ROGER EBERT & CLARENCE PAGE
Highlights from Issue 24: The Chicago Issue
Roger Ebert (L) and Clarence Page (R)
ILLUSTRATIONS BY KEVIN CHRISTY
Tuesday, December 27, 2005
What follows is an unabridged interview from Issue 24: The Chicago Issue
For more information on this issue, click here
FINE PRINT: VIEWS FROM TWO CHICAGO COLUMNISTS
By the Editors
ROGER EBERT: The film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times and co-host of Ebert & Roeper keeps the balcony open
Stop Smiling: Was there a singular moment that led you to want to be a newspaperman?
Roger Ebert: My best friend's father was the city editor of the local paper. He took us on a tour of the office, and when a pressman set my name into type, I was hooked. I was about seven.
SS: You began writing for your high school newspaper at the age of 15. What was your first column about?
RE: I covered Urbana High School sports. I was a kid, but not an intern. It was, locally, an important beat. In the summer, I was moved over to the state desk, where I got a lot of practical experience covering crashes, fires, county fairs and such. The veterans on the newspaper staff were incredibly supportive and helpful, as they drilled me with AP Style and everything else.
SS: Was there one writer or columnist you looked up to?
RE: I admired a News-Gazette colleague named Bill Lyon, who was a year older than me, smoked cigars and seemed to know all the answers. He became a famous sports columnist in Philadelphia.
SS: What was it like getting started as a columnist and critic in Chicago in the Sixties? Mike Royko was an influence, was he not?
RE: Those were heady days. The movies were going through a period of incredible creativity, and the Sun-Times was a writers' paper — we were given a lot of freedom to develop personal voices. Royko, of course, was the legend, and he became a friend very soon. The climate in those days was less oriented around celebrity gossip and box office performance, and more aimed at the movies themselves, an orientation I have tried to continue.
SS: Do you believe, as many do, that newspapers are on their way out? It's clear that you don't need to do your newspaper reviews or your column anymore, but that you like to and have said as much.
RE: Oh, I need to do the newspaper work. That's where my heart is, and I'm a much better writer than I am a TV person. I think print journalism will always be with us. The Internet is too narrow. I find what I'm looking for, but the paper informs me about what I didn't know to look for. I can't begin the day without the paper and a cup of coffee.
SS: You've been the film critic at the Chicago Sun-Times for almost 40 years. You've weathered several owners and unquestionably dozens of editors. What has kept you at the same paper for so long?
RE: Why should I ever have left? I had all the space and freedom I wanted under all of those owners and editors. There were dark days when Rupert Murdoch took over, but I decided it was my paper, not his.
SS: What brought you to Chicago from Urbana, where you went to college?
RE: I went to university in Urbana because there was no money to go elsewhere. Luckily it was a great university. I came to Chicago as a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of Chicago, and started part-time at the Sun-Times. Over the years I have come to love this beautiful city, which I like to call the largest habitable city in America.
CLARENCE PAGE: The Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the Chicago Tribune discusses the art of the op-ed
Stop Smiling: You grew up in Ohio and became a staffer for the Chicago Tribune after college. What brought you to Chicago?
Clarence Page: I was finishing at Ohio University. A couple Tribune editors came to my campus looking for prospective employees and invited me back. This was around March of 1969. From that visit, I got an offer to work at the paper. I remember flying in and looking out the window. They had just capped off the John Hancock building and no one on the plane knew what it was. They were asking why there was a huge grain silo in the middle of Chicago.
SS: Did you begin writing at a young age?
CP: I had a column in my high school and college papers, which was my best preparation. I wanted to be a columnist since I was 16. The best way to learn journalism is to do it — we're a service business and you don't really know how effective or lousy you are until you're writing for an audience. Exposing your work to the world, that's the real point of courage for a writer. The only thing that tripped me when I became a columnist at 36 was that I had never spent any time grooming myself as an opinion writer. I had spent 20 years at that point as an “objective reporter.” It takes you a couple years to find your voice. That was a tougher transition than going from print to broadcast.
SS: You're a regular on The McLaughlin Group. Does McLaughlin ever go easy on you?
CP: No. He loves catching you off-guard with off-the-wall questions. He's a former Jesuit schoolteacher who loved to teach by the Socratic method — he stands you up and hits you with a question you should know if you read every word of your homework. People who aren't ready to give quick answers don't belong in that kind of forum. I enjoy it, because I love to argue.
SS: Was there one columnist you were emulating early on?
CP: In my younger days, there was a freelance black journalist who was prominent in the black press named Louis Lomax. He got an exclusive interview with Fidel Castro. Lomax was the first black guest that I saw on The Jack Paar Show that didn't have a song or a dance or a comedy act. He just sat down and talked about Castro and Latin American relations and the Cold War. Lomax showed me that it didn't matter what your skin color was, just as long as you had the story, the major media will buy it.
Also, the editor of my school newspaper was Joe Eszterhas, the writer from Rolling Stone and the self-proclaimed highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood for a time. When I arrived as a freshman, Joe was the first guy that showed me that there's more to journalism than the inverted pyramid.
SS: What's the anatomy of one of your columns?
CP: Generally I have 750 words — that's not a lot of space, so you're looking for little pegs that can summarize your main point. There's always the dream and reality. The dream is that you've got plenty of time to prepare for it, have it outlined the day before, turned in well in advance of your deadline so everyone has a chance to look at it. In fact, I'm always scrambling.
SS: Since 1991, you've been based in the Washington bureau of the Tribune. How's your view of Chicago from a distance? For example, the ideas generated by the black leadership in Chicago.
CP: True, there is a lot of black leadership in Chicago, but there's a lot of leadership from Chicago, period. You really appreciate this when you live someplace else. Chicago is the city of Saul Alinsky and great community organizers, which are models for the country. I covered housing in Chicago for years, and the city has always been a laboratory, not just for great architects, but for great housing and community organizations. You look at the new leadership — Dick Durbin has been rising for years as a leader in the Senate, and of course Barack Obama, who everyone is looking at now.
SS: Are you concerned about the decline in newspaper circulations?
CP: We're in a time of transition that concerns me, but I'm also excited by it. I've been hearing about the decline of newspapers since before I got into the business, so I've never been frightened by that kind of talk. The Tribune Company has always been on the cutting edge — the Tribune was not only one of the first newspapers to go online, but we were early investors in America Online. I don't predict the end of newspapers, I predict the end of paper.