I am an overworked, underpaid proofreader at the Chicago Reader. Editors here act like it's a big deal that this is our 40th anniversary issue. But my friends laugh. They say nobody reads anything that's in print any longer, and the Reader used to be big and fat but that was years ago. I want to tell them to stick it up their ass, but what if they're right? Cecil, you know everything. Should I listen to my friends? —Virginia
Goodness, has it been 40 years? I began my earthly mission a little over a year after the Reader started, so that means I'm coming up on—my God—year 39. High time, then, that we had a little talk about the subjects raised by your impolite friends, namely: (1) how did we get here? and (2) what the hell do we do now?
Let's acknowledge at the outset that this exercise has its self-indulgent aspects. We're far from the only people in town, to say nothing of the country, who are worried about the future. The difference is that, whereas the average wage slave stews in obscurity, we get to do it in the pages of a newspaper. I can justify that solely with this thought: on our best days, we make a difference in people's lives. The question, given the radically altered economic and technological landscape in which we find ourselves, is how we're going to manage that from here on out.
I think there's a way, Virginia, and I think you and I, with some help from our friends, could go a long way toward finding it. Before we get to that, though, we need to consider our present ticklish situation and what has contributed to it. This unavoidably gets into some history. Don't worry, I'll keep this brief.
We're the beneficiaries of two things, Virginia. The first is a brilliant business concept: the free newspaper. Sure, there were free papers before the Reader. They were called shoppers—ad rags, basically. They got no respect, and for the most part didn't deserve any. They published very little journalism and sometimes none at all.
The genius of the Reader was to show that you could publish a quality newspaper that you gave away. In the age of the Internet this surprises no one, but it was a daring concept at the time. It took a while to catch on. The Reader today is thinner than it used to be, but you should have seen it in 1971 or 1973 (when I signed up) or for quite a few years thereafter.
The idea did catch on, though, and with the clarity of hindsight it now seems obvious that it would have seen success. Circulation revenue—what newspapers make from selling their product to readers—historically has been a relatively trivial portion of total income, most of which derives from advertising. Equally important, and forgive me if I lapse into business speak, a paid subscription is a barrier to market penetration. Traditional newspapers, even the best ones, are read only by those who cared to pay for them, which generally is a fraction of the audience. The Reader's concept was: put out a really good free publication and distribute it in the parts of town our advertisers are trying to reach, and we can truthfully say everyone reads us.
And by and large they did. Old Reader hands speak fondly of the days when crowds would descend on the shops and restaurants where bundles of the paper were dropped on Thursday nights and clear out the entire pile in an hour. It was a powerful sales pitch, and in time we didn't need to bother making it. Advertisers streamed in the door.