The News Cycle
What was once unthinkable is the new reality
Published: February 26, 2014
Well, well, well, how the worm does turn.
Back in 1977, if I’d have told my father that one day there’d be a bronze statue of Frank Zappa at the corner of Eastern Avenue and South Conkling Street, he’d have said, “Better stop smoking that shit, Ace.”
That same year—four decades ago, Jimmy in the White House and the Sex Pistols pissing on the Queen—Russ Smith (editor) and Alan Hirsch (businessman) launched a smart, smug, and impudent tabloid called the City Squeeze.
And if someone had told Smith that Arunah S. Abell’s dreadnought Sunpapers would eventually adopt his bitching baby, Russ would have told them to pass the shit his way and get their head out of their ass.
It’s not that he wouldn’t have sold the paper to The Sun if the price was right. A decade after the first issue hit Crabtown, Smith and Hirsch unloaded City Paper on Times-Shamrock Communications of Scranton, Pa., for a ballpark figure estimated at some $4 million.
It’s simply that the idea was beyond absurd, like thinking that Baltimoreans are going to start scrubbing their marble steps on Saturday mornings again.
In February of 1978, a revamped Squeeze debuted as the City Paper and it often seemed like it existed solely to unnerve The Sun. Russ Smith loved throwing rocks at the Goliath on North Calvert Street, where he once worked in the library and relished having filched a file photo of Billy the Kid.
Largely through the RUMP, a juicy gossip feature, Smith so tortured former Sun columnist Michael Olesker that Olesker responded with an article painting the City Paper as a schoolyard bully desperate for attention. Which, of course, tickled Smith greatly.
The once-mighty Sun, owned by the Tribune Company of Chicago since 2000, has long been a shell of its former glorious and global self. (Its editorial board singlehandedly put Harry Hughes in the governor’s mansion in 1978. The paper once operated eight foreign bureaus—from Mexico City to mainland China—and boasted in house ads that “The Sun Never Sets on the World.”)
Today, you’d think the only daily in town was a house organ of the Baltimore Ravens.
And now, for a sum likely less than the $4 million that Times-Shamrock reportedly paid for it in 1987, The Baltimore Sun has purchased a onetime weakling fat with ads that would make longtime state censor Mary Avara choke on her Polock Johnny’s.
“It would have been absolutely unthinkable for this to happen when we started,” said Ken Sokolow, a Hopkins alumnus who first wrote Mobtown Beat. “The management of the City Paper and [management at] The Sun practiced mutual detestation.”
“It’s like the owner of the Titanic sitting in a lifeboat,” said Sokolow. “As the great ship sinks, he turns to an underling and says, ‘I’m going to buy the Lusitania.’”
What do they say about living long enough?
You’ll see it all, hon.
I was 19 years old in the fall of 1977, just off a summer as an ordinary seaman on a Puerto Rican container ship and a sophomore at what was then Loyola College. One day, a stack of papers that was decidedly not the Loyola Greyhound appeared in the cafeteria. It was the City Squeeze and the masthead listed a phone number.
I called and said I was a writer, which was not exactly true, but it also wasn’t a lie. (I had kept journals since the 10th grade; rewrote the lyrics to Robin Trower songs and called it poetry; spent time on the curb in front of my grandfather’s rowhouse in Highlandtown using words to sketch the homes across the street.)
I’m pretty sure I was the first non-Hopkins kid to work for the Squeeze, which Smith and Hirsch—along with classmates Eric Garland, Jennifer Bishop, Craig Hankin, Joachim Blunck, and others—first published under the noses of the deans from the campus News-Letter office.
I pitched a story about a longshoreman’s strike that had shut down the port of Baltimore, used my father’s waterfront connections to scoop The Sun, and was welcomed into the fold.
Soon, Russ and I were piling bundle upon bundle of each week’s issue into the trunk of my brand-new 1978 Ford Granada, dumping papers around town until the springs began to give way on the car my folks had bought me to get back and forth from Loyola.
My parents were happy that I was doing what I had always wanted and invited Russ and his future and now ex-wife, Katie Gunther (a writer), to their Linthicum home for a big dinner to celebrate my 20th birthday with my future and now ex-wife, Deborah Rudacille (a writer who is now also an occasional CP contributor).
Russ liked a cold beer and a good story, and my old man liked a cold beer and a good story. After dinner, Pop broke out the Anis del Mono and Cuarenta y Tres for a Spanish digestif known as “sol y sombra,” and Smith liked that even more.
For a solid three years, I was under Russ Smith’s formidable spell: smoking reefer at the editor’s desk while discussing assignments (Muddy Waters at the Marble Bar, the decline of National Bohemian beer, riding a garbage truck for a day) and rock and roll (he worshipped Dylan; I remained possessed by Quadrophenia).
At home, I have a photocopy of the first check, signed by Alan Hirsch, I ever received for my writing. It came after a year of working for the thrill of a byline. The pay back then, some 36 years ago, was $25 for 1,000 words. That’s $25 more than most websites pay today.
Through it all, I had a night job dispatching delivery trucks in The Sun circulation department. There, I used a secretary’s IBM Selectric to write City Paper stories on the sly while keeping an eye out for a job—any job—in the newsroom on the fifth floor.
Though Smith never let up in his disdain for the morning paper, he wrote a beautiful letter of recommendation for me when I took my City Paper longshoreman’s story to Dick Basoco (now COO and executive editor of Baltimore magazine) in The Sun personnel department and asked to be a clerk in the sports department.
I got that job, was soon promoted to the city desk and for the next 20 years filed stories there on everything from Orthodox Jews to Ostrowski’s Polish sausage. But I’ll never forget that the City Paper was the first place to give me a chance.
My future opportunities would include a staff gig on The Wire and, after that honor, a four-year spin through network TV in Los Angeles. But I didn’t want to tell L.A. stories and I didn’t like being stuck in a room with other writers and the choice was clear when I was fired from the NBC show Life in 2008 after a hundred-day writer’s strike.
I came home over the 2009 Fourth of July holiday (welcomed by a crab feast) and began scrambling for any work I could get.
The City Paper took my call. The pay was OK (not great, but without a Guild contract, what 21st-century newspaper gig is?), and my tales of ordinary Baltimoreans living life to good purpose were both welcomed and encouraged.
Now, perhaps singular among the folks who started at the City Paper and made it to The Sun (Jim Burger, J.D. Considine, and Catherine “Katie” Gunther Kodat, among others), the sale of CP to Tribune means I have cruised the circle twice: City Paper to Sun to City Paper to Sun.
And I’d like to keep doing it, just like we used to in the good ole days.
Smith and Hirsch (Russ irascible, Alan lovable) were fun, irreverent, and, when it came to the product, no-nonsense.
Early on, I used a close friend to photograph a story, and Russ was not pleased with the results. When I argued that my buddy would surely get better over time, he snapped: “We’re not here to teach people how to do their job.”
The message was clear. This was not an experiment by wannabes attempting to publish a newspaper. It was a newspaper.
Whether it will remain one is the only question the North Calvert Street brain trust should be asking themselves today.
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