Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Retro manifesto

Posted By on 02.17.09 at 05:10 PM

Not long ago someone at the Reader office found and posted an old manifesto of ours from 1972 (next to an ad for "Sgt. Peppers Army & Navy Stores"), when the paper was in its infancy and before I was born.

Since the future of journalism and its new forms is a hot topic these days--there's a whole conference about Chicago journalism this weekend--I thought I'd reprint some excerpts from when the alt-weekly was the free, hyperlocal, cost-effective medium of the future. I think bloggers and other new-media types will find it both charmingly quaint and eerily familiar.

"What kind of paper is this, anyway?"

Questions we've heard over and over in the last year
9/29/72

How can we afford to give the paper away for free? This question is best answered with another one, "how can we afford not to?" There are (for purposes of this argument, at least) three ways to begin a periodical. 1) You can start big, charging for the paper, and plan to invest a fortune in promotional activities. Look at Ms. They sold 400,000 copies of their first edition, sure. But they had Gloria Steinem touring the country and getting them on every front page in the nation.... Alternatively, you can use paid advertising: The Chicago Free Press (which lasted only a few weeks before it folded in the fall of 1970) spent thousands on radio, newspaper, even television advertising before they put out their first issue; they managed to sell about 20,000 copies of their first issue at a cover price of $.50, of which they maybe got $.10 and the newsstands and distributors got the rest. We had neither Gloria Steinem nor thousands for advertising, so that method was out.

2) You can start small, charging for the paper. There are really two subcategories within this group. a) The old fashioned way, how all those old papers like the Ben Franklin Saturday Evening Post and the New York Times got started, was with miniscule circulation and miniscule advertising rates. They jolly well took their time.... b) The modern way, which is how almost every underground paper in America was begun. You print a price on the cover of your newspaper. You sell a few copies. You give away at least six times that many. You add together the number of copies you sell and the number of copies you give away, multiply by two, and claim that this artificial figure is total paid circulation, on which you base your advertising rates.... There is only one real drawback to this method: to do it, you must be happy as an inveterate liar.

3) You can start with a large free circulation, which is the paper's own best advertising. You can set advertising rates at a reasonably high rate to reflect your high circulation, which makes the whole thing more reasonable economically without resorting to falsehood....

How is the paper doing? The Reader sustained a $19,874 loss in its first ten months of operation [Ed. note: $108,808 in 2008 dollars, per], but all the indices are up. We pay the most attention to four: First: the paper's more in demand every week, with many locations exhausting their supplies by Sunday. Second: letters to the editor. We have two to three times as many letters to the editor as our principle competitor. We take this as an indicator of the intensity of our readership....

Who runs the Reader? Currently, four people are working full-time on the Reader. Bob Roth, 25, is given the title "publisher." He maintains the checkbook and plans the stories that appear in the paper. Bob McCamant, 23, is called the editor. He designs the paper, and edits the copy, and sends out the bills. He also does freelance advertising work, on which he supports himself. Tom Rehwaldt, 23, is director of circulation, which means he drives his own VW bug all over the city distributing the paper. He also does a large part of the layout work. He is employed three days a week, which is how he supports himself. Randy Barnett (Northwestern '74) has been working full time as our advertising director for the latter part of the summer.

The rest of the staff includes: two part-time ad salesmen.... Jane Lantz and Katie Kane, who have volunteered to come and work one evening a week free to organize the classifieds; and many writers, who get paid anything from $25 to nothing per story, depending upon circumstances.... Roth, Rehwaldt, and McCamant are working without pay, but are receiving equity in lieu of pay.

Why doesn't the Reader print news? Tom Wolfe wrote us, "The Future of the newspaper (as opposed to the past, which is available at every newsstand) lies in your direction, i.e., the sheet willing to deal with 'the way we live now.'" That sums up our thoughts quite well: we find street sellers more interesting than politicians, and musicians more interesting than the Cubs. They are closer to home. We are convinced that very few facts mean anything uninterpreted....

Why do we continue with this crazy project? 1) We are convinced it will be successful eventually. 2) We really enjoy our work. 3) The paper seems to be fulfilling a definite need for "alternative" publications which are nonetheless not "radical." 4) We are bringing exposure to some (potentially) great writers.

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