The staffs of the Chicago Reader and its sister Washington City Paper just found out the papers have been sold to a southern chain, Creative Loafing Inc., which publishes alternative weeklies in Atlanta, Tampa, Sarasota, and Charlotte. The news is shocking but oddly unsurprising–these are hard times for newspapers everywhere, and in consolidation lie the theoretical advantages of scale and fresh energy.

“We never thought it would come to pass. We’ve received so many overtures over the years and they’ve never come to pass,” Bob Roth, a founder of the Reader in 1971 and president of Chicago Reader, Inc., told me. But when Creative Loafing made its overture in March, “we got a better offer than I expected. And I guess it was time. We’ve been here for 36 years.” Roth, who turned 60 this spring, said all ten people with an ownership stake in the company supported a sale. “I’m looking forward to a younger, energetic management,” he said. “Maybe it’ll be an improvement over us guys.”

If times were better, I asked him, and the Reader were still making money hand over fist, do you think you’d all be so ready to call it quits. Roth thought about that awhile. “Yes, I do. But I think that’s because we’re ready to retire,” he said at last.

“We have built our Creative Loafing brand by offering valuable content to people who influence public opinion and public tastes in culturally vibrant markets,” says Creative Loafing’s CEO, Ben Eason, in a prepared statement heavier on jargon than I wish it were. “The addition of two top-ten markets–and two of the industry’s most respected alternative news products–offers us a pivotal gateway of connectivity with the young adult audience.” He went on, “While others may be looking at publishing companies through the lens of old print media, we are pioneering the opportunities offered by convergent print, web, and new media applications.”

Mike Crystal will stay on as publisher of the Reader, and Alison True as editor–that’s good news. I’m told Creative Loafing, which began in 1972 as an Atlanta paper founded by Eason’s parents, doesn’t meddle particularly in the local operations of its papers, which publish the kind of serious journalism the Reader is known for–though not as much of it. How the Reader will change, and how much it will change, are questions that preoccupy everyone concerned at the moment.

Addendum: Read the press releases from the Reader and Creative Loafing.