Alison True in her Reader office in 2008 Credit: Karen Kring

Reader cofounder and original editor Bob Roth had some radical ideas about editors. He didn’t want them to prescribe what went into the paper, or to solicit it. He wanted the stories to crop up like some natural urban flora and make their way on their own to the Reader office. The editors’ jobs would be to wait for the crop to arrive and publish the very best of it.

And he didn’t want those editors to fuck up the writer’s voice with some predetermined Reader “style.” His preference was for hands-off editing at every level, although the stories also had to be great reads, with every fact correct and flawless copy. No mistakes.

This made the Reader a prime destination for writers, and, as the paper grew, a gut buster for editors.

“It’s not about you, it’s about them,” is the main thing my first Reader editor, Patrick Clinton, says he learned from Roth.  

Roth was pursuing excellence before excellence became a corporate cliché. But as the paper grew from eight pages in its launch year to 160 pages and more in the 1990s, his concept that stories should rise up spontaneously from the freelancing populace—without beats, assignments, leads, guidance, or any kind of plan—became harder to adhere to.

This year’s 50th anniversary gave me an excuse to check in with the editors who ran the paper during most of those 1990s juggernaut years: Alison True, who joined the Reader in 1984 and was editor from ’94 to 2010, and Patrick Arden, managing editor from ’95 to 2002. Both started as assistants and worked their way up.

A little digression here, for a story Arden tells about his first day at the Reader, where he arrived as a part-time proofreader in 1990. He’d had a previous job in the same neighborhood, at a financial news service. “Every day when I’d leave [that office] I’d go to the el station at Grand and State,” Arden says, where he would regularly see a man selling used paperback books—potboilers that he transported in a suitcase, lined up against the wall, and offered for about $1 each, or whatever price could be negotiated.

Reader proofreaders, who provided a third and fourth round of editorial scrutiny, were housed above the main editorial offices, on the fourth floor—their cubicles reachable by a circular metal back staircase. Arden recalled in an e-mail that as he emerged from that stairwell for the first time, looking to meet his new coworkers, the first thing he saw was the bookseller, “in a cubicle with his inventory of paperbacks stacked up high and a sleeping bag tucked under the desk.” He knew then that the Reader “wasn’t a typical business and didn’t operate like one. If people did their jobs well, they were given tremendous, almost absolute freedom.”    

The owners “trusted that if you were working sincerely, the journalism would be good, and if the journalism was good, the business would thrive. That was unique.”

As the paper grew, however, the news hole grew with it. Both True and Arden say it was nearly impossible to run this larger publication by simply trusting that terrific stories would come in over the transom every week. Arden remembers that in the heat wave of 1995, with True on maternity leave, he was “sitting under a dry [cover story] faucet, absolutely parched and waiting for a drop that never came.”

To gain control over what she calls a “catch as catch can” situation (“a way of operating that no one in magazine publishing would believe”), and enabled by the paper’s increased revenue, True added columnists, regular features, and staff writers, some of whom worked on long projects and published infrequently. Freelancers remained critical, and the paper‘s relationship with them became more collaborative and intentional.

The “no assignments” policy—by then mostly a myth—didn’t officially change, but “we did make some assignments,” True says, “and even paid the occasional kill fee.”  

True says it “meant a lot” to her to publish John Conroy’s police torture stories (see Michael Miner’s article), but “the focus on the Reader’s criminal justice reporting may obscure the paper’s larger, more varied legacy. Anything could be a Reader story if it was well-written and interesting; the narrative was the key.”

“And there were thousands of people who made the Reader what it was but are not often mentioned,” she says. Mary Jo Madden, the longtime operations head; art director Sheila Sachs; Kiki Yablon, the paper’s first music editor and later managing editor; editors and writers Martha Bayne and Kitry Krause; writers like Harold Henderson, Jeff Felshman, Bill Wyman, Toni Schlesinger, Cate Plys, Mick Dumke, and Cliff Doerksen (recruited by True after he wrote a cranky letter to the editor); critics who were also editors, like Laura Molzahn, J.R. Jones, Albert Williams, and Tony Adler; many other staff members, and all the freelance writers, photographers, and illustrators.

After the paper was sold in 2007, True’s budget was slashed and she had to make the “wrenching decision” to let staff writers go. “That was probably a point where I could have fallen on my sword and left,” says True. Instead, “I did the best I could under the circumstances to try to make sure the Reader kept being the Reader. One way to do that was to continue using freelancers, who had been filling most of the paper every week.” The writers who were cut included the paper’s vaunted investigative core: Steve Bogira, Tori Marlan, and Conroy.

True was axed herself in  in 2010, when the paper had fallen into the hands of a hedge fund. She’s now a freelance writer and editor. Arden, based in New York, is working on a book.      

And the Reader—which made it possible for all those editors and writers to capture a half-century of the life of the city and put it on paper—enters a very different era.