Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Chris Newman

Posted By on 04.07.09 at 05:56 PM

When the Bears last advanced to the Super Bowl, in early 2007, Chicago magazine came up with the sort of goofy, endearing, opportunistic feature such occasions invite. "Now and Then" found the magazine's staffers confiding where they were when they heard "the Bears were Super Bowl-bound" and recalling where they'd been the last time this had happened -- in 1986. Editor Richard Babcock kicked things off:

2007: "In the basement of the house of a childhood friend. Big, flat-screen TV and buckets of shared misery in the event of a bad outcome."
1986: "In the TV room of our Upper West Side Manhattan apartment, coddling my month-old son (poor sap-he started out with the idea that getting into a championship game was a snap)."

Everybody on the staff had some sort of memories. Everybody but one -- senior editor Chris Newman:

2007: "Never knew, didn't care."
1986: "Never knew, didn't care."

Any magazine worth its salt has someone on it like Chris Newman, someone who's blunt, impolitic, and intolerant of frivolous excursions when there's God's work to be done. Chicago magazine began as a program guide for WFMT. It grew and grew, turned into a city monthly, and in 1976, the year WFMT renamed it Chicago, Newman came on staff. She'd gotten her master's in English at the University of Chicago, she'd done a stretch at Playboy -- and doing God's work for Chicago went beyond turning straw into gold; as the magazine's literary editor! she went out and found writing that was gold already. The Nelson Algren Award, which Chicago introduced in 1981, was her doing.

"She made Chicago a real literary publication," remembers Andrew Patner, who was an editor there in the early 80s. "Do you recall who the judges were for that first year? Kay Boyle, Studs, and Donald Barthelme. She had the highest standards and she was fearless."

The first Algren Award was won by Louise Erdrich, who at the time was unknown. After four years Chicago got out of the fiction business and the Tribune took over the award.

Chicago has gone through various ownerships since Newman joined it, and it now belongs to the Tribune Company; it's such a small part of the company that business articles on Sam Zell's troubles rarely take the magazine into account. "The magazines operate independently at the Tribune, so we react to our own business conditions," says Ted Biedron, publisher of Chicago and its sister Chicago Home + Garden. "I can tell you the magazine generally speaking had a fairly good 2008. I don’t mean a good one, but business conditions are tough all over. We finished 2008 pretty well, without any staff reductions, but the first quarter has been very very soft for our upscale retail advertisers. We’re kind of reacting to that. We're looking at a fairly difficult 2009."

That's why a few days ago the two magazines laid off five employees between them. The only one with an editorial job was Newman.  

Thus Chicago becomes a stranger place -- to those of us barely able to think of the magazine without Newman being a part of it, and to the Chicago staffers she left behind who have lost their institutional memory.

I asked some journalists with whom Newman's worked closely over the years for their thoughts.

Patner was one. Carol Felsenthal is another. Felsenthal wrote:

"I've worked with many editors but nobody quite like Chris Newman.  Since the early 1980s she has cut, shaped, improved the long profiles I write for Chicago magazine-starting with then-University of Chicago president Hanna
Holborn Gray, 25 years ago, and ending, alas, with Michelle Obama in Chicago's February issue. She made me look much better than I am, and never shared that fact with anyone. When, at the urging of Dick Babcock, she
started to write regularly about design and architecture she showed her talent as a writer, reporter, and interviewer. She has a dry wit, she loves animals, especially cats, rescues them, and volunteers at a shelter."
 
John Conroy had just signed on to do an article Newman was going to edit when she was dismissed.
 
"I've known her for 32 years," Conroy writes, "and I've always thought of her as everything an editor should be.  When I worked with her, which was not often enough, she struck me as very smart, very professional, and exacting -- but not in a way that made you feel you should have known better.  You had the feeling she was right even when it hurt to see a construction dismantled.  Yet for all these steady virtues she was wild in a way.  She once asked me to write a profile of three young Greek brothers who owned a small grocery store.  This was wild because I wasn't known then (or now) for writing humor, and it was clear from the outset that the piece would go that way, and to this day I think of it as one of the best pieces of journalism I've written.  She is such a fixture in my mind at Chicago Magazine that  it seems odd to think of her somewhere else.  It's  the same feeling I had when Royko left the Sun-Times."
 
Ron Dorfman also joined Chicago as an editor in 1976. He left two years later but he and Newman stayed in touch. Dorfman commented by phone:
 
"She's too good for that magazine," he said. "God knows how many years she's been doing those home decorating and remodeling stories. Which she didn’t mind -- she enjoys them some -- but her real interest was literary. And in the earlier years, the late 70s and the 80, she was the editor mostly responsible for the fiction and criticism in the magazine.. It's my recollection she discovered Louise Erdrich. She and I got Norman Maclean  to contribute an essay about writing A River Runs Through It, which got us nominated for a National Magazine Award and was just collected in the Norman Maclean Reader. Shes doing important work. And now, after 32 years, the schmucks toss her out on her ass. Disgusting."

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