the kicker

Searching for a home, via Chicago

February 20, 2009

Earlier this week, the staff of the Chicago Reader reposted excerpts from a 1972 FAQ-style manifesto the now venerable alt-weekly ran in an early issue. A sampling:

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.

It’s a brash artifact of an era where, all across the country, small groups of news innovators took a flyer on an untested business model and editorial format. (Sound familiar?) And what they birthed, the alt-weekly, became the home to some of the country’s best writers and best journalism.

In the September/October issue of CJR, Edward McClellan, a former Reader staff writer, looked at how the paper has (and hasn’t) adapted to the city’s changing culture, and to business and editorial challenges wrought by the Web:

I quit the Reader in the summer of 2005. Officially, I left to research another book. Secretly, I believed the alternative weekly was an obsolete concept. The Internet had launched so many outlets, with so many agendas, that the Reader could no longer claim to be Chicago’s underground option to the Trib and the Sun-Times. Steve Rhodes, who publishes the local media blog Beachwood Reporter, thinks the Reader became complacent because it was still raking in ad profits through the early 2000s—before Craigslist looted its classifieds, driving profits into the red.

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This generation’s innovators are at work. What will they come up with? And will it serve us as well as the alt-weekly?

Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.