One of the little perks Frank Sennett was looking forward to in his new job as editor of Time Out Chicago was reconnecting with some of the old gang from New City. Sennett was that paper’s managing editor in the mid-90s, James Porter was a staff writer specializing in blues and soul, Craig Keller a freelance writer, and Nicole Radja a freelance photographer. But last Friday Sennett got a call. Elizabeth Barr, Time Out‘s New York-based editorial director who’s been running the Chicago edition pending Sennett’s arrival, was on the line telling him that she’d just laid off five staffers. Three of them were his old colleagues Porter, Keller, and Radja. Also axed were Chill Out editor Danielle Braff and sales rep Bob Matter.
Sennett, who’s been living outside Spokane, Washington, for the past several years, blogging for a Spokane paper and writing Chicago-based detective novels, reports for work at TOC on January 24; he’d known layoffs were coming but he didn’t know who. “It feels terrible,” he told me. “I’d heard that both Craig and James were very excited I was coming.” (He barely knew Radja.) Of course he couldn’t call them over the weekend and warn them — “You’re told these things in confidence,” he said. He had to hope his old friends wouldn’t, for some reason, call him.
And he’s still excited about taking over the magazine. “I asked point blank if there were structural problems here and I was told in no uncertain terms there were no structural problems. Growth is very strong,” Sennett said. The thing is, “Time Out is heading into its fourth year in Chicago, and most businesses try to pivot into the black in years four and five.”
“It’s obviously not the greatest thing to do,” says Time Out publisher David Garland, “but a lot of people can relate these days.” True that. Garland sounds a lot more sanguine about the subject than the people I’ve talked to recently at the Sun-Times, Pioneer Press, and Daily Southtown — not to mention the Reader. According to Garland, TOC, launched in 2005, is still losing money but ad revenues last year climbed 25 percent from the year before and circulation rose by 11 percent.
Steve Timble, the magazine’s founding publisher — he left in 2006 and is now selling space for the New York Times in Chicago — says the founders underestimated the competitiveness of the Chicago market and have been playing catch-up ever since. Time Out had triumphed in London and New York; perhaps the founders thought due diligence was just for beginners.