Credit: Lilli Carré

Eliot Wald, an early Reader writer (he went on to Saturday Night Live and then Hollywood), made the disconcerting observation to me back around 1980 that the boomers were no longer the insurgent generation—the outsiders holding the establishment accountable.

Why’s that? I said, alarmed.

Because we’re not outsiders anymore, he said. You may not have noticed but we’re the ones starting to run things.

That, in a nutshell, is the early history of the Reader. It was founded in 1971 as an “alternative” to the four dailies operating then in Chicago, but by mid-1978 two of those were history, while the Reader was becoming a voice as much to be reckoned with as the surviving Sun-Times and Tribune.

1971 was an auspicious time in Chicago and America. Richard J. Daley was reelected yet again, and the dailies mindlessly endorsed him. But this time dozens of reporters and editors at the Sun-Times and Daily News, remembering the mayhem of the 1968 Democratic Convention, ran full-page ads in their papers disavowing the endorsements. Across America, the Vietnam war continued but the war-driven hyperpolitics of the 60s were a spent force. A massive generation’s creative juices were diffusing from political protest into the wider culture. In Chicago in the early 70s they were creating Jam Productions, Music of the Baroque, Alligator Records, WXRT, Grease . . . and the Reader.

Its founders were brash young Carleton College graduates with a business plan, and as shrewd as it eventually turned out to be, if in the Reader‘s first few years there was a pot to piss in, there wasn’t much more—certainly nothing along the lines of salaries, or office space, or even a phone number the Reader could call its own. The founders lived and worked together in a series of apartments in Hyde Park and Rogers Park, and as cofounder Tom Yoder explains elsewhere in this issue, the only Illinois Bell calling plan they could afford had to be taken out in publisher Bob Roth‘s name because it wasn’t available to businesses.

In the decades ahead Yoder would make himself so much at home at O’Rourke’s, the city’s preeminent journalists’ bar, that when it closed he installed one of the wooden booths in his sixth-floor Reader office, along with the huge photo of playwright Sean O’Casey that had hung on the bar’s west wall. But it wasn’t until about 1977 that he could hold his head up there. “For years, I don’t think any of us felt comfortable at O’Rourke’s,” Yoder remembers. “Probably not till we started paying ourselves living wages.”

I joined the staff in 1979, early in the living wage era, but my relationship with this paper goes back to its genesis, when still without form and void it was a gleam in the eye of its creators. When I heard what they intended to create my reaction was clear and strong—they can’t be serious!

In the summer of 1971, while I was visiting my girlfriend Betsy’s shop, a young woman came in and invited her to advertise in a new weekly newspaper that would debut in October. I listened in. The name—the Reader—struck me as infantile, the business plan as incomprehensible. The idea was that the newspaper would be free and the advertising would pay for everything. This didn’t sound like a good deal for advertisers—it sounded like a surcharge. And the ultimate folly, in my view, was that the Reader had no ideological ax to grind. In that day, an alternative paper had only one reason for being, which was to tout its favored one true path to making the revolution, cleansing the earth, and reconciling the races. If a free weekly didn’t preach to a choir, who the hell would read it?

At the time I had what I thought was the best job on earth: the Sun-Times was actually paying me to be a Chicago newspaperman. One night Bob McCamant, the design genius among the Reader founders, dropped in on me at the paper (in that era anyone could wander into the Sun-Times city room with a tale of woe or a pipe dream). We’re starting up, McCamant said; do you have any stories you could give us? Not that I’d have lifted a finger for McCamant’s hopeless project, but as it happened in a drawer were a few stories the Sun-Times had turned down. One in particular, long and pointless, described a summer night spent wandering the lakefront between Diversey and Oak. It’s yours, I said, astonished to think this opus might actually see the light of day. So it came to pass that on October 1, 1971, I showed up in the first issue ever of the Reader, a newspaper where, for several ensuing decades, length was never an issue and a point was never a prerequisite.

After the big blowout first issue of 16 pages, the Reader settled into a routine—eight smartly designed pages offering jaunty writing from a small cadre of enthusiastic young voices working for nothing. There was so little advertising that even though those eight pages cost about $400 to produce, the Reader was soon $16,000 in debt to its printer, Newsweb. The day Fred Eychaner, Newsweb’s owner, demanded his money the Reader would disappear.

He never did. And the paper caught on. Even Betsy’s shop was soon an advertiser.

As a lead-up to this 40th anniversary issue, my weekly assignment in 2011 has been to leaf through binders of old Readers and recall each year in turn. The yellowed pages ripped and crumbled as I turned them, and I suspected no one would pass this way again. Readers earlier than 1987 have never been digitized; much of the later content is supposedly a finger click away, but it’s more realistic to think of it as lost in the infinity of cyberspace. This wasn’t quotidian journalism that deserved the birdcages it would line tomorrow; it was passionate, informed, and literate. But what can be done? There’s little of the institutional ego at the Reader that a “best of” anthology would require, and any editor who set out to create one would discover there’s simply too much to choose from and too much of it is incredibly long. The Reader has excelled at long-form journalism, and how can a best of the Reader be collected when the best runs to 20,000 words (Mike Lenehan’s 1977 essay on beekeeping), or to 40,000 words (Ben Joravsky‘s two-part report in 1992 on the Roosevelt High basketball program), or to a 12-part serial (Lee Sandlin‘s recollections in 2004 of the family home in Edwardsville, Illinois)?

Perhaps it’s enough to know that Joravsky’s opus shows up in the Best American Sports Writing 1993. And that Lenehan’s essay has been published as a book by Bob McCamant’s Sherwin Beach Press. And that Gary Rivlin’s reporting on the Harold Washington era, which made most of the other coverage sound hysterical and obtuse by comparison, led to his 1992 book, Fire on the Prairie: Chicago’s Harold Washington and the Politics of Race. And that John Conroy‘s years of stoic, unrelenting reporting on police torture in Chicago informed his 2000 book, Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People: The Dynamics of Torture. That Steve Bogira‘s examinations of crime and poverty deepened his Courtroom 302: A Year Behind the Scenes in an American Criminal Courthouse (2006). And that the one-liners of my friend A.E. Eyre, who pathetically campaigns to be acclaimed the great epigrammatist of our age (“There is no i in golf”) will never be collected nor should be.

A lot of the writing I was happy to rediscover was by writers not even associated particularly with the Reader. There was Lawrence Wechsler’s eccentric argument for why the 13th of any month is more likely to fall on a Friday than any other day, published here in 1979, long before Wechsler, having made a name for himself at the New Yorker, came back to Chicago to run the Humanities Festival. Novelist James Park Sloan produced one Reader piece, a 1991 postmortem meditation on his friend Jerzy Kosinski, which led him to write Kosinski’s biography and come to the melancholy conclusion Kosinski was essentially a fraud. Peter Schwendener plays jazz piano these days and writes for the New Criterion and Commonweal, but in the early 80s, right out of college, he got what he remembers as a dream job—Reader staff writer paid to pursue such recondite inquiries as this: how come the conservative Polish intellectual Leopold Tyrman wound up installed at the obscure Rockford Institute?

John Eisendrath is a big-name TV producer out on the coast (Malibu Shores, Felicity, Alias), but back in the 80s he was a canny, connected Reader staff writer whose brother Edwin would soon be elected a Chicago alderman. Musicologist Kyle Gann, author of six books and long gone from Chicago, wrote for us in the same era. And years before Debbie Nathan, the voice of lucidity in the chilling documentary Capturing the Friedmans, became journalism’s most prominent enemy of ritual child abuse hysteria, she was in the Reader introducing Chicago in 1984 to its home-grown Puerto Rican terrorists?

The list of contributors is dazzling—and all but endless. Yet there are only two books I can think of that might be called Reader anthologies—that is, in addition to the collected wisdom of Cecil Adams, an indispensible resource that runs to several volumes. The People Are the News: Grant Pick’s Chicago Stories was compiled by Pick’s family after he died in 2005 and published by Northwestern University Press. Profiles of unusual people Pick wanted to know more about, his stories epitomize Reader journalism. When Movies Mattered: Reviews From a Transformative Decade is a collection of Dave Kehr reviews that the University of Chicago Press brought out this year. In its pages Kehr, our film critic from 1974 to 1986 (who’s now with the New York Times), allows that “the freedom I knew at the Chicago Reader is something I suspect I will never recover, mingled as it was with the energy of youth and the excitement of charging headlong into uncharted territory.”

If a great stone lintel loomed above the Reader door (we’re in a humble brick building and one doesn’t), those would be good words to carve in it: freedom . . . energy . . . youth . . . charging headlong. Back in 1971 the deal the Reader offered writers was this: write with your head and from your gut, take your best shot, have fun, and we won’t pay you a dime but we’ll print you. The dimes would come, but the basic terms didn’t change. .

The thing is, the tail wagged the dog—the listings and classifieds were what made us necessary to a couple of generations of Chicagoans. However fiercely edited the articles up front were (and the editing got pretty damned intense), however compelling the photography, dazzling the art, and elegant the design, a mantel of insouciance lay across the operation. We’re publishing 20,000 words on beekeeping because Mike Lenehan felt like writing 20,000 words, and we know you won’t read 19,000 of them; but if you do, by God, you won’t find a single typo or dangling participle and you’ll learn a hell of a lot about bees. And if you don’t, no hard feelings and good luck finding that apartment.

As the Reader expanded to two, three, and eventually four sections, section one got into query letters and kill fees and editorial conferences and we were more like everyone else. But for the longest time a writer coming to us with an idea was told just write the damn thing and if we like it we’ll run it. In 1979, when the Reader offices were in an old walk-up dump on Grand, the manila envelopes that came in over the transom made a carpet a half foot deep in the office of Lenehan, the associate editor. On Wednesday the issue was laid out. On Tuesday, if need be, Lenehan rummaged his carpet for a cover story. One Tuesday that March he hit the jackpot! He came across a tale by a writer we didn’t know named Bill Finger reminiscing about the 1963 NCAA basketball champions, the Loyola Ramblers. Nicely written, it was perfectly timed—appearing just as March Madness was erupting. By the conventional newspaper yardstick, the one problem was that it would have been better a year earlier, on the 15th anniversary of the Ramblers’ run to glory. On the other hand, Finger’s story might have been lying on Lenehan’s floor for a year.

But not every story got chosen so casually. And nothing was published with indifference to its accuracy. Toni Schlesinger, who went on to write the Village Voice “Shelter” column, remembers Lenehan yelling at her, “How do you know he was telling the truth!”—not an easy question to answer when her subject was describing his life in wartime Poland.

David Andich, the paper’s libel attorney since the 70s, remembers a story that from the get-go promised to be nothing but trouble. Reporter Tom Dolan showed up in 1978 with a piece about the tight CIA connections of a prominent international business consultant named Thomas Miner (no relation). Robert Abboud, chairman of the First National Bank of Chicago, was a key player in Dolan’s story. The Sun-Times, where Dolan had until recently worked, wouldn’t print it. Chicago magazine, where Dolan took it next, wouldn’t print it either, and after losing that battle Dolan’s editor at Chicago, Ron Dorfman, had resigned. Together they approached the Reader. Now there were two stories—Dolan’s story about Miner and Dorfman’s about the story nobody would touch.

“I had real doubts,” Andich remembers. “But Bob Roth made it very clear the Reader brain trust wanted to do it. I spent two days with Roth and Dorfman and Dolan, ten-hour days going over those two articles—every sentence. There were boxes and boxes of documents. It was my first really, really intense prepublishing review. It was huge.” It was also exhilarating. The stories ran in early 1979, they were solid, and nobody sued.

Another Reader story back then gave Andich one of his career’s crowning moments. In 1977 the paper carried a cover story by David Martin and Michael VerMeulen about a little guy, Bob Katzman, who owned a few delivery trucks and filed a federal antitrust suit against the huge Charles Levy Circulating Company, which dominated the distribution of newspapers and magazines in Chicago. Looking for whatever it could get on Katzman, Levy subpoenaed the reporters’ notes. The Reader refused to turn them over. Andich argued the Reader‘s position and prevailed.

“I’ve always been proud of that case,” Andich says. “One, it was my first major litigation on behalf of the Reader. Secondly, it was in federal court, a serious place. And most important, it was the first written opinion by any sitting court in the state of Illinois—state or federal—that established that a media entity getting a third-party subpoena could invoke First Amendment rights.”

In 2004 Andich was back in court resisting another subpoena. Madison Hobley was a convicted arsonist and murderer who claimed he’d been tortured into a false confession by Chicago police; pardoned by governor George Ryan in 2002, he sued the city for compensation. John Conroy had interviewed Hobley in prison in 1991 and in 2000 had published a cover story focusing on his case. So the city’s attorneys, on a fishing expedition, subpoenaed Conroy for “any and all documents” regarding Hobley and the fatal fire.

Because of a 2003 ruling written by Judge Richard Posner for the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, Andich couldn’t argue that Conroy’s notes were protected by any sort of federal reporter’s privilege. “The city of Chicago thought they absolutely had us,” Andich remembers. “Conroy was absolutely in apoplexy.” But Andich offered federal magistrate Geraldine Soat Brown another way of looking at the matter. “Conroy’s notes constitute his ‘journalistic work product,'” he argued in a brief. “He wrote them, and his notes are his creation. His notes are just as critical, personal, and in need of protection as attorneys would maintain about attorneys’ ‘work product.'”

Brown was so pleased by this logic she told Conroy to keep his notes. The argument that swayed her became known around the Reader as the Andich Doctrine, and it’s as satisfying to recall as any story the paper has published—the last Reader high point, perhaps, unsullied by journalism’s onrushing new realities.

Alison True came to work here as an editorial assistant in 1984, a year after the Reader moved into the building on Illinois Street it still occupies. She stayed for 26 years and was the paper’s editor for 15 of them. True was editor for the Andich Doctrine. She was editor for almost all of John Conroy’s long march against Jon Burge. She hired investigative journalist Mick Dumke and told political columnist Ben Joravsky to roll up his sleeves. She brought on cartoonist Chris Ware and sex-advice columnist Dan Savage. And when winter hit she faced it.

Mid-decade brought the first layoffs in Reader history, and in late 2006 Tom Rehwaldt, a founder estranged from the other founders and no longer involved in running the paper, sued them over their business practices and forced the 2007 sale to Creative Loafing Inc., a southern weekly chain.

The new owners laid off the entire Reader production staff and began laying out the paper in Atlanta according to the chain’s cookie-cutter design. It looked hideous. And they slashed True’s budget so dramatically she had to fire four of her best writers—Conroy, Bogira (who was rehired last year), Tori Marlan, and Harold Henderson. True’s most important duty to the Reader became finding ways to limit the damage. When Creative Loafing decided the Reader’s photo archives were a waste of space and told her to throw everything out, True instead contacted the Newberry Library, which was happy to have her donate them.

A year after the purchase, Creative Loafing Inc. declared bankruptcy, and there was nowhere to go but up. Even bankruptcy was up—the Reader staff prayed the bankrupt owners would pay for their sins by losing the company. Their prayers were answered—in 2009 the company was taken over by its senior creditor, Atalaya Capital Management of New York.

A symbol of the old order, True was soon thrown over the side by the new bosses. Her last great contribution to the Reader and its legacy was to donate her 26 years’ worth of papers to the Newberry. When she was fired, Lee Sandlin posted on the Reader website: “Everything I wrote from the early 90s till a few years ago, I wrote with her in mind: I thought of her as my ideal audience for my most envelope-pushing experiments in feature journalism.”

By a “till few years ago,” Sandlin meant before Craigslist and other online competition wiped out the Reader’s advantage in classifieds and listings. But although the paper no longer had the room or luxury to publish everything it pleased, its journalism had become more important to it than ever—journalism was what defined and distinguished it.

So where is the Reader today? Here are some facts. It’s been redesigned and looks terrific. The reporting is as good as ever. The young editor, Mara Shalhoup, is new to Chicago and wants to know everything about it. But an average issue contains about as many pages in 2011 as it did in 1978, the economy is awful, and no one can say with any confidence where journalism generally, much less the Reader specifically, is going. Though the Reader might not be publishing any more 20,000-word stories in a single issue, it still believes in journalism that’s given room to breathe (Bogira’s recent two-part narrative, “The price of intolerance,” ran at 12,000 words).

The Reader knows what it is—it is less certain how to be. Still, a strong sense of legacy informs what we do, and the only direction is forward, into the digital age. When Thomas Wolfe wrote that you can’t go home again, what he meant was, you can’t go back home.

Home as a state of mind hasn’t changed much at the Reader. Toni Schlesinger, a prolific contributor in the 70s and 80s, Facebooked me from New York with her thoughts on the subject. “Reporting can be a lonely, alienating state. I remember in my interviewing, chatting with men who had been in prison, sitting in those dark red restaurants on Taylor Street, or driving around with a pimp in a long low white car and being in these worlds that were both sort of at the bottom and frightening though obviously that made good stories,” she wrote. “But in the midst of that, there was a sense of like-minded people all writing for the Reader. So it was a ‘home’ in the larger sense. And of course the idea of a publication as a physical place is quickly vanishing.”

As a shared collection of memories, aspirations, and values the Reader remains a home. Dave Andich just told me his favorite Reader story. Years ago, when the paper introduced its “Matches” service (recently discontinued, in large part because of competition with Craigslist), an ad came in from a man seeking two women for a ménage a trois. He wanted his ad bundled with all the other ads categorized as heterosexual men seeking women. The Reader didn’t see it that way. We’ll run your ad, we replied, but only under the category of other. The man took this indignity to the Chicago Human Rights Commission, and that’s how Andich got involved. Andich got the complaint thrown out. “The Reader‘s position was that it would have been an identical situation if it had been woman seeking two men,” he recalled. “So there was no discrimination in the Reader‘s policy.

“I think this would probably only happen to the Reader.”