A look back at 50 years of the Chicago Reader – Chicago Magazine
The location: Borders, corner of Clark and Diversey.
Time: Thursday evening.
The scene: A Chicago Reader the truck stops on the sidewalk. The driver unloads hundreds of large, large sheets of paper in four sections, building a miniature bulwark of newspaper in the lobby. On Saturday morning, they were all snapped up, tucked under the arm of every “L” cyclist on their way home from an office job in the Loop, and in every thrift store dude’s backpack on a bike to a speed .
At the turn of the century (this expression can now be used to refer to 2000), the Reader was the go-to newspaper for Chicago’s underground scene: the source for music listings, apartment classifieds, and personal ads. Beginning on the cover and working through the commercials, there was a long story written in pencil about a Patti LaBelle superfan or corruption within the Tollway Authority. It was so trendy that the movie High fidelity featured a Reader music critic named Caroline Fortis.
“Are you Caroline Fortis?” John Cusack said incredulously as she walked into his Wicker Park record store. âI read your column. It’s good. You really know what you’re talking about. He is so enamored that he makes her a mix tape.
The Chicago Reader turns 50 this week, an age I never thought he would reach. I feel the same about this anniversary as when the Rolling Stones turned 50: you are not what you were, but when you were what you were you were the best.
The Reader was started in 1971. At the time, the newspaper’s lakeside stronghold was populated by a mix of gays, artists, musicians, actors and young professionals skeptical of the former’s political machine. Mayor Daley. The so-called Lakefront Independents were key voters in Harold Washington’s 1983 campaign to become Chicago’s first black mayor. Just before the elections, the Reader published an article aimed at reassuring white voters about Washington’s credentials. Widely copied and stuffed under apartment doors, it helped him squeak towards victory. Throughout the Council’s wars between the White Aldermen and Washington’s minority allies, the Reader stayed in the mayor’s corner. Its star reporter Gary Rivlin then wrote Fire in the meadow, the definitive book on this era of division in Chicago. John Conroy’s decades-long investigations into police torture contributed to the conviction and jail of Detective Jon Burge.
At its peak, the Reader was the best post I have ever read or written for. I first picked up a copy in 1993 when I was a reporter in Downstate, Illinois. On the cover was Lee Sandlin’s âThe American Scheme,â a 20,000-word essay on how the pursuit of postwar success consumed and killed his father. As soon as I finished the Sandlin story, I decided I was going to move to Chicago and write for the Reader, which seemed like a place a reporter could write on any topic, at length, in any style.
Four years later, I barged in with a long story about learning horses from a professional reel at Sportsman’s Park. Eventually, I rose through the ranks to become editor-in-chief, neverReader plays about a teenage Frank Sinatra impersonator, a man selling socks by the highway, and the “callers” doing business outside the hip-hop shops of Roseland. I was also sent to the South Side to check on a funny-named State Senator running in Congress against Bobby Rush. This cover story became the basis of a book, Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Formation of a Black President.
By the time I left in 2005, the ReaderThe golden age was over. The newspaper did not prosper in the Internet age. Craigslist poached its lucrative classifieds, taking over the Readerlike the place to find a job, a date or an apartment. The advent of blogging changed the definition of âalternative journalismâ. When the Reader was founded, it was the alternative to Sun-Times, the Tribune and the Daily News. Now it was one of dozens of voices, rivaling Pitchfork as the city’s definitive outlet for music criticism.
When a potential new audience moved to the Internet, the Reader refused to publish his stories there. In 2004, the Reader came out with a new design that finally brought color to the front page. The TribeThe media critic mocked that he brought the newspaper “in the late 90s.” The day the new cover debuted, I handed out copies at Fullerton ‘L’. Gray-haired men and women rushed to collect copies. No one under 30 was interested.
In 2000, the average 28-year-old Chicagoan would tell you, âThe Reader is my Bible!
In 2010: âI have not read the Reader in a moment.”
In 2020: âI have never heard of Reader.“
The ReaderThe hippie founders sold to an alternative newspaper chain called Creative Loafing, which fired four editors specializing in long-term journalism. The model of letting go of a reporter to spend months investigating a story – the heart and soul of the classic Reader – had become “economically unsustainable”. In the years that followed, the Reader has been sent to Sun-Times, then to a consortium led by former Ald. Edwin Eisendrath, a group led by the publisher of Chicago Crusader, before eventually establishing itself as a 501 (c) 3 nonprofit known as the Reader Institute for Community Journalism.
Despite the Readeris 21st Century struggles, he outlasted many of his alternative weekly peers: Boston phoenix, Voice of the village, Minneapolis City Pages. Although his corpus has been reduced from a large large-format newspaper to a thin tabloid, the Reader continues to occupy its own indispensable niche in Chicago journalism. Last year he published a long article by Maya Dukmasova about ex-cops evicting problematic tenant in Rogers Park. Part investigative journalism, part personal essay, it was the kind of story that could only appear in the Reader, the kind of story that a young journalist would think, “Wow, can you do it on paper?” I want to do that too. “