I left the Chicago Reader in 2011. Over five years I lived through the sale of the company to a chain, that chain's subsequent bankruptcy, and many layoffs. Like a lot of publications, it was shrinking. I still read it all the time, but, like the frog being boiled slowly, I didn't realize how much more it continued to shrink:
But we do need stability. We’re getting just the opposite. There’s been a steady stream of cuts since Wrapports took control. When they bought the paper in 2012, we had 47 full- and part-time employees. We now have 31.
Most of the cuts have been on the business end. We’ve lost ad reps and marketing strategists — the very staffers who bring in the money we need to function.
In 2012, each issue of the Reader ran from 72 to 80 pages. Now, it’s generally 44 to 48 pages.
Of those 31 employees, 21 are editorial; in four years, they only lost two editorial positions. But advertising and operations dropped by more than half, from 24 to 10.
I didn't notice how dire it was, in part, because the Reader's kept publishing great stories. In the piece quoted above, veteran political reporter Ben Joravsky (from whom I learned almost everything I know about tax-increment financing) goes through some of those stories, like "Black, Autistic, and Killed By Police," by former Chicago intern Adrienne Hurst, and the Hillman Award-winning "How Chicago's 'Fraternal Order of Propaganda Shapes the Story of Fatal Police Shootings," by Yana Kunichoff and Sam Stecklow. Since Joravsky's blog was published on September 28, the alt-weekly published yet another excellent investigation on the CPD's secret civil-forfeiture budget.
They've continued to do impressive work on a shoestring budget, and have added new voices whose work I've long admired, like Robin Amer and John Greenfield. I don't doubt that they'll keep doing so, even if things get worse; I worry more about the long-term viability of the entire publication with such a reduced ad/ops staff. Plenty of other people seem worried, too; there's a rally tomorrow at 350 North Orleans Street at noon, where Pat Quinn and others will be speaking. They're also collecting signatures on a petition to be sent to corporate management.
With that, a list of some of my favorite pieces from the Reader, in no particular order:
"Losing the War," Lee Sandlin, March 7 and 14, 1997. One of the best essays I've ever read, about the fading of war from memory—but also about the changing experience of war, Norse myths, combat journalism, logistics, and so much more.
"The American Scheme," Lee Sandlin, November 19, 1993. Another one of the best essays I've ever read, an autobiography that spirals out into the very nature of midcentury America.
"A Fire in the Family," Steve Bogira, April 21, 1998. It begins with the story of a 19-year-old Garfield Park woman who died saving her two children from a house fire, started by heaters that were used because of unpaid gas bills. But Bogira goes deeply into their family's story to give the kind of intense, multidimensional portrait that rarely follows from a breaking-news story.
"The Color of His Skin," Steve Bogira, February 29, 2012. Joe Henson, a 21-year-old from West Englewood, was shot in the chest one night in 1970 as the result of a "racial fight." His killing went all but unpunished. Going back 40 years, Bogira reconstructs the events, and traces their ripples into the present.
(Bogira recently left the Reader to freelance, but the length of his tenure is a testament to the paper as an institution. One of his earliest pieces for the paper, from January 1988, was a piece about desegregating Chicago's schools; another was a long piece about PTSD in children from July 1992. Fast forward more than two decades later, and he's still writing thorough pieces about the same subjects.)
"Police Torture in Chicago," John Conroy, January 1996-November 2007. Not a single piece but an archive of the reporter's work on the subject, some of the most important investigative work ever done in the city. If you've already read them, I also highly recommend Conroy's book Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture, which blends his Chicago reporting with similar work in Israel and Northern Ireland.
"Let Us Now Praise R.J. Grunts," Elizabeth Tamny, April 13, 2006. An incisive piece about how Rich Melman's Lettuce Entertain You empire, scoffed at as Chicago's fine-dining star rose, served as both an economic and conceptual foundation for the city's best restaurants.
"Johnny Washington's Life," Grant Pick, April 7, 1988. Pick starts with Washington—unemployed, limping from gunfire—in paternity court, and from there mostly just listens.
"Hecho en Illinois," Linda Lutton and Catrin Einhorn, November 16, 2006. The two reporters (now at WBEZ and the New York Times, respectively) visit the pumpkin capital of America, the downstate town of Morton, and talk to the workers who make that possible—most of whom come from one small Mexican town.
"The Steel Sailors," Edward McClelland, February 8, 2007. The kind of assignment lots of us go into the business for: a weekend on a Lake Michigan steel ship.
"The Passion of David Bazan," Jessica Hopper, July 30, 2009. He was "Christian indie rock's first crossover star"; then he started drinking heavily and came out the other end as an agnostic. Hopper explores how that changed his relationship with his Christian fans, and how it didn't.
"Grit & Glitter," Elly Fishman, August 18, 2011. By my current colleague. After I read this I told my boss she should check this writer out, and now she works here (sorry guys).
"The Fuel of a New Machine," David Moberg, March 30, 1989. A brilliant piece about the intersection of money and power in the Daley administration that marks how Chicago (and to a certain extent, big cities more generally) moved from the old form of machine patronage to the more rarefied, financially driven model of "pinstripe patronage." A lot of the way power is wielded today begins at this point.
"Everybody's Mayor," Gary Rivlin, March 19, 1992. One of many pieces from Rivlin's reporting on Harold Washington—which became the definitive Fire on the Prairie—that presents a complex portrait of a still-misunderstood administration.