If you heard his voice on tape or in person, you would know why Alden Loury once dreamed of being a baseball play-by-play announcer. When you see his work as reporter, editor, and now publisher of the Chicago Reporter, you know why he’s in the right place. Here in the ninth installment of Jack M Silverstein’s Chicago journalism People With Passion series, Mr. Loury discusses his time as a “score-taker” at Champaign’s News-Gazette, his passion for race and poverty issues, the magic of the newsroom, and why he enjoys being a publisher while missing the joys of being an editor.
As a kid I wasn’t thinking at all about journalism, not even remotely, but my introduction had to have been the sports pages. My grandfather was a Sun-Times guy. My mom would get the Sun-Times too. I would flip to the back and read from the back. Once I started getting to the classifieds, I’d stop. I wasn’t reading anything else, nothing in news or any of that stuff. Just, What were the scores? Looking at the box scores. I’d read some of the stories, some of the commentary. That was pretty much my introduction to journalism.
It was my second college career. I’d gone to college to study architecture. That didn’t really work out. I tried a couple of other things – history, computer science. This was at the U. of I. It was bad. I was away from home for the first time, and really having fun. I ended up going to a school where I knew a lot of people from high school. I partied a lot, didn’t pay attention to my studies, so none of those things really worked out for me.
I ended up having to take a year off. I worked at a bank. And in order to make some extra income, I started working at the local newspaper down in Champaign. They needed what they called score-takers. Essentially, it is a grunt job in the sports department where you would come in maybe four hours a night. You would man the phones. Coaches from high school teams would call in their scores. You would take the box score, who scored, all that. Essentially you were writing up a short box score.
Every blue moon, if it was a really important game, some of the writers would let the score takers know, “Whoever gets the call from the so-and-so coach, the basketball game went to triple overtime and some kid hit a shot at the buzzer to win the game. I covered another game, but I want to write something about that. So when the coach calls in, either transfer the coach to me or take a quick comment, quote, something like that.” There were times when I had a chance to do that, to talk to a coach, get a quote. I got a chance to write a few of these. There was one in particular that was the lead item in the round-up section. It got a full headline. The summary was short. But the piece that I wrote was the featured thing. I didn’t get a byline, but seeing that really got me thinking, “Man, this is cool.”
This was the News-Gazette in Champaign. And that got me thinking, “Maybe I should go back to school.” I wasn’t thinking necessarily about print journalism. My dream was to be a play-by-play announcer. That was something as a kid that I thought would be really cool. I turned down the volume on baseball games and would pretend I was Harry Caray, or whoever I was watching. But I remember that experience at the paper, and ultimately when I ended up switching over to print, that was part of the reason.
When I was at the junior college – Parkland College, there in Champaign also – I was in their communications program. They do full immersion, and so the first week you’re on the air for two hours as a DJ. That was pretty cool. While all that was going on, I was required to take a news writing course. There was an anchor from one of the local TV stations that taught the course. A guy named Ed Kelly. I don’t know if it was him, but that course really turned me on to, like, “This is interesting, this is fun.”
One of the things that captured my imagination was writing for TV, writing for radio. You had to synthesize a multi-faceted story in 30 seconds to a minute. And I know there are a lot of people who say that’s the death of real meaningful journalism, but it piqued my interest because I thought that was an incredibly hard thing to do and to do well. Boiling it down and still hitting enough for people to get a good understanding of what happened. It made it feel like a really important job, the person who has to break things down for, in the case of some broadcast outlets, literally millions of people. From there I started looking at internships and thinking, “Maybe I should be thinking about news reporting.”
My first internship was at the local news talk station there in Champaign, and it was in the newsroom, in the news department. I had a lot of fun there. I was probably cemented at that point to that arm of the journalism world. When I graduated, I felt obligated to at least send some things out and see if I could find something doing sports. But I wasn’t at all disappointed when those things turned out.
Mary Schmich at the Tribune mentioned stepping into a professional news room for the first time, and at first feeling like “I don’t know how anyone can get any work done here,” but then slowly she sort of fell in love with just being in the news room.
Was that something that you had?
I don’t remember necessarily walking in for the first time, but I will say that there is something – ‘magical’ is probably a little dramatic – but there’s a buzz that flows through a newsroom. There’s an energy there. There’s a pace. The News-Gazette newsroom, it was big. You had a lot of activity. In my mind, that’s the way journalism should be performed. Even if you’ve got people doing different things, I think those folks should all be in the same space. It’s almost like there’s something in the air, and everybody’s got to breathe that stuff in.
In that newsroom we had these short partitions. When you sat at your desk, you were kind of in your own space, but there was a reporter literally right next to you. Then there was a partition and on the other side there were two more desks. You had this camaraderie with these folks. You could easily look up and talk to people in another department. There were a lot of conversations that happened that way. The composition room was not far off, the editors were not far off, and a lot of those conversations, instead of walking, would happen from 30 to 40 feet away. “Hey, I got this story coming in, but I’ve got another piece, I’ve got a meeting I’ve got to go to tonight.” Or, you know, “How much room do I have on this?” All of these conversations about various aspects of what we were doing. They were all happening at the same time. It was just sort of… (pause) cool.
Our newsroom here, we’ve tried to create that. The reporters are compartmentalized to some degree, and they have some interchange. We have to get up and go there or they get up and come here to talk to the editors. And then the Catalyst is right there. But we’re still kind of segmented.
Do you miss not being able to kind of, you know, “Hey!”
I do. I was there for three years, and if I was going to design a newsroom, I would design it like that. People are there and they’re right across the desk from you, or they’re right over the partition from you. That’s what I would say about newsrooms.
There’s this communal aspect to reporting and editing and writing. When the newsroom was quiet, in some ways it was harder to write. It was more natural to feel that there was, not chaos necessarily, but that there was activity. That got your juices flowing to think of that lead that was escaping you, or to help you fish through that quote. Or if you had a quick question here, you know, How do you spell so-and-so’s name again? Or something like that. Yeah. I miss that.
Green Street, University of Illinois.Probably personal experience as an African American male growing up in Chicago. That experience has, as an investigative journalist, endeared me to a number of things. I’ve never myself had any real run-ins with police. But I have had interactions that I think have been clear statements to me about the different type of relationships that black men have with law enforcement. From a memorable traffic stop I had in 1995, to the first time I stepped on the U. of I. campus as a freshman for the orientation weekend and going out on Green Street, essentially the main thoroughfare through campus. Commercial shops and stuff like that. That was where folks would hang out. We went down there, just me and my roommate, a good high school buddy of mine. We bumped into somebody we knew from high school. There were maybe four of us, and U. of I. police car pulls up, cops get out and start asking us questions, asking for our I.D. And it’s like, “Uh, okay. Is there a problem with us…?” We certainly didn’t say anything. So little things like that.
As a journalist, that’s always been a passion for me, the criminal justice system and how it operates. Jury selection was a really interesting story. Jurors are ultimately the arbiters of someone being guilty or not guilty, and race is a real threat there. Growing up in Chicago, living in the segregation, living within the racial disparities of the kind of schools and hospitals and community centers and grocery stores that are in your African American neighborhoods on the south side, and then getting a chance to go to other places in the city, either coming downtown or driving through a white neighborhood on the way out of town, and getting a sense of how different things were. That experience, and particularly the experience that I’ve had in regard to law enforcement, made me passionate about writing and reporting on those particular issues.
September of ’99, I saw this ad for the Reporter. I had never heard of the Reporter, but the job description talked about doing investigative reporting on race and poverty issues. I thought, “That sounds pretty damn interesting.” Until that point I’d never thought about that being a particular thing that I could focus my journalism on. I was covering city government at the Gazette. I got to write about a lot of issues that revolved around race, that revolved around issues between folks in the African American community there in Champaign and the police. But it wasn’t until I got here that it hit me that this is where I should be. And here we are almost 12 years later.
Publisher is a very challenging job. I’ll say that. The world of journalism is different than it was even three and a half years ago. It’s tough for any news organization to sustain itself and remain relevant. So that’s a challenge. It’s also a challenge because I’ve been learning the job while on the job. That’s been tough. It’s been great though because the work that Kimbriell and the reporters have done, along with Rui, has been fabulous. To get an opportunity to go out and represent that world and talk about it has been great. It’s been a real honor to be at the helm of this place. It’s something that I will cherish for the rest of my life. It’s been a lot of fun.
I am a hardcore journalist, though, so I do miss mixing it up. I don’t say this often to these guys, but I envy them. I really enjoyed the job of senior editor. It gave me a different view than it did as a reporter, but I was still close enough to the actual reporting and writing to feel like I was engaged. I did a lot of data analysis for the projects that I edited, enough so that I even got my byline on stuff that Kimbriell and others did. And being a reporter was great too. I enjoyed that. So I miss that, without a doubt. Yeah…
There’s something rewarding about being in this seat. You get to see the impact of the work easier than you do when you’re in it everyday. It’s fulfilling as a journalist to know that the work you’re helping to do is leading to at least the hope for reforms and change to benefit the lives of real people. I’m glad that this is where my fork ended. Certainly I would have had a lot of fun calling ballgames, but at the end of the day, whose lives would be changed as a result of that?
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.