Fran Spielman

Gary Washburn

(Photos by David Joel)






The mayor of Chicago was not exactly in the best of moods.

The City Council had just approved, by a 42-5 vote, his nominee for commissioner of the Fire Department. It should have been a satisfying moment, but the five dissenters had him boiling.

The commissioner "will lead this department with or without your support," Mayor Richard M. Daley angrily told those who voted against him, "and that is why I selected him.

"This will be a vote you will remember," he added, "and I think you will apologize some day."

It was a compelling bit of drama from a man used to getting what he wants. In the chamber everyone's eyes were riveted on the mayor's reddening face. Paying particularly close attention were Fran Cohen Spielman (SESP75) of the Chicago Sun-Times and Gary Washburn (J68, GJ69) of the Chicago Tribune, sitting elbow to elbow and taking notes in the news media's bullpen.

"I haven't seen anything quite like that from him before," says Washburn, whose coverage of the meeting was on the front page of the next morning's paper. "He has certainly shown his temper, but for a council meeting that was quite out of the ordinary."

Richard Daley is usually good copy, but as City Hall reporters, Spielman and Washburn cover not just the mayor but the goings-on in 44 city departments — everything from animal control to zoning — and the 50-member City Council. There is no dearth of story ideas or activities from which to choose.

"It's a very interesting time in the city's history. The economy is great, and there's so much going on," says Washburn. "The mayor is presiding over major public works projects, he's committed to the beautification of the city, and he now has control of the schools and the Chicago Housing Authority. There is a lot happening in Chicago, and it's a good time to be covering City Hall."

Spielman agrees, though she found former Mayor Jane Byrne "the most fun to cover. She was so unpredictable. She had such a knack for making news. Every day, she would come into work with a batch of headlines. I never worked so hard and never had so much fun."

Even after more than 10 years in office, the current mayor, in Spielman's opinion, is still leery of the news media. "You never get a sense that he's letting down his guard with us," she says. "Daley is very cautious. He wants to get out each day without making news."

On the record, Daley praises the duo. "Fran and Gary are true professionals," he says. "They work hard, they ask intelligent questions and they try to get all sides of an issue before they write their stories. They know their way around city government, and you don't learn that overnight."

The two award-winning reporters took somewhat different routes to the City Hall pressroom. Spielman came to Northwestern from the East Coast with an interest in writing but a recognition that jobs in journalism were scarce at the time. "So I got my [degree] in education. I was careful to study something that I knew I could do, like teaching, rather than something I might be able to do, like reporting."

She pursued her interest in writing by landing a job at the Daily Northwestern covering sports. "I was a novelty," she recalls. "I traveled with the teams, and, in those days, there were no provisions for women reporters. I wasn't allowed in the locker rooms so I stood outside in the cold waiting for the players to shower and get dressed. By the time they walked by me, they had said it all to the male reporters inside. Their answers were very terse. I think I had the shortest quotes in the paper!"

After graduation, Spielman found that there were hiring freezes at both the Tribune and the Sun-Times. When a Chicago radio station offered her a job as a news and sports producer, she took it and in time became its City Hall reporter. When the station changed to an all-Spanish format, Spielman was out of a job briefly before moving to the Sun-Times in 1985.

Washburn, a Chicago native who commuted to the Evanston campus, got into journalism through a process of elimination. "I was lousy at math and science," he says. "I enjoyed writing, and I wanted a job where I wouldn't be tied to a desk. And I wanted a job where I could do some good."

After getting his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the Medill School of Journalism, Washburn went to Chicago's famed City News Bureau, a local wire service. But his draft status was 1-A, and, in a few months, he was on his way to Vietnam for a 14-month stint. When Washburn returned, he went back to City News and a year later joined the Tribune, where he covered real estate and transportation before moving to the City Hall beat in 1996.

The pressroom in City Hall should be the subject of a federal health investigation. Ancient desks crowd the room. Old coffee cups and soda cans are everywhere. There are stains on the walls that could be carbon-dated. Yellowing newspapers are stacked in corners with no apparent purpose other than to take up space and collect dust. There is remodeling going on all around City Hall, but no one is touching the pressroom.

For the reporters who go there each morning, there is no "typical" day. But there are certain routines. Washburn leaves his wife and three of his four kids (his oldest, Megan, is a freshman at Northwestern) on Chicago's Far South Side and reads the Sun-Times on his way to the office. He reads his own paper over coffee at his desk and calls for the recorded message of the mayor's schedule for the day. After checking his voice mail and returning calls, Washburn is ready for business.

Spielman reads the papers on the treadmill at home in suburban Highland Park, where she lives with her husband and their 10-year-old son. While she exercises and reads, her husband pulls up articles on the Internet. When Spielman gets to the pressroom, she makes a round of calls. "What can start out as a very dull day can lead to a great story just from these conversations," she says. "It's all about relationships and what people tell you. Scoops aren't handed to you. You get stories because you work hard."

Chicago is one of the few cities left in the United States with two competing metropolitan daily newspapers. The Tribune, with a weekday circulation of around 624,000, used to bill itself as "The World's Greatest Newspaper." The Sun-Times, with approximately 485,000 weekday readers, has a banner above the name that touts it as the "Midwest's Best-Read Newspaper."

There are some fundamental differences between the two publications. The Tribune is seen as the more conservative paper, with a history of endorsing Republican candidates for office. The Sun-Times is viewed as more liberal and Democratic. Many observers also consider the Tribune a bit more buttoned-down and the tabloid-size Sun-Times somewhat breezier. Spielman points out that the Sun-Times relies heavily on newsstand sales, which partly accounts for its attention-getting headlines. By contrast, the Tribune is more subscription-driven. "The Sun-Times thrives on getting exclusives, and I thrive on providing them," Spielman says.

The two papers' news emphases also differ. "I think the Sun-Times is more focused on city news," says Mindy Trossman (GJ77), co-director of the Medill News Service. "The Tribune has a bigger vision. They have their own reporters all around the world. They put more emphasis on national news. The Sun-Times is more aggressive in consistently doing investigations into political and urban issues."

In some ways, the City Hall reporters mirror many of those differences. "The two reporters are a lot like their newspapers," says a former press aide who dealt regularly with them. "Fran likes to seek out the conflict; she's more sensational. Gary is more direct and to the point. I think they really are reflections of their papers."

From the time when there were more than a dozen Chicago papers to today, the competition has always been fierce. "I want to win every day," Spielman says. "I want every story. I have a burning desire to be the best. My husband is a very good cook, so I don't even try to cook because I won't be the best!"

Washburn, too, feels the heat. "It's a high-pressure beat," he says. "There is intense competition. We compete with everyone who covers City Hall, but the primary battlefield is between the Tribune and the Sun-Times. We're always trying to outscoop each other."

Though the current rivalry has existed only since Washburn was assigned to City Hall four years ago, the two have faced each other before. During the 10 years Washburn covered transportation issues for the Tribune, Spielman had the same beat for the Sun-Times for three of those years. "We battled every day there, too," Washburn recalls.

Bob Crawford, a WBBM-AM reporter who has worked in the City Hall pressroom for more than 30 years, respects the effort they bring to their jobs. "They are extremely conscientious, hard-working people and valued colleagues," he says.

Most often, the two reporters wind up covering the same story, though their slants and sources may differ. City Council meetings, mayoral press conferences, department hearings and certain events that the mayor attends outside City Hall are all the kinds of activities that each will report on. The morning papers then carry their stories on such issues as the approval of a parking fee hike at O'Hare International Airport, a hearing on the council's buildings committee on new regulations for rehabbing structures or the mayor's proposal for a new anti-gang law.

The challenge is to find the story the other doesn't have. And that means building and maintaining relationships with sources and knowing where to look.

One drawback is the cramped quarters of the pressroom where Spielman's and Washburn's respective desks are right across from each other. "I just don't like it that we're all in this little room. You can hear everybody else's conversations!" Spielman says.

For Washburn, too, topping the competition is probably the most satisfying part of the job. "It's great to have your story on page 1. It's fun to pick up the paper and see it right there. But the real reward is when your story is on page 1, and she doesn't have the story at all!"

As the alderman of Chicago's 48th Ward, Mary Ann Smith is often part of the stories Spielman and Washburn cover. She thinks that the strength of both of them is institutional memory and long experience covering city issues.

"It's fun to work with them because they're so quick on the uptake," Smith says. "The hardest thing in dealing with reporters is when they don't have an understanding of the history around here. Fran and Gary have that sense of history and the irony of things. They both really get it; they know their stuff."

Spielman also believes that background is an important asset. "It's a continuum here at City Hall," she says. "You need to present the readers with a sense of where things have come from. You can't just do a story that says, 'Here's what happened today.' You can't write your stories in isolation, or you do a disservice to the readers. The frustrating thing about young reporters is that they don't have a sense of history."

In Chicago, that civic body of knowledge can include remembering the names of aldermen indicted in a federal sting from 10 years ago or being able to recite famous malapropisms from "the first" Mayor Daley. It can involve bond issues and bond hearings. But it also includes knowing knowing how to play the angles.

There is rarely a dull moment.

Terry Stephan (GJ78) is a freelance writer based in Chicago.