About a year ago, I was standing on a corner near the Reader‘s River North offices, picket sign in hand, pleading with passersby to help save the publication. The paper’s editorial employees, my colleagues, were well into a second year of contract negotiations with management, and things were looking pretty gloomy, to say the least.
On the day of the protest, it had been raining. My sign was soggy, my socks soaked. As we headed for yet another round of mind-numbing negotiations after the protest, I was thinking the process would never end—at least not happily.
Well, I’m here to tell you, I was wrong. On October 6—coincidentally, a year to the day after that rain-drenched demonstration—the Reader‘s editorial staffers unanimously ratified a one-year contract.
Hallelujah! I can’t believe it even as I write it.
So let me pause from my usual rage against the machine to thank the readers in Readerland who signed our petitions and offered words of support. No way could we have done it without you.
As the old guy on the staff, I’ve pretty much seen it all through the years. I came on in 1990, when times were good. We had Christmas parties and end-of-year bonuses and matching contributions to retirement plans. Plus, I got to write pretty much whatever I wanted.
Then, well—it’s a familiar story in the newspaper game. Revenue fell after 9/11. Classified ads left to Craigslist. No publication seemed to know how to make money on the Internet.
In 2007, the Reader‘s original owners sold the operation to an outfit called—of all things—Creative Loafing, an Atlanta-based publisher of alternative weekly newspapers. Thus began the Dark Ages. Unable to bring in the ad revenue needed to pay back money borrowed to buy the paper, Creative Loafing started laying off employees. A lot of great writers, editors and designers got the ax.
In a 2009 bankruptcy proceeding, Creative Loafing lost control of the Reader to Atalaya Capital Management, the hedge fund that had loaned the company the money to buy the paper.
After that it was hard to keep up with the turnover at the top. One boss seemed to replace another as the hedge fund’s operators tried to figure out what to do with a newspaper they’d never intended to run.
In 2012, Atalaya sold the Reader to Wrapports, a consortium of local investors that also owned the Sun-Times. It was led by Michael Ferro, a software mogul.
Among Ferro’s Wrapports coinvestors were Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz, Michael Sachs (one of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s biggest contributors), and Bruce Rauner. Yes, that Bruce Rauner. He sold his shares in Wrapports in order to run for governor. So you might say he sold me in order to buy the Republican Party.
I’ll give Ferro credit for this: The only time I met him, he promised he’d leave me alone to do my thing. And he did—even as I lambasted his old pals Rahm and Rauner, often in the same column.
But within two years, the editorial staff had had enough of cuts, layoffs, and no raises. In January 2015, we unanimously voted to join the Chicago News Guild. Thus began almost three years of contract negotiations with management. The lead negotiator for Wrapports was Ted Rilea, a grizzled veteran of labor wrangling. (Hey, Ferro, if you’re reading this, buy Rilea a car or something. Man, that dude fought to save every Wrapports nickel like it was one of his own.) Clearly, Rilea’s mission was to protect the company purse. In session after session, we sat in a drab, windowless conference room as Rilea barked out his opposition to just about every proposal from our negotiator, Craig Rosenbaum. I half expected Rilea to take off his shoe and bang it against the table—like Nikita Khrushchev at the United Nations.
So it went, as months passed and the world moved on. Rahm was reelected. The Cubs won the World Series. Donald Trump won the presidency. Ferro purchased a controlling share of Tribune Publishing, which was soon after rebranded as Tronc. After that we weren’t even sure who was calling the shots for Wrapports.
And still we haggled. I remember drifting off during one bargaining session, snapping awake to hear Rosenbaum and Rilea bickering over some obscure pension matter in the Taft-Hartley labor relations act. It may be the Stockholm syndrome talking, but I grew to like old Ted Rilea.
Just when it seemed like we might be heading toward a strike, a miracle happened.
Wrapports was set to sell the Sun-Times and the Reader back to Ferro/Tronc. To avoid the potential of antitrust violations, the Justice Department required that Wrapports consider other bids. Staffers of both papers worried that the publications would, in a year or two, be phased out of existence as Ferro merged the Reader and Sun-Times with the Tribune.
Then in July, seemingly out of nowhere, former alderman Edwin Eisendrath put together his own consortium of investors, including several unions, which snatched the Reader and Sun-Times right out of Ferro’s hands.
What a difference new owners make. They must have issued new directions for Rilea. Suddenly, he was all smiles and sweetness at the bargaining table. I half expected him to burst into “Have an Eggroll, Mr. Goldstone.” (That’s a song from the musical Gypsy about—ah, forget it. Only old-timers like Rilea and me will get that joke.)
In less than three months, we reached an agreement. Who knows what lies ahead, but I’ll take a moment to rejoice. Against all odds, we’re still here to write our reviews, profile our city, launch new investigations, and rage against the machine.