism. I try to shy away from it as much as possible in “Sidewalks,” because “Sidewalks” is not about me, and it’s not about Charlie. It’s about the subjects.
Studs was curious. He did his research. If you were ever on his show, you would see the books marked up and lined. He was curious about life in every single facet. And he was never embarrassed about what he didn’t know. There’s an inherent insecurity in a lot of hosts. They will not ask a question that they’re not sure of the answer, because it makes them appear to be smarter. You’ll hear long questions where people are trying to expand on what they know.
Studs is the guy who took my dad out for a drink the night I was born. I knew Studs my entire life. In Studs, in my dad, and many in that crowd – Nelson Algren, Art Shay – I’m not going to call it an intellectual curiosity, just a curiosity about life. They were interested in how things worked and what people did. There was no artifice in it. They were simply curious and willing to ask questions.
Studs was a great, great, great, great radio interviewer. He was doing what very few people did in those days, this sort of long form interview. Today, when an author comes on to a show, most of the times the questions will be, “So, what’s your book about?” Studs would have read the book, and would have started an interview with, (begins Studs impression), “On page 48, you talk about your father. And how your father killed your mother. How did that affect you?” Someone who didn’t read the book wouldn’t have that insight, or the ability to trust himself.
Here’s a great story. He had me on in 1980 or so. The Chicago Review Press idiotically decided to publish a collection of “Night Life” columns I was doing for the paper, and because Studs knew me and was friends with my dad, he put me on his show for an hour. And it was a remarkable experience. He said, “Rick, right here you write about Old Town, and that reminds me of Win Stracke. You mention Win Stracke, and I founded the Old Town School with him. Let’s listen to some Win. And here, you write about Riccardo’s. Let’s read what you wrote about Riccardo’s.” This goes on for an hour, and I leave the show, and I am dazzled – dazzled – by this. And I say, “Studs, that was amazing. What’s the secret? What is the secret to what you do?” And he looks at me and goes, “Rick, read the book. Read the book.”
That has stuck with me forever. I’ve never interviewed anybody – unless it was a fly-by-night thing – without reading what they have written, listening to what they have played, because that’s all you need. That’s all you need to do. And shut up, too, and let people talk. That’s the other great thing. Studs was a great, great, great talker, but he also knew when to shut up.
Mike – one of the keys to Mike Royko was that he grew up above a tavern. His dad’s tavern. And he listened. He listened to the way people talked. And he listened to what people talked about. And I’m not advocating having your parents buy a tavern so you can learn the ways of the city, but he got tremendous insight into life there. Plus, I think with Mike, there was an inherent genius. You cannot learn to write like Royko. When Murdoch bought the Sun-Times, he took my father to lunch and said, “How do I get a new Mike Royko?” And what my father told him, he said, “Well, you should go to one of Chicago’s neighborhoods, and maybe in a Korean grocery store or an Asian market, you’ll find a young boy whose parents own the market and who lives upstairs. Keep an eye on him for fifteen years or so, and hope that he is a poet.”
You don’t create Mike. There have been many other columnists in this town, some quite good, some not so good. But never anybody like Mike. He got the city. You can’t explain it, because if you could explain it you could recreate it. You could teach it. And you can’t teach to write like Mike. I’m just rereading Boss. You can’t do it.
There is truth in good journalism and good writing. There is no truth, in my mind, in screaming and self-aggrandizing. Mike would occasionally write about himself on a slow day, but I think there are millions and millions of stories out there, some of them very quiet, some of them tremendously important. The combination of knowing how to report a story, being curious about that story, and then being able to have the gift or craft to translate it into something that everybody understands is essential to understanding life.
Jack M Silverstein covers music, sports, and community in Chicago. His non-fiction novella Our President about Barack Obama’s inauguration is available at Amazon. Read his coverage of Chicago journalism on ChicagoNow’s Eye on Chi, and say hey on Twitter @ReadJack.