Peter Hartlaub was the only journalist in the courtroom the morning a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ordered Playgirl magazine to stop distributing its August issue with nude photographs of Brad Pitt. The hearing had been scheduled at the last minute, and none of the reporters swarming the Los Angeles County Courthouse for Carroll O'Connor's slander trial even knew about it.
Hartlaub, 27, who, aside from his pierced ear, calls to mind a young Montgomery Clift, had all the makings of a classic scoop. Not that you'd have known it from the avalanche of coverage about the Pitt pictures that appeared over the next few days quoting liberally from Hartlaub's story without naming him as the source.
In this case, however, no credit was required, much less expected. That's because Hartlaub works for City News Service, the Los Angeles wire service that furnishes an unending stream of local news to nearly 130 regional, national and international media outlets. Virtually unknown outside newsrooms, CNS is the guilty secret of L.A.'s press corps, whose jobs would be much tougher were it not there acting as a tip sheet, clearinghouse and safety net.
Before Angelenos ever see them in the newspaper or on the evening news, many of the sad and sensational stories the city serves up each day pass first through the hands of the comparatively low-paid and often improbably young staffers at City News. CNS subscribers, which include The Times, CNN, "Hard Copy," the Wall Street Journal and every local TV station, receive CNS' prodigious daily output simultaneously via computer and then use it to supplement and sometimes supplant their own coverage. Whether alerting editors that a Chihuahua-eating pet python will be available for a photo op or that a celebrity witness is about to take the stand, CNS plays a huge unsung role in setting the agenda for what makes news in Southern California. (It's common to see reporters at meetings and trials clutching CNS copy as background.)
"All of the local stories come from fundamentally two sources: my own people and City News," says Bob Sims, director of news and programming at KNX, an all-news L.A. radio station. "I would hate to have to do it without them."
More often than not, a breaking story in L.A. starts out as a two-sentence "advisory" on the CNS wire that usually includes Thomas Guide map pages and contact phone numbers. "People jump when they see advisories, so [CNS] can drive the market in that respect," says Jack Noyes, an assignment editor at KCBS.
CNS also distributes a nightly "budget" of upcoming court hearings, city and county government meetings and Hollywood publicity events--with much the same effect. The CNS budget is regarded as such a vital cog in the local news-making machinery, nervous City Council members are said to call CNS before dawn to make sure their press conferences are listed. Savvy publicists know that a spot on the CNS budget can legitimize an event, if only because editors are more tempted to cover a story they know their competitors might also cover.
"If I see it and I know everyone will be there, I might tend to go more often than not," says Stephanie Medina Rodriguez, assignment manager at KCAL.
As local newspapers, radio and TV stations have cut their staffs, the reliance on CNS has grown. For example, since L.A.'s TV stations no longer operate bureaus at City Hall, CNS' take on what's newsworthy there "tends to determine what gets covered in Los Angeles politics," says Eric Rose, an aide to Councilwoman Laura Chick.
"If we didn't have City News Service, I don't know if it would change the quality of what we put on the air," says Mike Merle, an assignment editor at KABC, "but it would definitely add to everyone's workload." Adds KCBS' Noyes: "Producers and writers are heavily dependent on City News. If someone says it's only a tip service, that's baloney."
on a cool august monday, hartlaub strides into the dingy county courthouse pressroom at 8:05 a.m., the sleeves of his white oxford shirt already rolled up. During the next two hours he will interview two lawyers, survey the goings-on of eight courtrooms, check a file in the clerk's office, scan the newspaper and ride the escalator nine times because the elevator takes too long. And then, at an hour when most print reporters are still checking their e-mail, Hartlaub sits down to pound out his first report of the day: the latest development in a lawsuit involving actor George Hamilton's cigar shop. As news goes, the story has "who cares" written all over it. But the wire demands to be fed--the 20-odd CNS reporters covering the city and Orange County typically grind out five to eight items daily--so Hartlaub dutifully supplies a morsel. Besides, after 18 months on the job, he has given up second-guessing what will pique the interests of CNS' clients.