Cartoon image of Patrick Clinton with balloon reading "Are you leaving already?"
Patrick Clinton Credit: Dino Di Artist

It’s 1980, and I am unemployed.

After giving up a staff writer job at the esteemed St. Petersburg Times to return to Chicago, I have found myself, as the saying goes, shit out of luck.

Chicago has gone from four daily newspapers to two, and is awash in unemployed journalists, all more experienced than me.

So I’ve come to a decrepit building at 12 E. Grand Avenue to ask Patrick Clinton if he can help me get a job.

I knew Clinton as a fellow graduate student in the English department at Northwestern University in the 1970s. He was a medievalist and a folk singer-songwriter. Now he’s assistant editor at the nine-year-old Chicago Reader, which occupies a warren of shabby, shag-carpeted offices on the second floor and isn’t going to hire me, but will, Clinton assures me from behind a battered desk, take a look at anything I want to freelance.

Editorially, this rapidly growing alternative newsweekly is the best game in town: offbeat local stories that are great reads, wonderful photos, and long literary narratives, including Michael Lenehan’s already-infamous 20,000-word piece on beekeeping. It looks to me like the Village Voice, edited by the New Yorker. A writer’s nirvana.

But the pay sucks, and everything is written on spec. I tell myself I won’t be doing that.  

Blink, it’s 2021.

The Reader is 50 years old. I’ve been writing for the paper for nearly 40 years, the last 20 as a staff writer.

Clinton, who became managing editor, left the Reader in 1987 for a career that included teaching at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism and top editorial jobs at consumer and trade publications in New York. He’s retired now, making music again and living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I’ve reached him by phone to remind him that, in effect, the rest of my working life is his fault.

He claims not to remember.

Clinton’s own link to the Reader was Lenehan, a college friend from Notre Dame and Chicago roommate, who joined the Reader staff in the early 70s. He started out writing the Reader’s calendar page and, under the direction of founder, editor, and publisher Bob Roth, maintaining a mountainous, ever-growing slush pile.

“I would read things, say this is terrible, we could never publish it, and then we would keep it, just in case,” Clinton recalls.

In 1983, the paper moved to upgraded offices in its own building at 11 E. Illinois, where “the production area was fantastic.” The production staff was much larger than the editorial staff, Clinton says, and “that had to do with the business model.” When the Reader started out, “it was a time of burgeoning hip capitalism: jean stores, bookstores, music venues”—all catering to young people who mostly lived in Hyde Park, Lincoln Park, Rogers Park, and Evanston. They were too spread out for the businesses to easily reach, but in clusters that enabled drop distribution.

These businesses couldn’t afford to advertise in the Tribune, and they couldn’t afford an advertising agency to create their display ads, “so the Reader became a small business advertising agency in addition to a publication. If you wanted an ad in the Reader, you had to come to the office and write your check, but then they’d make your ad for you. Somebody from the production department would come down, help you with it, and go back and produce it. We had an enormous, talented group of production people.

“At traditional newspapers, classifieds are your biggest moneymaker; at the Reader, most of the classified ads were free, which pretty much freed us from having to do much at all to develop circulation,” Clinton says. In fact, a reader survey suggested that, essentially, “we could do away with the front section entirely, and they would probably still pick up the paper.

“And this is one of the things I really admire about the founders: faced with that, many publishers would just put out unmitigated crap. But they looked at it and said, ‘OK, what this means is that we don’t have to write something that pleases everybody. Because the music listings are there, and the classifieds are there, and everyone’s going to find something to look at. So, 20,000 words on keeping bees? Cool, no problem.’ They saw it as a way of real alternative journalism. People writing about what they feel like writing about.”

What was the hardest thing about working there? “Roth had all these rules, and the biggest one was hands off,” Clinton says. “He didn’t really like or appreciate editing. He literally would have preferred if none of us spoke to writers at all. His feeling was that editors will, long run, contaminate writers and spoil the publication. I don’t agree with that, but he didn’t want the Reader to be telling people what to write.”

The tension between those rules and what it took to get the paper out while maintaining its quality, “that was hard,” Clinton says. “Roth built a culture that really was about the writers and artists and photographers. And the rest of us were there kind of as servants to that, rather than bosses. That is a difficult attitude to maintain, and incredibly powerful.

“When I went on to Northwestern, teaching at the J-school, the stuff I learned at the Reader was constantly useful. I can probably say I didn’t stand in the way very much. I don’t think that I wrecked much of anybody.”