You can revisit the past, but you can't go home again | On Media | Chicago Reader

You can revisit the past, but you can't go home again 

Reflecting on the Reader's 40-year history . . . and my own

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The new owners laid off the entire Reader production staff and began laying out the paper in Atlanta according to the chain's cookie-cutter design. It looked hideous. And they slashed True's budget so dramatically she had to fire four of her best writers—Conroy, Bogira (who was rehired last year), Tori Marlan, and Harold Henderson. True's most important duty to the Reader became finding ways to limit the damage. When Creative Loafing decided the Reader's photo archives were a waste of space and told her to throw everything out, True instead contacted the Newberry Library, which was happy to have her donate them.

A year after the purchase, Creative Loafing Inc. declared bankruptcy, and there was nowhere to go but up. Even bankruptcy was up—the Reader staff prayed the bankrupt owners would pay for their sins by losing the company. Their prayers were answered—in 2009 the company was taken over by its senior creditor, Atalaya Capital Management of New York.

A symbol of the old order, True was soon thrown over the side by the new bosses. Her last great contribution to the Reader and its legacy was to donate her 26 years' worth of papers to the Newberry. When she was fired, Lee Sandlin posted on the Reader website: "Everything I wrote from the early 90s till a few years ago, I wrote with her in mind: I thought of her as my ideal audience for my most envelope-pushing experiments in feature journalism."

By a "till few years ago," Sandlin meant before Craigslist and other online competition wiped out the Reader's advantage in classifieds and listings. But although the paper no longer had the room or luxury to publish everything it pleased, its journalism had become more important to it than ever—journalism was what defined and distinguished it.

So where is the Reader today? Here are some facts. It's been redesigned and looks terrific. The reporting is as good as ever. The young editor, Mara Shalhoup, is new to Chicago and wants to know everything about it. But an average issue contains about as many pages in 2011 as it did in 1978, the economy is awful, and no one can say with any confidence where journalism generally, much less the Reader specifically, is going. Though the Reader might not be publishing any more 20,000-word stories in a single issue, it still believes in journalism that's given room to breathe (Bogira's recent two-part narrative, "The price of intolerance," ran at 12,000 words).

The Reader knows what it is—it is less certain how to be. Still, a strong sense of legacy informs what we do, and the only direction is forward, into the digital age. When Thomas Wolfe wrote that you can't go home again, what he meant was, you can't go back home.

Home as a state of mind hasn't changed much at the Reader. Toni Schlesinger, a prolific contributor in the 70s and 80s, Facebooked me from New York with her thoughts on the subject. "Reporting can be a lonely, alienating state. I remember in my interviewing, chatting with men who had been in prison, sitting in those dark red restaurants on Taylor Street, or driving around with a pimp in a long low white car and being in these worlds that were both sort of at the bottom and frightening though obviously that made good stories," she wrote. "But in the midst of that, there was a sense of like-minded people all writing for the Reader. So it was a 'home' in the larger sense. And of course the idea of a publication as a physical place is quickly vanishing."

As a shared collection of memories, aspirations, and values the Reader remains a home. Dave Andich just told me his favorite Reader story. Years ago, when the paper introduced its "Matches" service (recently discontinued, in large part because of competition with Craigslist), an ad came in from a man seeking two women for a ménage a trois. He wanted his ad bundled with all the other ads categorized as heterosexual men seeking women. The Reader didn't see it that way. We'll run your ad, we replied, but only under the category of other. The man took this indignity to the Chicago Human Rights Commission, and that's how Andich got involved. Andich got the complaint thrown out. "The Reader's position was that it would have been an identical situation if it had been woman seeking two men," he recalled. "So there was no discrimination in the Reader's policy.

"I think this would probably only happen to the Reader."

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