It was my old investigative writing partner in crime, Mick Dumke, who came up with the ideal motto for the Reader: “Kicking ass since 1971.”
Well, sort of.
As Mick tells the story, his original suggestion was: “We’re the motherfucking Reader.”
But this was in the days before Mayor Rahm made the F-bomb fashionable, even for an alternative newspaper. So folks started riffing, and the rest is history.
This creativity came at a moment of crisis about eight or nine years ago. One owner was giving way to another—and we were trying to figure out who we were and why we do the things we do. And, more to the point, how to pay the bills so we could keep on doing them.
This is my way of getting to the fact that the Reader will be holding a fund-raising telethon this Friday themed “A Love Letter to Chicago Journalism.” A telethon like WBEZ. And WTTW. And Lou Rawls, who used to emcee the annual telethon for the United Negro College Fund.
Well, not like Lou Rawls. Though if push comes to shove, I may fill time at the telethon by singing my version of “Lady Love.”
“Let me tell you that it’s not easy to keep love flowing strong . . . ”
Sorry—can’t help myself.
Anyway, there are many reasons why the Reader has been such a great journalistic institution since Bob Roth and his pals from Carleton College founded it back in 1971.
Fantastic coverage in arts, music, theater, food (let’s face it, Mike Sula is the world’s greatest food writer).
But let me deal with its coverage of Chicago politics—a thing I know something about, as I’ve been reading or writing it almost since “Lady Love” was at the top of the charts.
The Reader‘s political coverage is unabashedly alternative in just about every way: left of center, contrarian, generally pro-union, pro-teacher, anti-machine.
Until Michael Madigan led the charge against Bruce Rauner.
And then surprisingly pro-Madigan. At least I was. Hey, if I have to choose between a Democratic boss and a union-busting Republican plutocrat, I’m going with the boss—every time.
There have been so many great investigations down through the years written by so many talented writers: John Conroy on police torture, Aimee Levitt on sexual harassment at Profiles Theatre, Mick Dumke on the idiotic Blue Bag recycling program.
The parking meter deal, TIFs, Mayor Rahm’s millionaire club, Mayor Daley’s pursuit of the Olympics. The list goes on and on.
Speaking of the Olympics—I have to give a shout-out to editors Alison True and Kiki Yablon, who let me write like a zillion columns denouncing Mayor Daley’s Olympic bid.
Back then we were one of the only local media outlets to oppose that bid. And now? Even Mayor Daley would agree he was wrong about bringing the games to town. OK, maybe not Mayor Daley—but most everyone else.
I’ve been concentrating on the major investigations. But so much Reader political coverage deals with smaller stories.
To pick an example, I went to the Reader archives and randomly chose “I Guess I’m the Skunk at the Garden Party,” an obscure column from the year 2000.
It had to do with the backroom machinations of my beloved Democratic Party, in this case, the ripple effect caused by the surprise resignation of state senator Art Berman. North-side committeemen chose state rep Carol Ronen to replace Berman. And then they selected Harry Osterman to replace Ronen.
Are you following me? And even if you aren’t . . .
A maverick named Claude Walker challenged Osterman in the ensuing Democratic primary. I spent the better part of a cold day in January going door-to-door with Walker because—well, why not? I wrote:
“On this dreary day Walker tries to keep each pitch short, so as not to keep voters standing in the cold. Most of the people take his flyers and wish him good luck. One woman has an unusual request. ‘Could you get my newspaper?’ she asks. ‘It’s in the shrubs.’
“Walker brightens. Here’s a chance to make a personal connection. He scoots off the porch, rustles around in the bushes, and comes up with the newspaper. ‘Thank you, that’s so sweet of you,’ says the woman. ‘What did you say your name was?’
“‘Walker—Claude Walker,’ he replies.
“‘Well, thank you very much, Mr. Walker,” she says.
“After she closes the door, Walker pauses on the sidewalk. ‘I think I’ll put her down as a plus.
When I send her a note, I’ll mention the newspaper. Hey, every vote counts.'”
If he got that woman’s vote, it wasn’t enough. Walker lost the primary.
But here’s the thing. Years later, Osterman moved on to the City Council. His old legislative seat is now filled by Kelly Cassidy, one of the most progressive legislators in Illinois.
Osterman has moved left as well. To his credit, he gave a spirited denunciation of Mayor Rahm’s TIF boondoggles—Lincoln Yards and the 78.
Maybe Claude Walker (and the Reader) were just a little ahead of their time back in 2000.
In any event, covering the long shots is a great Reader tradition that continues to this day—as with Maya Dukmasova’s articles on several recent aldermanic races.
Of course, a lot has changed on the business end since I walked that precinct with Walker. Back then, the paper was thick with ads, and Reader writers didn’t have to worry about how the bills got paid.
I don’t need to give you another recitation on the hard realities of newspapers in the age of the Internet. But everyone in the business is trying to figure things out.
Like I said, we’ve been at it since 1971—just two years shy of 50. With a little help from our friends, we’ll be kicking ass for another 50 years. v