Chuck Sudo‘s path to editor-in-chief of Chicagoist included stints in the military, slam poetry, and marketing, and though that sounds like an unusual road to travel on your way to being an online editor and food critic, when you speak with him, his journey makes as much sense as that of a college j-school standout turned journalism intern turned professional writer. That’s some of the magic of life, I think.
In the sixth installment of Jack M Silverstein’s Chicago journalism People With Passion interview series, Chuck speaks with Jack about the value of observation, the competition between online and print media, and the challenge of proving the legitimacy of a new site in a new medium.
I was on the student newspaper and took honors journalism at Lane Tech. I wanted to study going into college, but I didn’t know if I was going to go to college or join the military. Opted for the latter. Main reason was I just wanted to get out of the house. My recruiter saw my aptitude battery scores – I scored pretty high, it wasn’t hard. They knew I wanted to be a journalist, but I think he saw dollar signs in his eyes, and what he did was he sort of steered me toward the Navy’s nuclear engineering program. He kept saying, “I think this might be a better fit for you. I don’t know if you’ll be able to get a journalism billet.” And, “Take this entry exam here and see how you score, and if you score well, then we can talk about it later. But you’re not obligated to do the program just by taking the test.”
From there the bullshit just flew. I took the exam, scored high, and said, “Let’s talk about the journalism billet.” And he said, “Well, I’m not sure that you’re going to be able to do that.” He kept saying it was a billet that was very competitive.
At the time I was thinking, “If it’s competitive, why can’t my test scores secure me that billet?” Every reason he gave seemed reasonable at the time, and in retrospect it’s probably part of the training for being a recruiter, being able to overcome those objections, like being a salesman, being a marketer, being a public relations expert. I finally told him to lay it out on the table: What’s in it for you? He told me the signing bonus that would be for him if he signed me up for the program. He also said that signing me up to study nuclear power would be like going to 26th and California and trying to find some juvenile delinquents that a judge said, “You need to shape up or you’re going to become recidivist.” I said, “Okay, I’ll do it, but I need assurances that if I don’t like the program that I can go to a billet that I’m happy with.” And he lied and said “Yeah.”
Damn. (pause) Did your military experience influence your journalism career? Your writing style? I mean, I know Royko talks a lot about having served in Korea, and Hunter Thompson was a sportswriter in the Air Force…
I think being overseas and trying not to do the standard serviceman thing –go to the first bar outside your naval base and get drunk – and trying to actually immerse yourself in the countries you visited, whether it’s Singapore or Indonesia or the Middle East or North Africa or the Caribbean – I think what it does is it opens your eyes. It trains you to look at the world around you and see what’s happening.
As far as the writing style, the writing style just developed from practice. Because it doesn’t matter where you start learning journalism. Whether it’s in high school or college, or if you just sort of stumble into it after not having studied it. The principals are the same. It’s who, what, when, where, why, how. Be objective, be fair, be honest, and have no conflicts of interest. Those principals are still the same, and you can learn them wherever. But I think it’s the observation. It’s learning those keen reporting skills. That comes with observation. That comes with looking at something and saying, “Something’s not right here, maybe there’s something else here that can corroborate that.” Or, “There’s something deeper,” and then you start digging.
After I was discharged, I came home to Chicago. The comedy boom was happening back then. This was, what, ’94 I think? I thought, “Maybe I can make people laugh, so maybe I’ll become a comedian.” I looked at it, and I saw all the comedy clubs that were open in Chicago were starting to close because that bubble was bursting. Slam poetry was starting to come up big, so I started doing open mics, and becoming involved with a local poetry collective. That lasted a couple years. Then I got a job as a marketer for an internet auction.
Marketing writing teaches you how to work within boilerplate and how to be concise, so that eventually leant bits to the writing style. As did the poetry. You know, poetry teaches you to use an economy of words, but try to show a lot of evocative imagery. So that all led to it. And then eventually when the time came where I finally joined up with Chicagoist, I had all this stored up, so I could actually work on developing my own style. Because internet writing, there’s room for long form writing. But the majority of it seems tailored to something within 3 to 400 words max. Especially with blog journalism: Get the word out. It’s a new medium, but good writing, like with print journalism, is still the fuel that drives the engine. There’s room for both. It’s how the writer keeps the reader’s attention that matters. And I think online media gets that.
I wasn’t doing anything online at the time. I think both Chicagoist and Gapers Block were my initial introductions. There was some crowdsourcing-based open-content website, similar to companies like Associated Content today, where you basically just write 400 words, hope that you don’t have any typos, and post it. They offered those pie-in-the-sky revenue streams where you’ll get a penny for every hundred page views or something. You knew it wasn’t much, but it also served as a good way to start working on your stuff.
And then sites like Gapers Block came around, and Gapers is really good at just being able to link you to the interesting things. Chicagoist, when they came in, Rachelle Bowden was the naïve and observant country mouse saying, “Wow, I didn’t know this was here.” And then you had Margaret Lyons who was hardcore and from New York, she was going to U. of C., so there was more of an edge to her writing. There was the snark. There was the sarcasm. They made for a good tag team. And then seeing other folks come aboard – Scott Smith, Erin Shea, Sam Bakken who was just as stream-of-consciousness as stream-of-consciousness could get at the time – I think that’s what made the site more appealing to me than other media.
Writers like Smith and Shea were able to look at other news and put it into context. It wasn’t just a read-and-rip rehash. They weren’t trying to just copy wire copy. They were able to look at stories and say, “Here’s what’s going on,” to find other links and other stories to corroborate their position and, again, put that into context. That’s another great thing about online journalism – your bibliography is in your post.
I turned 35 and I was tending bar at a club in the South Loop called HotHouse. I was at the point where I kept saying, “I want to write, I want to do something.” I kept looking at sites like Gapers, like Chicagoist, and thinking, Well, this could be a good option. Both websites put out a call for readers – this was back in 2005, I want to say. They were looking for writers, and I flipped a coin to determine which outlet I wanted to write for. Because they both had their positives, and they both had their disadvantages.
So I flipped a coin and it turned up Chicagoist. They were looking for both arts and entertainment writers and food and drink writers. Since I was tending bar, I knew my cocktails, I knew my beer, and I was considering studying for my sommelier certification. At the same time, I wasn’t so certain that they were looking for someone who would only want to write about things like jazz, improvised music, world music – basically anything that’s not indie rock, all the time. So I flipped a coin on that. And then I applied for food and drink.
And that was it.
Your title now is editor-in-chief. What has changed for you about the way that you see stories, the way that you see reporting, the way that you see journalism, the way that you see editing…?
Not much. I think we’ve taken it a little bit back to basics as far as the writing style. I replaced Marcus Gilmer who’s now at the A.V. Club. Marcus is pop culture obsessive. And that’s great. It works for him. I love obsessing about the news. I love seeing what’s going on with hard news. And we’ve taken a little bit of a step back in that direction. Marcus was really good at it, but he looked at it from his viewpoint. We have different viewpoints of looking at hard news. I think we both want to provide context to the stories and get the news out there and at least show what’s happening. I think there’s more of a balance.
Another thing is being able to keep up with the flow of information, because there’s so much going on. Being able to sort of cull the wheat from the chaff as it is, to get to the juicy nuggets that do matter.
The advantage that internet reporters and internet outlets always have over print is they’re now able to be a minute-by-minute source –
They are, but I’d rather opt for the side of accuracy over speed. I think we’re all on a level playing field for that, because remember: most print media outlets also have online concerns now. We’re all mining the same information, we’re all looking at twitter and trying to crowdsource, we’re all looking at wire service reports. We’re all still looking somewhere else to see what’s happening. I think instead of online media outlets waiting for the print concerns to weigh in with it, you’re becoming more able to be in the same loop as the other media.
CPD investigates a bomb threat (John H. White/Sun-Times)
Example, what was going on Wednesday with the bomb scare at Federal Plaza. That bomb scare was happening early in the morning, but we couldn’t confirm what the hell was going on until the afternoon. And believe me, we tried. I was looking at our various twitter feeds. At 8:30 a.m., followers to the twitter feed were saying, “What’s going on at Dearborn and Clark? What’s going on at Federal Plaza?” We’re trying to look at what’s going on. We’re calling around. We’re calling the police department. We’re calling the Department of Homeland Security to see why everything’s being blocked off. And in their usual non-committals, you know that there’s something going on, so you just try to keep an eye on it.
Most of our staff is volunteer. We have an online group on google that we can bounce ideas off. So I bounce it off a couple people I know who work by Federal Plaza and say, “What’s going on?” And then they would check back and say, “Yeah, it’s blocked off, there’s something going on.” So we keep tabs on it to see what’s happening. The afternoon is when the breaking news services, Sun-Times Media Group and Chicago Breaking News at the Tribune, started running those stories that there was the bomb scare, so we knew there was something hot going on there.
But I think there’s still a little bit of a problem with trying to convince government officials, especially on a federal level – and I think that’s what I learned from Wednesday – that yeah, we’re a credible news source. Aggregation of other media outlets’ content is still a part of what we do. It’s easier to post original content on the food and drink beats and the arts and entertainment beats because they’re specialized fields. But if you’re looking to do hard news, you’re basically relying on one person to call around, and that person’s me. A lot of times I still have to rely on what I’m reading elsewhere or what’s being picked up in your social media streams elsewhere.
So speaking of still having to prove yourself and still in many ways introducing yourself to the city, what is it that Chicagoist gives to the city, to the journalistic landscape, that people can’t get elsewhere?
Some immediacy. I think we write to the desires of our readers a little better than other media outlets. I’ve long told the staff that if it’s exciting to us, if it’s interesting to us, it will be interesting to the readers. While other media outlets are concentrating on, say, “What’s the latest with Rahm Emanuel’s first hundred days?” we’ll look at something like, “Sonic’s looking at Uptown for a location? Let’s call our alderman. Let’s call a publicist from Sonic and see if anything’s going on here.” Same thing with the Wal-Mart stuff. Everyone else back in November is looking at who’s going to run for mayor, but for us what really generated traffic was “Wal-Mart’s opening in Lakeview. What’s going on here? Can we talk to Tom Tunney? Can we talk to reps from Wal-Mart.”
I don’t look at this as a gift horse. For someone who graduated from high school and eventually flunked out of the nuclear power program in the Navy, I still look at every day as sort of like, “This is good. Somehow I’ve managed to do it.” It’s really been six to seven years of a lot of work.
The writers who have been with Chicagoist the longest, myself, Jim Kopeny our senior editor for arts and entertainment, people like Kevin Robinson, Rob Christopher – we all recognized that there was potential at the site. And it fits our individual interests best. I think even as a food and drink writer, there was some potential for being able to reach a wider audience, and for being able to work on the craft, both writing and as a journalist. The site earned a reputation early on for being able to keep up with other outlets for its food and drink coverage, and that’s something I’m really proud of and something I’m glad that Anthony and the food and drink staff has been able to continue today. Same thing with Jim and the arts and entertainment beat. We’re able to do a lot of things that you’re not going to find elsewhere. This morning’s report by Betsy Mikel about the Downtown Dash next month. A good example of things that we can do as well as other outlets.
So you’re happy that the coin flipped up Chicagoist…
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, I love Huff, and I love what Gapers does. But I’m glad the way the coins flipped. (Laughs.)
Jack M Silverstein is an oral historian working in Chicago. His non-fiction novella Our President about Barack Obama’s inauguration is available at Amazon. Say hey on Twitter @ReadJack.