Some journalists don’t have much of anything going for them but grit. But sometimes that grit can be enough. When I looked in on her in 2001, Ruth Ratny, who died in her sleep Tuesday night, was one of those journalists.
Ratny launched Screen magazine, to cover Chicago’s film industry, as a mimeographed newsletter in 1979. She built it into a weekly everybody in the business read. But she was in her mid-60s when I caught up with her—and times were terrible. As I wrote in the first of four columns about her, Ratny had quietly cut back to biweekly publication months before. “This was in response to the six-month-long actors’ strike that began last May 1 and all but shut down the commercial-making industry in this country.”
And that wasn’t all. She’d fallen down an elevator shaft. Making light in Screen of an accident that laid her up for a couple of weeks, she wrote that she “landed on my back on the mechanicals, a tangle of electric wires and criss-crossed metal tubing. . . . For 90 minutes I half-sat, half-lay, half-stood in the black, 3×5-foot enclosure, fingering with enormous frustration the recalcitrant cell phone.” When she finally was able to dial out she told 911, “I am bruised, achey and frequently cranky, but I am alive.”
Was there anything unreasonable about expecting this journalist of a certain age, battered and bruised both financially and physically, to call it a day? I might have expected that myself. A publisher with years of experience in trade magazines, someone who’d tried and failed to buy Screen from Ratny, now decided to help nudge her into retirement by going into business against her.
He roped in a former Screen writer who told me, “I was the last writer left. For all intents and purposes Screen is history. They have no writers,” and launched Chicago Imagining & Sound, Ratny snickered and called it “the clone.”
Imagining & Sound hired a couple more of Ratny’s former writers; one of them, a columnist named Jane Burek who’d quit Screen at the end of 2000, became editor. “In December Ruth told everybody, ‘That’s it, folks. The show’s over,'” Burek told me in November of 2001. “So I really thought the show was over.”
It wasn’t. I had two more columns to write about Ratny, but let me cut to the chase. By the end of 2001 Ratny had sold Screen to a group of investors with big ideas, and although she’d been expected to stay on as editor she decided to quit. She had other fish to fry—her new plan was to take her talents to the Internet. As for Imaging & Sound, Ratny happily e-mailed me the following April to make sure I knew about its “impending demise.”
Burek, who quit, told me, “Towards the end, every day was like being a fourth-class passenger on the Titanic.” The owner wrote a staff memo explaining missed issues and salaries sliced in half. Reason one: “Ruth’s decision to continue publishing. . . . I didn’t see this coming.” Another reason: “Ruth’s ability to find a buyer for Screen.”
Imagining & Sound vanished. Ruth Ratny continued. (So did Screen.) Ratny launched the website ReelChicago.com in 2004 and ran it until she died. Her last story was published there a few days before her death.