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Where some top reporters got their start; Behind the Front Page: The Story of the City News Bureau of Chicago, by A.A. Dornfeld. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers. 331 pp. $17.95.

''Behind the Front Page'' is a valentine to the City News Bureau (CNB) of Chicago, founded in 1881 - the oldest wire service still operating in the United States.

CNB has a well-earned reputation as a splendid ''boot camp'' for beginning reporters, claiming such distinguished alumni as Seymour Hersh, Walter Howey (who became a legend in the play ''The Front Page''), Melvyn Douglas before he became an actor, and TV reporter Carole Simpson. CNB is famous for such worldwide scoops as the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the Tylenol murders.

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This book, which traces CNB's history, reminds us of an era before telephones , before satellites, before computers replaced typewriters in news rooms. Back then, reporters raced to scenes of fires, murders, and political intrigue and delivered handwritten copy to often crusty editors who withered novices with caustic comments at the least sign of carelessness.

One of those editors reputed to have a mean eye and a klaghorn voice was A.A. Dornfeld, who wrote this book. He kept Rule 1 for journalists firmly in mind and left himself out of the story, allowing only two unflattering photographs and three indirect mentions of his name.

Columnist Mike Roy-ko, however, doesn't let his former boss get away with this self-effacing approach. In a glowing introduction, Royko describes Arnold (Dornie) Dornfeld as a brilliant editor and teacher who, although a terror to his reporters, was ''a sweet and wonderful man.''

Dornfeld demanded accuracy, speed, determination. He had ''an eye for a story and an ear for a quote.'' And though he never finished high school, colleagues describe him as extremely well read, with an educated mind - a man who can discuss ''philosophy, poetry, Prohibition gangsters, and the beauty of great sailing ships'' with equal aplomb.

Journalists are known for telling good ''war stories'' about their exploits. Dornfeld takes full advantage of this trait, stringing many fascinating yarns. He stresses the daily grind and highlights the discipline required to become a good reporter, beginning with the police beat. There's very little glamour, a lot of sweat and risk.

He traces some of the changes in newspapers over the years, including the progress of women. In the early days, the few women reporters at CNB were all college trained, although the men were not. The real chance for women came during World War II and dimmed when men returned after the war. Today, women are half the staff at CNB. Blacks and other minorities do less well.

Dornfeld ends his book with a copy of ''A Reporter's Note-Book,'' compiled for the CNB staff in 1897. Its guideposts for clear, concise writing make good reading for aspiring journalists. Following these rules is what made so many bureau graduates great. After reading this book, we can appreciate why, when ex-CNB reporters meet at news fronts the world over, they brag about their early days at this bureau which paid them so little, treated them so rough, and taught them so well.

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