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'The conscience of Chicago journalism' 

Michael Miner, the Reader's rock, has been in these pages since day one

click to enlarge Michael Miner - ANDREA BAUER

No one has written for the Reader longer than Michael Miner. No one could have. He had a story in the very first issue, and here he is today, with the lead piece 40 years later. For most of his Reader years, he's written a column ostensibly about the media, but really about human nature. "Praise a columnist and you stir up trouble," Miner once wrote. It's a risk we'll take. "He is an elegant stylist and a really deep and unconventional thinker," former Reader editor Mike Lenehan says. "Nobody writes better than he does," says John Conroy, a pretty fair writer himself.

Miner wasn't always a journalist, hard as it is to imagine. In 1965, after a tour in the navy, he went to work for the Watkins natural products company, selling double-strength vanilla extract door-to-door in suburban Saint Louis. He was 22, and even more bashful than he is today. A woman chewed him out one afternoon—his doorbell ring had chased her from her sickbed. A mortified Miner apologized, and moved on to the next house, and the next. Later that afternoon he rang a doorbell and the same sick woman answered; he'd unwittingly worked his way around to her back door. She chewed him out again, and Miner was now terminally mortified, so far as that job went. A promising career in double-strength vanilla extract was dashed.

Miner wanted to write, and he got the chance with his next employer, the Disciples of Christ publication house in Saint Louis, for whom he authored catalog copy, including blurbs for a book of table graces. "Before you chow down, bow down," he proudly claims to have penned. His career there was brief as well.

Miner had been a "nerdy" kid—he graduated high school in suburban Saint Louis at 15, and often carried around a clipboard "so I could write down my thoughts." He wanted to write short stories and plays, but in college, at the University of Missouri-Columbia, he decided that journalism would be the best way to make a living as a writer, and so he got his degree in it. Not long after his stint with the Disciples, the Saint Louis bureau of the UPI wire service hired him. He spent two years there and then a year living abroad. In 1971 he visited a reporter friend in Chicago, and while in town he stopped by the Sun-Times to ask about work. The paper hired him as a rewrite man that day. During his seven years reporting and rewriting for the Sun-Times, the Reader published three of his essays, plus one freelance article.

In 1978, the Sun-Times's sister paper, the Chicago Daily News, folded, and in the aftermath the Sun-Times staff was contracted. Miner got laid off initially, but then the Sun-Times asked him back. Daily journalism, however, had grown stale to him. "You find yourself covering the same stories over and over," he says. "Every night there's a fire, and every year there's a Saint Patrick's Day parade." So he declined to stay with the Sun-Times. He spent a few months in Spain, then freelanced briefly before Reader publisher Bob Roth hired him to write a media column. He soon was editing copy as well, but the core of his work was the column.

"He's the conscience of Chicago journalism," former Reader editor Lenehan says. And also the playful observer. Sizing up the state of the news media in 2010, Miner wrote: "A pessimist is someone who'd call the glass nine-tenths empty. An optimist like myself would call it one-tenth full."

click to enlarge Michael Miner with his wife Betsy and their children in the mid-80s. - KATHY RICHLAND
  • Michael Miner with his wife Betsy and their children in the mid-80s.
  • Kathy Richland

Miner is curious and blessed with a supple mind. He takes his readers not door-to-door but on a journey throughout the neighborhood and beyond. The Reader has become his clipboard. "I've always felt a lot of license to write about whatever I wanted to write about" in the column, he says. "I never felt much problem getting my thoughts, such as they were, into print."

Readers want their columnists "to remain predictably unpredictable," he observed in a column two years ago. There are two ways for a columnist to respond to fans, he wrote: "The bad way is to keep doing the tricks that delight them. The not-quite-as-bad way is to betray them." Miner's fans have learned to stay on their toes.

He knows media so well—both the practitioners in Chicago and the issues locally and nationally—that it's easy to understand why he's stuck with that subject all these years. But I would have liked to have seen the general-interest column he might have written. He has the wit and skill of the fabled Mike Royko, but is more cerebral. He does lack Royko's switchblade: he's willing to offend, but his hating instinct is underdeveloped.

Miner edited Conroy's police torture stories for ten years. "He deserves a huge amount of credit for them," Conroy says, "credit which he has by no means received." The stories benefited from Miner's "insight, attention to nuance, patience, and his care of my prose," says the former Reader writer. Story after story accused powerful officials of enabling torture—charges not made lightly. Miner's "thoroughness let me sleep at night," Conroy says.

Miner is 68 now, and his hair is white and thinning. He keeps it a little long; it often could stand some editing. He's tall, and his voice is deep. "I'm blessed with a pretty good telephone voice," he says. "This is what I've been told—that people don't mind listening to it."

The desktops in his windowless office are hidden under books, magazines, and newspapers, and more books line shelves and are stacked precariously on file cabinets. His chief tools are the phone and that pretty good telephone voice; he rarely interviews people in person. He learned to work a story by phone at UPI. "It's a skill that I've always been proud of," he says. "Just to talk with people and schmooze them and joke with them. It can be a lot easier than actually meeting them." Interviewing by phone is more efficient, he says—but he allows that his preference for that method is also a function of his shyness. "I've hidden behind the anonymity of Alexander Graham Bell." He's less shy than he used to be, though, he says. "I've gotten much better socially. I've come out in a lot of ways. Journalism has been good for me in that respect."

He's enjoyed his career, "but I can't say I'm satisfied. Satisfaction is hard to come by, and I'm not sure it's a good thing." Occasionally he makes the mistake of rereading an old column, and "there's always something in there that makes me wince." He hasn't written the short stories or plays he first intended to—not yet. "But it's a pretty good life," he says. "I'm writing what I want to write, in my own way, in my own voice. I'm luckier than most."

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