The Chicago Defender made its reputation with its unsparing coverage of race riots and lynchings. (Courtesy the Chicago Defender)

How to get a newspaper job with an English degree and mononucleosis

Ethan Michaeli, AB’89, author of The Defender, explains how he came to be working there.

Excerpt from The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America by Ethan Michaeli. Copyright © 2016 by Ethan Michaeli. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

In the fall of 1985, I arrived in Chicago to matriculate at the college of the University of Chicago in the South Side neighborhood of Hyde Park. I had visited the university just once before, on a cold, rainy weekend the previous spring, and was charmed by the school’s Gothic structures shimmering on either side of the Midway as well as by the dour, disheveled, brilliant students I met on campus.

This was the rigorous academic environment I was seeking, with the added benefit of being located in the middle of a big city. Throughout my high school years in Brighton, a comfortable, largely Jewish suburb of Rochester, New York, I longed for the excitement, diversity, and authenticity of a large metropolis, and Chicago fit the bill. Not quite as daunting as New York, it seemed the perfect portal through which to transition to an urban lifestyle.

As new students, however, we were treated to a lecture even before classes began from several well-armed officers of the university’s three-hundred-strong police force, who warned us explicitly that the school occupied only a section of Hyde Park, an integrated, middle class outpost surrounded by dangerous, poor, all-black neighborhoods. My own experiences on infrequent forays to the Loop or the North Side on public transportation tended to validate the officers’ proscriptions, as I witnessed the numerous dilapidated, burned-out hulks and weed-strewn vacant lots, careful to evade the occasional would-be mugger or aggressive street gang.

I had other experiences of Black Chicago that were less off-putting, of course. I feasted on the delicious fried food served through a Plexiglas turnstile at Harold’s Chicken and spent late nights listening to Magic Slim and the Teardrops play the blues at the old Checkerboard Lounge on 43rd Street. Although very few of my fellow students were black and none had grown up on the South Side, I worked alongside African Americans at my student jobs and befriended my neighbors when I rented an off-campus apartment.

Chicago’s history was not covered in the courses I took for my major in English literature or for my minor concentration in South Asian civilization, nor was the city a topic in any of the core classes in physics, biology, sociology, and the humanities that were required for graduation. I was vaguely aware that Harold Washington was the city’s first African American mayor but had no context in which to appreciate the significance of that accomplishment. I had heard that the city was called “Beirut by the Lake” for the political combat between Mayor Washington and a majority of the City Council, and knew that there was a racial dimension to their battles. But without any historical understanding, it seemed just another contest of atavistic tribal loyalties that would be shed as people evolved.

Fully immersed in my studies during my sophomore year, I failed to vote in either the primary or the general election of 1987 in which Washington was reelected, and though I was alarmed by the divisiveness of the campaign, I didn’t know precisely whom to blame. Some months later, when Washington died suddenly of a heart attack at his desk, I was equally mystified by the outpouring of grief from Black Chicago. Why were people so upset over the death of a mere politician? I wondered.

I graduated two years later with a BA in English literature and moved to Wicker Park, a neighborhood on the city’s Northwest Side just at the beginning stages of gentrification, with a trickle of white artists and young professionals infiltrating an area that was still mostly Puerto Rican and Polish. I dreamed of writing novels but needed to support myself in the interim, so I obtained a certification as a substitute teacher to work in the city’s public school system while I sent out résumés for jobs at magazines specializing in literary criticism and fiction.

On a particular afternoon in the late fall of 1990, after over a year of stringing together teaching gigs and not finding writing jobs, I was sitting with a friend at a neighborhood Polish diner when I ran into Gordon Mayer [AB’90, AM’03], a fellow white, Jewish University of Chicago graduate who told me that he had been working as a copy editor at the Chicago Defender, a daily newspaper based on the South Side, but would soon be leaving to work for the UPI press service. I hadn’t heard of the Chicago Defender, I told him, but the prospect of working at a newspaper sounded exciting and I convinced Gordon to recommend me as his replacement.

Gordon must have mentioned during our conversation that the Defender was an African American–owned newspaper, but I didn’t really understand how, exactly, that was significant. On the day of my interview, I boarded the L train into the Loop and then took the bus south through a district of mostly derelict apartment buildings, factories, warehouses, and offices before getting out at the corner of 24th Street and Michigan Avenue. I paused outside the building, which, too, looked as if it was part of a bygone era: The words Chicago Defender were inscribed in a cursive font reminiscent of the 1950s, some of the windows were cracked, and on a rectangular tower jutting out of the building, two large clocks indicated two different times, both wrong.

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"3337","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"682","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"500"}}]] A newsboy sells the Defender in 1942. (Photography by Jack Delano, courtesy US Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information)

Only when I was being led through the newsroom and saw that almost everyone there was black did it begin to dawn on me what the Defender was. Sitting down in the office of the city editor, Alberta Leak, I asked her, “Do white people work here?” It was an awkward way to begin a job interview, I realize in retrospect, although I meant it respectfully; that is to say, I did not want to waste her time if there was no way I could get the job because I happened not to be black. Luckily for me, Alberta laughed heartily. “Sure they do,” she said. “The Defender has always had white employees.”

Barely five feet tall, with a moon-shaped face, bright oval eyes, and a broad smile framed by loose strands of hair falling from her bun, Alberta sketched out the history of the newspaper, emphasizing the Defender’s influential role in both national politics and the civil rights movement. As for the job itself, the newspaper was published five times a week, Monday through Friday, she explained, which meant that the newsroom staff had to work Sunday through Thursday. The copy editor’s daily hours were from 8:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., with a two-hour lunch, and the pay was $18,000 a year.

It sounded like a dream job. Feeling comfortable with the way the interview was going, I decided I had nothing to lose by putting my whole story out there. I told Alberta about my family’s experiences in concentration camps during the Holocaust as well as my dreams of becoming a writer, and talked about backpacking through Alaska and India, all in the hope that she would overlook the fact that my degree from the University of Chicago was in English lit, rather than journalism.

When I finished my spiel, Alberta told me about her own background. She had been a civil rights activist in her youth, then had married the son of the Rev. A. R. Leak, founder of the A. R. Leak and Sons Funeral Home, a highly profitable enterprise that commanded great respect in the community.

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"3338","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"652","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"500"}}]] A Defender copy reader in 1942. (Photography by Jack Delano, courtesy US Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information)

“Black people weren’t allowed to own a lot of businesses in the old days,” she explained. “But we could always have our own funeral homes and churches, because white folks didn’t want to be buried with us and didn’t want to sit next to us in their pews on Sunday morning. So preachers and funeral home owners, those are just about the only old-money folks we’ve got today.”

At the end of the interview, Alberta led me out of her office to an empty desk in the corner of the newsroom, where she handed me a 10-page journalism test and wished me luck. The test included sections on editing, headline writing, current events, and story writing, and I applied myself diligently. But a half hour into it, I realized that the sweat rolling off my brow and the accumulating mucus in my throat were something more than nerves. Probably the flu, I thought.

Sniffling and shivering now, I glanced up to see another candidate for the job walk toward Alberta’s office. He was white, too, slightly taller and thicker than me, with perfectly parted straight blond hair and wearing a tailored navy blue suit. Through Alberta’s office window, I noticed him pulling out a neat sheaf of papers from a case that bore the Northwestern University logo. Unlike the University of Chicago, Northwestern offered an undergraduate degree in journalism, a program that included internships with prestigious publications, and I presumed that he must be showing Alberta clips of actual articles he’d written and published. Soon enough, Mr. Northwestern was sitting at the desk next to mine, taking his own test, which he managed to finish before I did, without glancing in my direction once.

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_original","fid":"3339","attributes":{"alt":"","class":"media-image","height":"398","typeof":"foaf:Image","width":"500"}}]] Chicago Defender publisher John H. Sengstacke, his older brother Whittier Sengstacke, and Louis Martin (a contributor to the newspaper and later an adviser to President Lyndon B. Johnson) in 1940. (Courtesy Chicago Defender)

I completed the test in a haze and stumbled out of the building feeling woozy. In the days that followed, the flulike symptoms revealed themselves to be the viral infection mononucleosis, leaving me unable to get out of bed for weeks. While I considered giving up on my urban sojourn and moving back to Rochester, I continued to call Alberta once a week, after forcing myself to get out of bed and drinking several mugs of piping hot tea to clear my throat. Each time, she told me they hadn’t made a decision about the copy editor’s job and that I should call back the following week.

After six weeks of this routine, when I had thoroughly given up and was calling just for a sense of closure, Alberta told me I was hired. Dumbfounded, I happily accepted and came into work that Sunday charged with excitement, though only 75 percent recovered from the mononucleosis, and soon found myself overwhelmed, both physically and intellectually. The newsroom’s sole copy editor, I was equipped with an antiquated computer that lacked the capacity to check spelling or grammar and used a complicated coding system for all its commands.

Every morning, I would receive hand-drawn pages from the entertainment, features, and lifestyle editors with six-digit numbers corresponding to the stories I was supposed to edit. With open copies of a dictionary, thesaurus, and the Associated Press Stylebook at my side, I did my best to make every article readable, journalistically defensible, and appropriate in terms of length. I was never instructed in the tenets of “black journalism”— like most newspapers, the Defender followed AP style, imposing just a few of its own variations, capitalizing the word “Black” when it referred to people of African heritage, for instance. Without any education in the mechanics of journalism, I operated from a theoretical understanding that news writing should present multiple sides of an issue without bias and allow the readers to make up their own minds. That simplistic approach was sufficient, especially since in daily practice, my work was consumed by the challenge of making sure no misspellings or grammatical mistakes made it into print.

The Defender had by that point acquired such a reputation for typos and misspellings that longtime readers had taken it upon themselves to score the paper. I would often pick up my phone line to hear an older lady announce that she had been a loyal reader for decades, then proceed to chew me out for allowing this many mistakes to make it into print, embarrassing all African Americans with my carelessness and inattention. I could only apologize humbly and pledge to do better.

I had to finish the back pages before noon and then deliver them to the production department in the basement, where the articles were printed out in long strips, cut and pasted alongside ads and photos on a mockup of the paper while we waited for the news deadlines in the evening. I had about two hours of downtime, during which I would drive over to Chinatown nearby to buy some barbecued pork buns, and then return to eat them in the cafeteria. Sometimes I would check out the old printing press, silent but still glistening with old oil, or explore the ruined warehouses and car lots in the empty streets nearby. By late afternoon, the action would finally pick back up, and between 6:30 and 7:00 p.m. I would send the final pages down to production. Shortly thereafter, the whole package of cardboard pages was handed to a messenger, who carried it to the Defender’s contract printer on the Southwest Side. By 6:00 a.m. the next morning, some 25,000 copies in bound, bulk bundles were loaded onto vans and delivered to newsstands across the metro area.

The other staff members were generally tolerant and friendly in those first few months, though my lack of grounding in African American culture sometimes led to awkward moments, as on the morning when I loudly asked the newsroom what “chitterlings” were. I made the mistake of pronouncing the word phonetically, prompting an eruption of laughter in the newsroom before someone kindly explained to me that “chitlins,” as they were properly called, were spicy, cooked pork intestines, considered a culinary delicacy.

One day after I had been at the Defender for some months, Alberta Leak revealed that I had been her first choice for copy editor, but she had had to engage in subterfuge to hire me. Her dilemma was that I had done well on the grammar sections of the journalism test but performed dismally on the journalism parts, while my blond competitor from Northwestern had done well on the whole exam. After considering the matter for several weeks, she was suddenly struck by inspiration: she disassembled both exams to create one high-performing candidate from the two tests, then put my name on the fused document and brought it up to her bosses.

I asked her why she had done that. “I just knew you was different,” she laughed, emphasizing the word “was” for ironic effect. “I thought you would stick around for a while.”