#780: It Started Here

April 21st, 2017

It’s one of those mighty and mighty common glass towers that dot downtown Chicago. It’s a glimmering, glistening testament to beautify and individualism, just like the two across the river from it.

It’s condos and rental spaces for stores that don’t seem to materialize. There are ads on the wall for a new ping pong bar, the trendiest of trends for 2017.

Here’s where it all started for Chicago news. This slapdash casement of glass and pretension is the site of the first newspaper ever printed in the city.

“THE DEMOCRAT, Is published every Tuesday, in the village of Chicago, Cook co. Ill. in the building on the corner of South Water and Clark streets,” a fading microfilm from the Harold Washington Library collection attests.

Journalism in Chicago was born on a Tuesday.

It was Tuesday, Nov. 26, 1833, three months and two weeks after the village of Chicago incorporated with 350 residents. The safety pin hadn’t been invented yet, nor Thanksgiving, baseball or the American Whig Party. Abraham Lincoln was 24. Louisa May Alcott wasn’t yet 1.

The first article in Chicago’s news history was a reprint from a St. Louis paper of a Fox chieftain named Ke-O-Kuck bragging about a buffalo hunt.

The standards we look at for modern newspapers were already set by 1833 – paper’s name all big up top, rows of gray text and voice-of-God third-person narration of the day’s events. Aside from the lack of photos, it wouldn’t earn a second glance at a newsstand today.

The only differences are tweaks. There’s a period after the name on the flag, and a byline for the entire newspaper. “Chicago Democrat. By J. Calhoun.”

It would be easy and terribly inaccurate to praise the Democrat. It was, like almost all newspapers of the 1800s, as partisan and pandering as an old man’s Typepad blog.

“The Political complexion of the ‘Democrat’ cannot be mistaken, for it will be in fact, what its name implies,” an editorial in the first issue states, before going on to pledge its allegiance to the policies and practices of Andrew Jackson.

That’s fitting. Newspapers weren’t watchdogs back then, nor intended to be. They were facts and lies strung by the inch, with trial results, ads, gossip from England and recipes for a mixture of egg whites and potash that could be used to brighten and polish the gilding on a picture frame lined in rows based on no more news judgment than where the words fit.

The next few years would see a spurt of newspapers in the spurting city, most now either dead or folded into papers folded into papers folded into papers that might maybe have made it into the digital initiatives of the Sun-Times (started in 1844 as the Chicago Journal) or tronc (1847, Chicago Tribune). The Democrat’s claim isn’t quality or morality, just that it was first.

So what, then, is the purpose of this story? What is the purpose of this spot? Why glorify a heritage that, on its face, isn’t worth glory?

Because everything in Chicago’s journalistic heritage, every Royko tribute, every investigative report, every cloying blog post, statue of Kup, firing by Ferro, scandal uncovered or committed by a news group’s staff or interactive digital startup pledging to be the next big thing came from this glass castle where you can now pay too much for mixed drinks and ping pong.

Because whatever journalism in Chicago will become, it started here.

Read about the Trib’s early days

How the pitch meeting for tronc must have gone

The afterlife of the Sun-Times photographers

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