Chicago's Dying Breed
by Peter Zelchenko January 22, 2010

It's been a rather somber few weeks.

First, my dad — among other things an old City News Bureau editor from its golden age — died Christmas Eve. He was 95, and he enjoyed a long life full of variety and adventure.

Alex Zelchenko was among the last generation of hardboiled reporters making the endangered species list starting in the 1960s. Although journalism as a college career option began in the 1910s and 1920s, most newswriters were street-trained. They loved the edgy, rough-and-tumble corruption of the city and its politics, and it was not at a blackboard, but at a police lineup or murder scene, that they honed their bloodhound skills.

[INSERT: Alex_Zelchenko_CNB_1959.jpg A beat-up 1959 photo of my dad at City News Bureau, by Esquire photographer Bruce Davidson. He is tuning a radio to try to pick up a long-distance report of, I believe, the Charles Starkweather execution in Nebraska. Fred Thomas is on the right.]

But the 1960s saw both a boom in j-school enrollment (including the new specialties of broadcast and PR), and a consolidation of newspaper outlets due to skyrocketing paper costs as well as abrupt changes towards new technologies (radio and TV), much as we see today with the web. Newsgathering rapidly evolved into efficient, antiseptic telephone exchanges and press conferences governed by carefully developed textbook protocols and codes of conduct.

A few Chicago reporters kept the hands-on, hardboiled style alive. Carlos Hernandez Gomez was among the last and best of them in this city. Carlos died Sunday evening after a valiant year-long struggle with stomach cancer. He was just 36 years old, and Illinois' news mechanism — from the precinct captain, to the news director, to the president himself — has stopped in its tracks for a moment from the sudden shock.

I first met Carlos when he was covering West Side politics for the Spanish-language paper Extra in the 1990s. Later, he worked for the Chicago Reporter and WBEZ, and for the past few years he was at the Tribune's CLTV.

I used to tease Carlos mercilessly about his eccentricities. Whenever he'd call, I'd invariably answer the phone with, "Carrrrrlos Hernandez Gomez" with a Spanish playboy's trill, followed by "WBEZ News" in deadpan collegiate. (Which is just how it always sounded.)

I also remember when he'd walk into a campaign office or bar in his trademark fedora, with his police press card tucked jauntily into the hatband. To be honest, I thought it was a little pretentious — for anyone, let alone such a young guy.

[INSERT: Carlos_Hernandez_Gomez_Extra.jpg Carlos Hernandez Gomez, doing what he does best, at Extra News, around 1999. Note fedora on the computer. Photo courtesy Chuck Ferrara.]

Carlos didn't care. He was proud of his heritage, and unabashed about his passion for journalism, for covering Chicago's politics, particularly with all of the characters it dredged up. He drank in journalism's edgy history every day and justified the hat every moment of his life.

And Carlos was proud of his skills, with good reason. He loved his beat and knew it better than anyone. He was extraordinarily sharp-witted — a clear-thinking nerd cleverly disguised as a 1930s throwback. A kind of inverse superman, Carlos would walk around the city brash and chatty, but when the cameras were on a politician, all at once his mind was working faster than everyone's, and on his lips was precisely the question that his target was to dread.

This is not to say Carlos was a mean guy. Just the opposite. Like my dad, he was simply direct and demanded honesty. He hated the Chicago Machine. And, like my dad, absolutely everyone warmed to him, craved the chair next to him. The best reporters are great conversationalists, who don't fidget one bit if the talk roams for hours from one topic to the next, because they know, better than you and I, that we will fall into the trap of talking about just what they came to hear. Which, it so happens, is anything that we want to talk about.

Carrrrlos. Papa. -30-.

(Trivia: -30- means "No more (end)" and still appears at the end of modern press releases. The number once served as a teletype story separator for reporters, originating from telegraphic shorthand called Phillips Code "wire signals" — back when news was actually sent by Morse Code to newspapers. We should probably add "73's and 88's" {"Best regards, love and kisses"}, a common ham and CB radio signoff.)

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