The Chicago Reader is a free newspaper, but its ads were once so prized that thieves would steal classified sections from the printing plant and sell them for a dollar apiece.
The Reader was once so dominant that if it printed the wrong screening times for a movie, the theater would change the times.
The Reader was once such a sensation that its revenue quadrupled in two years.
And the Reader was once so unpredictable that it ran a 20,012-word story about beekeeping.
Now, as the Reader marks its 50th anniversary, it aims to keep stirring up Chicago’s news ecosystem with a promising but not-yet–proven strategy to go nonprofit and bring scores of other publications along on its campaign to promote community journalism.
Since the first issue was put together on the dining room table of an apartment in Chicago’s Kenwood neighborhood and then published on October 1, 1971, the Reader has helped its core audience of young adults come into the city, comprehend it, and consume it. Though it was a pioneer among alt-weeklies, it wasn’t counterculture. It was young, urban culture. Asked whether the founders might have been considered hippies, the first managing editor, Nancy Banks, describes the early crew as “proto-yuppies.”
The Reader covered politics and social issues, but it didn’t have a rigid editorial agenda. It did have a well-defined marketing plan to offer extensive classified ads and the best entertainment listings in town. Beyond that, it tended to go where its writers took it.
Some call the Reader the nation’s first free alternative weekly, but that claim is iffy. While the Reader changed the game by proving that a free alt-weekly could be wildly profitable, Boston After Dark was distributing about two-thirds of its print run as a free college edition before the Reader launched.
You might call the Reader the nation’s longest-surviving free alt-weekly, since Boston After Dark is no longer around. But the Reader switched last year from weekly print publication to every other week. So is the Reader now an alt-biweekly? Instead of overthinking, let’s accept the framing by Richard Karpel, who headed the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies when he wrote in 2007 that “the most significant historical event in the creation of the modern alt-weekly occurred in Chicago in 1971, when the Chicago Reader pioneered the practice of free circulation.”
The Reader debuted in a Chicago far different from today’s version. Three weeks before the first issue was published, the Woodfield Mall opened in suburban Schaumburg, claiming to be the largest enclosed retail center in the world. The year 1971 also saw the first women elected to the Chicago City Council, the closing of the Union Stockyards, and John Belushi joining the cast of the Second City comedy troupe.
The Reader almost didn’t make it. Then it did, spectacularly, becoming a part of Chicago’s cityscape. Former Reader publisher Jane Levine recalls “the incredible physical presence that the paper had in the neighborhoods where it was distributed—those huge stacks of huge papers that would appear, and then disappear, in the entryways of record stores and bars and bookstores and student unions.”
At the half-century mark, the Reader has built a legacy as a home for fine writing and in-depth reporting, a driver of arts and culture, and proof that an alternative publication can invent a successful financial model. Now it’s trying to reinvent itself to survive as a nonprofit in a vastly different media environment. After 50 years, it’s still taking chances.
Here’s how the whole thing happened.
The dining room table
In the winter of 1970-’71, two recent graduates of Minnesota’s Carleton College were sharing an apartment at 48th and Dorchester. One of them, Bob Roth, had grown up in suburban Arlington Heights and was pursuing a master’s in political science at the University of Chicago. The other, Tom Rehwaldt, was a substitute teacher in the Chicago Public Schools system.
Roth roped his roommate into a project that was difficult and might have seemed a little bit crazy.
No, not the Reader. Stripping off paint.
“For some reason he conned me into stripping the paint off the fine woodwork in the apartment,” Rehwaldt says. “Which seems kind of crazy, that you would go to that effort to improve and gentrify somebody else’s building that you’re renting. But I guess it passed the time. So we would sit there with torches, burning the paint off, and with the remover and whatever and scrapers, cleaning up the woodwork, and all the time talking about the idea of a newspaper and what we would do once we got successful with a newspaper.”
The name Reader was suggested by an early investor, a law student named Peter Bell. Rehwaldt recalls that the name “resonated with all of us who had grown up with My Weekly Reader in grade school.” He says another name considered was “Windy City Blast,” but the other three main founders—Roth, Bob McCamant, and Tom Yoder—have no memory of that suggestion.
Roth received his inspiration for the Reader from the alt-weekly scene in Boston, where he had studied for a summer at Boston University. He recruited two more Carleton grads, McCamant and Nancy Banks, to come to Chicago and help launch the free paper.
While Roth was the visionary, McCamant was the one who knew how to produce a newspaper.
“I had started working in print shops when I was in high school, so I knew the whole process of putting out newspapers, upwards and downwards,” McCamant says. “It made it quite easy for me to figure out how we needed to get organized to be able to put it out.”
McCamant designed the iconic backwards-R nameplate that has always been a Reader signature. “It was hand drawn by me with a compass and ruler,” he says.
Banks was the first Reader managing editor, “but there was not much to manage,” she says. She quickly gave that up and shifted to a more limited role as a freelance writer for the Reader.
Roth “certainly had a good idea,” Banks says. “I mean, it was such a good idea that he was supposed to go on being a graduate student at the University of Chicago and the rest of us were going to start rolling money into his pockets.”
But Roth soon dropped out of grad school. “It just became too overwhelming,” he says. “I was increasingly bored with school compared to the anxieties and excitement of the Reader.”
The people who made early financial investments were Roth, Rehwaldt, McCamant, Yoder, Bell, Fred Green, Jim Holman, Mark Homstad, and Tim Nagler. “We were ridiculously undercapitalized,” Roth recalled in a 2011 Reader article. “Some of them put in as little as $500 for their shares in the company.”
About 15 months in, investor Yoder came to Chicago to join the staff. Then the core group of founders was set: two Bobs and two Toms, all graduates of Carleton College. Only Roth was from the Chicago area.
The founders took no salary in those early days, though they were credited with $55 worth of stock in the company for each issue they worked on. To keep eating, the founders worked a variety of jobs. Roth delivered tropical plants for a shop called Plants Alive. Rehwaldt installed waterbeds for a company called Undercurrents. McCamant did outside jobs as a graphic artist, designing ads. Yoder was a dispatcher for a pager service.
Perhaps they were too young to worry about the Reader’s long odds for success.
“I figured this was a lark,” says McCamant. “I’d do it for a few months and then I’d go find a real job.”
“I had some faith,” Rehwaldt says, “but I also took the post office exam so I could get a job in the post office in the event I needed a job.”
Michael Lenehan, a longtime Reader editor who joined the staff in the early 70s, detected pockets of optimism, despite the seemingly dim prospects.
“I think that at least a couple of the principals really thought that they could get rich doing this,” Lenehan says. “Or that they could make a lot of money. Not that they were that interested in the money. What they were mostly interested in was making a living while having fun. And the fun part was a big part of the equation.”
The staff was a bunch of young people having a good time in the city. The term “yuppies”—for young urban professionals—wouldn’t come into vogue until the next decade, but the Reader crew were pioneers.
“We were maybe early yuppies,” says Banks. “We were living in the city. We weren’t out in the countryside growing our own vegetables. We certainly were familiar with smoking pot. We loved not just rock ’n’ roll, but one of the best things about living in Chicago was getting to know blues and jazz. It’s a picture of how this generation realized that cities were cool places to live.”
Cities are also expensive, and the Reader couldn’t afford overhead. So the early offices were in the apartments where some of the founders lived: first two places in the same courtyard building on Dorchester in the Kenwood neighborhood, then an apartment at 7710 N. Marshfield in a section of Rogers Park north of Howard.
Jane Levine, who started as an intern and would later become publisher, recalls: “We couldn’t answer the phone ‘Chicago Reader’ because we weren’t paying for a business phone line. So we just said, ‘Hello.’”
The Reader also had no credit cards or bank account. Everything flowed through Roth’s personal account.
The weekly choreography went like this:
“On Sunday evenings, two volunteer women would come over and with them we would process all the classified ads for that week,” Yoder says. “And then Bob McCamant would usually make dinner, and then we’d watch Masterpiece Theatre.
“On Mondays I generally picked up the mail. We would pick up ads. We hardly had any outsiders in our apartment,” Yoder says. “It was a residential apartment. So if somebody wanted to advertise, I’d go pick it up. Our ad deadline was always on Tuesdays, and I’d pick up more ads on Tuesdays, or take them over the phone.”
Meanwhile, Roth and others would be working on the stories.
“On Wednesdays in the very early days,” Yoder said, “I went to the typesetter. I would often pick up an article or two on the way. And then I would sit at the typesetter and proofread.”
The strips of type went back to the apartment so that McCamant could oversee the pasteup process in which the type was stuck onto the pages with warm wax. Headlines were produced using Letraset rub-ons that were rubbed right onto the pages.
In Rogers Park, Levine recalls, “They pasted up in the room that was the dining room but also the office. But there wasn’t any more room in there, so I pasted up in the kitchen, where there were cockroaches. I had to interrupt pasting up to kill the cockroaches.”
According to Yoder, “I suppose on a good night we’d be done by midnight or one. On a bad night it would be later.”
Then they’d drop off the pages to the printer early Thursday, sleep a few hours, pick up the printed papers, and start deliveries. Rehwaldt distributed Readers from his Volkswagen Super Beetle. “Bob Roth and I had a route,” Yoder recalls, “and we delivered papers together every week. And we’d meet after we finished at Ratso’s restaurant for dinner. That was a trade with the newspaper, so we ate for free. And a beer.”
The first issue was 16 pages long, but most issues in that first year were only eight. In that debut year, they skipped issues around Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.
The finances were dicey, to say the least. In a note to readers for the first anniversary, the paper announced: “The Reader sustained a $19,874 loss in its first 10 months of operation,” then added optimistically, “but all the indices are up.” (That $19,874 loss was the equivalent of about $126,000 in 2021 dollars.)
Michael Miner, a longtime Reader writer and editor who had an article in the very first issue, recalls how the Reader tried to get his wife to advertise when she ran a women’s clothing store called Presence.
“I remember a woman named Nancy Banks, I think it was, coming in and explaining the Reader from the point of view of a potential advertiser,” Miner says. “I happened to be in the store at the time, and my thinking was, ‘This will never work.’”
But the staff kept plugging away.
“I once delivered a bundle of papers to a bar on Armitage that had owed the Reader $120 for several months,” Yoder recalled in the Reader in 2011. “I decided to try to embarrass the owner by bringing up the debt in front of his customers. When I got back to the office the phone rang and it was the owner complaining about our asshole delivery driver’s behavior. I assured him that the driver would be disciplined. And the check arrived the next week.”
As time went on, it began to dawn on people that the Reader was in the right place at the right time.
“I think what happened in a number of cities at the same time was that the intellectual and cultural and social life developed in the center city that caused the revitalization of the cities, which were otherwise being sucked dry by the suburbs,” McCamant says. “All these periodicals in all these various cities were a part of that. And certainly, in Chicago we were people of a certain age who wanted to come downtown, to come into the city, to go to clubs and bars, restaurants and tiny art galleries, and things like that. We were the mechanism by which they discovered that these things existed.”
The Reader’s founders saw the lakefront as a rich target audience, with Lake Shore Drive as a sort of “main street,” as Roth once put it.
“We discovered the lakefront was a community,” Yoder says. “It’s a community of interest. Nobody else realized that.”
The founders also understood that they could publish quality journalism while not relying on that to build their audience.
“Roth early on realized that what he called the service pages of the newspaper were the reason people were picking it up,” Yoder says. “Section One might have had an appealing cover story, somebody might really have been interested in some of the reviews that were in it, but it was the classifieds and the listings. Where could you find anyplace else at that point what was really going on in the city? The dailies didn’t much care about it.”
At first the Reader offered all classifieds for free, but later it made advertisers pay if they were charging for goods or services. To boost the classified ad count early on, Banks checked University of Chicago bulletin boards and called people to ask them if she could include their notices in the ads for free.
The Reader also called around to make its entertainment listings the best in town.
“The woman who did the music listings, part of her routine each week was to call this guy at the Jazz Record Mart and find out who was playing this weekend at these obscure south- and west-side bars,” says Yoder. “Because we wanted to be comprehensive.”
The Reader also came up with appealing features such as the Straight Dope column, which debuted in 1973. Roth had seen a question–and-answer column in one of the Boston alt-weeklies and asked Lenehan to write one like it for the Reader.
“They had a name [for the author] picked out,” Lenehan says. “They had known a guy named Cecil Adams, and they thought this was great. A pseudonym. They wanted it to be a pseudonymous author who would be identified with the Reader no matter how often the writers came and went. At some point I wanted to give it up, and Dave Kehr started writing it. Part of the deal always was that Cecil was a recluse and nobody ever saw him. That was all part of the game. All of these people were Cecil’s ‘editors.’ So Dave Kehr became Cecil’s editor and he did it for a couple of years, I think, and [Ed] Zotti came along, and he did it for the longest time, and he’s the one who made it into a franchise.”
The Reader began to attract supporters, including influential ones.
Tom Wolfe, a hero of New Journalism who had written the best-selling chronicle The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test just a few years earlier, wrote to the Reader in its first year with encouraging words: “The future of the newspaper (as opposed to the past, which is available at every newsstand) lies in your direction, i.e., the sheet willing to deal with ‘the way we live now.’”
Merely surviving those early years was a victory.
“A refusal to quit, I think, is necessary for any kind of new venture like this,” Roth said in 1983 in the Media Burn archive. “I think something like 99 percent of all new publications fail in the first three years. And if you quit in the first three years, you’re one of the 99 percent. There are not too many people who wouldn’t have lost heart putting out an eight-page tabloid publication for a whole year.”
The saving graces
“These are two of the unsung heroes of the origin story,” said Bob Roth. “This Northwestern kid and our printer.”
The Northwestern kid was a sophomore named Randy Barnett. The printer was an entrepreneur named Fred Eychaner. Without the faith and talent of those two young men, the Reader would have failed in its first few years.
Barnett was on Northwestern’s Evanston campus one day when he noticed the Reader being left in certain locations. The wrong locations, he thought. “So I called them up from Evanston and I said, ‘Hey, I like what you guys are doing, but you’re not dumping the papers in the right spots. You should put them here, here, and here.’ And they said, ‘How would you feel about selling advertising for us up there?’”
Barnett said OK, and he did. “They were blown away by me because they had a very hard time selling ads. They were trying to sell ads and they couldn’t,” Barnett says.
“So then after the semester was over, they said, for my summer job, ‘Would you want to be an advertising director?’ But, they said, we can’t pay you [right now]. We don’t have any money.’ My dad’s a small businessman and I told him about this deal, and he said that’s idiotic, you can’t do that.”
So Barnett took another summer job instead, driving a Good Humor ice cream truck.
“Miserable job, the worst job I’ve ever had,” he says. “After struggling with that for six weeks, I called them from a pay phone at the Good Humor plant. I said, ‘Are you still interested in me being advertising director?’ and they said sure. I said, ‘Why, great.’ I made a deal with them.”
They would pay him a generous commission, about 25 percent, but they couldn’t pay him right away. “They gave me what you call pin money. If I needed a little money for something, they’d give me that. But they weren’t paying me what they owed me,” Barnett says.
Barnett sold Reader ads the rest of his time at Northwestern. “My dad kept hectoring me through the whole three years. Every time I would see him he would say, ‘Has the Reader paid you yet? Has the Reader paid you yet? Has the Reader paid you yet?’”
Finally, Barnett was accepted at Harvard Law School and needed the money. “They were a little bit bad on record keeping,” he says, “but they went through their whole files and they resolved every gap in my favor to get to the $30,000 that they ended up paying me. Which is what made it possible for me to pay my way through Harvard Law School.”
Barnett is now a constitutional law professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and has written 11 books. He argued and lost a case in the U.S. Supreme Court in which he represented California medical marijuana advocates challenging a federal ban. He is perhaps best known for developing a theory for why the individual mandate of the Affordable Care Act was unconstitutional.
It’s doubtful that Eychaner would appreciate Barnett’s view on Obamacare. The founder of the Newsweb printing company funneled $32 million to progressive causes during the 2016 election cycle, according to the Chicago Tribune.
But in the early 70s, when both Eychaner and the Reader were just starting out, money was scarce. Which makes it all the more noteworthy that Eychaner kept printing the Reader as it fell further in debt.
“We were into him for, I think, $40,000 or more at a time when it cost something like $700 a week to print the paper,” Yoder says. “If he had demanded full payment, we would have just had to quit, get jobs, and pay him off. When we’d pick up those papers, Roth would make sure he never had his checkbook with him.”
Roth recalls Eychaner having “hair down to his belt” when he operated his printing plant in a “rat-filled alley” near the Belmont el stop. Roth agrees that if Eychaner had demanded his money, the Reader would have been forced to close.
“I’ve always thought that Fred watched how we were fighting and felt sorry for us, and felt sympathy for us,” Roth says.
In an interview and a statement he provided to the Reader, the usually media-shy Eychaner calls McCamant a “design genius” and praised the Reader’s typography and lack of typos. He says Newsweb used more black ink per page on the Reader than anything else it printed, adding, “The intensity of the blacks was so critical to McCamant’s view of what the paper should look like. I mean, they bled over those pages.”
“As to the very early days,” he says, “indeed the Reader owed Newsweb far more than whatever our meager net worth was back then. It could have reached $40,000 or so, but I haven’t been able to find any specific confirmation.”
The estimated $40,000 owed to Eychaner and the $30,000 owed to Barnett represent about $270,000 and $202,000 in 2021 dollars. The Reader offered to pay back both of them with shares in the company, but they declined.
“They did offer me a major share of the stock in exchange for canceling the debt,” Eychaner says, “but I needed cash much more desperately than stock. And I thought it would set up very difficult conflicts as they continued to grow.”
Barnett says he needed money to go to law school, but he wishes he had thought to take half of his back pay in stock. “I have made very few decisions I really, really regretted in my life,” he says, “but that was one I really came to regret. It didn’t even dawn on me to do that. If I had, I could’ve retired.”
From struggling to soaring
“I believe it was three years before we made our first break-even issue,” say Roth.
Then the Reader really took off. Its revenue more than tripled from 1973 to 1975, from $80,960 to $300,000. Then it more than quadrupled from ’75 to ’77, from $300,000 to $1.3 million.
The alt-weekly moved into real offices downtown, first at 70 W. Hubbard around the end of 1974 and then at 12 E. Grand about two years later.
“We had our offices at Clark and Hubbard, right across from the Baton [drag bar],” Yoder says. “And at that point, we were still pasting up at three in the morning. We’d look out the window and see the Baton closing.”
The dining room table was no longer used for paste-up, but the process was still a communal ritual, according to Dave Jones, who started at the Reader in 1976 and worked in production for 30 years.
“I loved that hands-on era,” Jones says. “Bob McCamant had been very sure to beef up the sound system. The production room on 12 E. Grand was just one big room, and he had these beautiful theater-style speakers in there.”
According to Yoder, they got the speakers to settle a debt with an advertiser. “He owed us all this money, we went in, said, ‘How about we just take some stereo stuff?’” he says.
As the sounds of Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt, and Prince wafted over the Reader crew, “many times it felt as much like a party as like a job,” Jones says. “You’ve got everybody in the paper hands-on and working to produce this thing that’s just coming into its own.”
When they spotted mistakes in the classifieds during the proofing process, “We’d all be there with X-Acto knives cutting in corrections and sticking them in with our fingernails on Scotch tape backing just to make corrections in the classifieds. It was very primitive. But fun.”
There were plenty of signs of the Reader’s growing impact. The delivery staff started doing second drop-offs of papers at some locations on Fridays because their first batch was snapped up. And people were so eager to get first crack at the Reader’s apartment ads that petty criminals took advantage. Jones recalls that when Newsweb was located on North Ashland Avenue, “it would get so hot inside the printing plant that they’d leave their big garage doors wide open, and people would go in, some crooks would go in there—the classified section was the first section to print, so people would go in there and steal bundles of classified sections off the skids and sell them for a buck apiece.”
The Music Box Theatre reopened after a hiatus in 1983, and part-owner Chris Carlo recalled in a 1990 Tribune article that “the Reader was so important when we first opened up that if the Reader printed the wrong times for the movie, we would change the times.”
Levine says the Reader didn’t just cover a burgeoning cultural scene but was a major reason it was burgeoning.
“The theater scene was bubbling up in the early 70s, and the Reader reviewed those plays, and certainly they were all in the listings,” Levine says. “Because of Yoder’s theory to a large extent that the ad rates had to be kept low, those theaters had a place to advertise. And if there hadn’t been a publication where they could advertise, where people could find out about them in the listings, where their plays could be reviewed, I really think the theater scene would not have grown as fast and as rich and as various as it was.”
Reader ads were getting results.
“When we could get [advertisers] to try it, we always urged them to put in coupons, things like that, so they could see whether they were getting any results,” McCamant says. “Then we urged them to try that with the other places that they were advertising. It soon developed that we were a really good way of reaching people for certain products and locations and things like that.”
Yoder explains why they kept ad rates low.
“My theory was always that if an advertiser finds that he’s making money off the ads he’s placing in your newspaper, he’ll crawl over glass to place those ads,” Yoder says. “The regular business model is, jack those prices up as high as you can, hire a bunch of salespeople, end up discounting them some, no doubt. Push, push, push. But we did it the opposite. Now, part of it was, yes, we weren’t that sort, that aggressive, I guess. I wasn’t. But it was working.”
The Reader managed to become an advertising juggernaut while keeping its editorial product strictly independent. Perhaps the best example of that came in 1994, when the same issue whose cover story was headlined “Let’s Ban Smoking Outright” included a color insert for Camel cigarettes.
The soaring revenue of the Reader made the owners think they could replicate their success in other cities. Rehwaldt says their growth strategy was part of his early discussions with Roth before the launch, but it ultimately led to tensions among the founders.
Nancy Banks left to start a Reader-like publication called the East Bay Express in the Oakland-Berkeley area of Northern California in 1978. At one point the Reader owned 54 percent of East Bay Express, which was sold to New Times Media of Phoenix in 2001. (That paper is now owned by another local weekly.)
Also in 1978, the Reader sent Levine out to Los Angeles to launch the LA Reader. The timing was terrible. Debuting around that time was the rival LA Weekly, which was “arguably the most successful, quickest-taking-off start-up in alt-weekly history,” according to Yoder.
“They were definitely more aggressive, better-funded competition than we ever had in Chicago,” Rehwaldt said.
While the LA Reader wasn’t a financial success, it had editorial achievements. The LA Reader employed a writer and editor named Matt Groening and published his comic strip Life in Hell before Groening went on to create The Simpsons, the longest-running prime-time series in U.S. television history. The LA Reader also published a comic called The Angriest Dog in the World by David Lynch, who would later have his own groundbreaking TV series, Twin Peaks.
“We also took over the struggling alt–weekly in Washington, D.C., City Paper,” Yoder says. “For a couple years I commuted out there weekly. I was publisher.”
The Reader made its first investment in Washington City Paper in 1982 and eventually became sole owner. Like the LA Reader, Washington City Paper struggled financially but produced distinguished alumni. Among them: CNN anchor Jake Tapper, who wrote a 1998 story for the alt-weekly about once dating Monica Lewinsky; David Carr, who went on to the New York Times; Jack Shafer, now senior media writer at Politico; and Ta-Nehisi Coates, who won the National Book Award for Between the World and Me.
When a Twin Cities Reader appeared in Minnesota without any Chicago Reader involvement, the Chicago company sued for trademark infringement. But a federal appeals court ruled that the word “Reader” was merely descriptive.
While the Reader was acquiring interest in other alt-weeklies, other alt-weeklies showed an interest in buying the Reader.
“We had people fishing around,” Roth says. “Probably the most serious one was, the Village Voice company tried to buy us.”
The Village Voice, founded in 1955 by a group of New Yorkers including novelist Norman Mailer, was the grandfather of alt-weeklies.
“The Voice was interested in buying the Reader multiple times,” Yoder says. “The first was in the fall of 1987. They also signed confidentiality agreements in 1992, 1995, 1997, and 2000. None of my paperwork shows an actual offer [in the later years], but it is clear that there was an enormous gulf between what they were willing to pay and what we would sell for.”
While the later inquiries may not have gotten close to a sale, the 1987 bid did. Yoder says the Voice was offering $10 million. And if not for Rehwaldt’s opposition, the owners would have accepted it.
“McCamant and Roth came into my office and stared at me and said, ‘We’re all prepared to sign it and we want you to sign it too,’” Rehwaldt recalls. But he refused.
“Rehwaldt wouldn’t let us do it,” Roth says. “This was one of the many disputes that led to our ultimate divorce.”
The next year, New Times, a Phoenix-based alt-weekly, also came calling. The New Times owner told the Tribune that they hadn’t gotten past the “talks over drinks” stage, while Roth said New Times “informally let us know they are interested, but we said we are not willing to talk to anyone right now.”
Rehwaldt says the disappointing performance of the out-of-town properties was a growing source of conflict with his partners, and he tried in 1986 and 1988 to buy them out, but they didn’t bite. One or two months after his second buyout offer, he says, “They ambushed me at an annual shareholders meeting by firing me. They voted me out of office as treasurer. They couldn’t vote me off the board of directors because I had enough stock to vote myself on.
“It was a shock to me because as long as we’d known each other and as long as we’d been in business together, I would have thought that if they’d come to a conclusion that they had to get rid of me, they would have sat down and we would have had a negotiated parting of the ways,” Rehwaldt says.
He responded by filing a lawsuit, which was settled in 1991. Rehwaldt remained an owner but was estranged from the others.
In 1983, the Reader bought a building at 11 E. Illinois and set up offices there, where they would remain for the next 29 years. The ad revenue kept on growing, from $3.4 million in 1980 to $6.7 million in 1985 to $10 million in 1990.
But the founders grew tired of the weekly grind and were ready to step back and usher in new blood. Or rather old blood: Jane Levine, who had started at the Reader, moved to the LA Reader, and went on to publications in Seattle and Durham, North Carolina. In 1994, she came back to Chicago as the Reader’s CEO and publisher.
“Probably the single smartest thing I ever did in my business career was managing to bring Jane Levine back,” Yoder says. “She ran the paper during its most successful period.”
Alison True, who’d started at the Reader in 1984, was named editor in chief.
Lenehan says of True: “Classic story: She started opening the mail. She got promoted through the ranks as the ranks were—it wasn’t very formal and there weren’t very many levels. But she started editing copy, and eventually she took over the main job and I became the executive editor.”
A newspaper founded almost exclusively by a group of guys was now run mostly by women, the senior editorial staff included.
“It was actually amazingly wonderful,” Levine says. “I don’t know how many companies in which the founders say they want to step back and turn the reins over to somebody, how many companies actually do that. They really, truly turned it over to me.”
Levine kept the cash cow well fed, and True retained the paper’s dedication to long-form journalism while also featuring “a section of casuals” called Our Town, vignettes of the city similar to the New Yorker’s Talk of the Town. It worked at the time, True says, but now “I can’t imagine anyone would publish it.”
Levine says the editorial staff “did a good job of keeping what made the Reader great but moving it forward a little bit in terms of graphics and different lengths of pieces.”
And the Reader’s reach kept growing.
In 1996, it launched a special edition for the suburbs: The Reader’s Guide to Arts & Entertainment. A survey inserted into the Reader and its suburban cousin two years later found that 60 percent of the Reader’s audience were renters, 86.7 percent owned a compact disc player, 21.9 percent smoked cigarettes, and 43.7 percent owned or leased a cell phone.
Only 64.4 percent owned a personal computer. But that would change.
The writers’ paper
While the big dailies had assignment desks demanding that reporters produce pieces that fit a strict definition of news, the Reader relied primarily on freelancers to tell the paper what was interesting. And it didn’t have to be the traditional definition of news.
In a 1985 interview on WBEZ public radio, host Jerry Nemanic asked Roth: “What kind of guidelines, if any, do you give to your own writers?”
“Well, we don’t,” Roth answered. “For the most part we don’t give them any guidelines at all. . . . The Reader is run much more on the absence of guidelines than on the presence of guidelines.”
The Reader was finding its niche.
“When we started there were four dailies in town,” Lenehan says. “TV news operations were competing with each other and doing real news, not just shootings and mayhem. And it seemed like everyone was chasing the same stuff, and so Roth encouraged us to look in places that were not full of newspaper and TV reporters, to go to the places where they weren’t. There was no point in trying to cover politics better than the four newspapers and the three TV stations, so we went somewhere else.”
Abe Peck, who edited the underground newspaper The Seed before the Reader debuted and who later became a Northwestern University professor, said the Reader took an “inside out” approach in which it found small stories that would illustrate larger points.
“I used to talk about the Reader—I don’t know if it was their phrase or my phrase—they reported on cracks in the sidewalk rather than the sidewalk,” Peck says. “What I mean by that is that the story would be, oh, they’re building a highway, it’s going to be a big highway, and it’s going to go from here to there. And that was the sidewalk. And then the crack in the sidewalk was a neighborhood was going to get wiped out or they’d find one guy in the neighborhood who sold hot dogs for 40 years and, writ large, what does that mean for little entrepreneurs and small businesses?”
Perhaps the quintessential Reader story appeared in 1977 and had no apparent news value at all: Lenehan’s 20,012-word story about beekeeping. Yet the story won the prestigious AAAS Westinghouse Science Journalism Award.
“I’m sort of proud of the place that story has in the Reader mythology,” Lenehan says. “That was one of the kind of things we did—a story with absolutely no news, and on a topic that would not be considered important hardly anywhere.”
The length of Reader stories became a running joke.
Achy Obejas, a novelist, poet, and book translator who freelanced for the Reader from 1981 to 1995, recalls a conversation with Michael Miner early on.
“How long are Reader stories?” Obejas asked.
“Have you ever finished a Reader story?” Miner responded.
Especially in the early days, being open to freelancers’ ideas and willing to publish their work with little fiddling made up for the fact that the Reader didn’t pay much.
“The theory was if you let young writers write what they wanted to write, they wouldn’t expect a lot of money for it,” Miner says.
In his 1985 WBEZ interview, Roth said his staff read every freelancer-submitted manuscript twice, “just on the chance that we were in a bad mood that day or—and this is a very common problem—that we were prejudiced against it when we saw that it didn’t look ‘professional,’ say a story with misspellings or a single-spaced story.” (According to a 1986 Chicago Tribune story, Reader editors rejected about 90 percent of manuscripts submitted.)
And the Reader’s use of so many freelancers created a healthy competition.
“A lot of people sort of struggled with the notion that you weren’t a permanent thing at the Reader,” Obejas says. “This was like the big deal then. There were so many freelancers, right? And no one was permanent. They published you this week, didn’t mean squat about next week. And I actually loved that. I loved the idea that you had to stand on your own two feet from week to week. You got published for one of two reasons: You either were the best thing that came in over the transom or the only thing that came in over the transom.
“I feel like my time at the Reader was probably the most important education I ever got,” Obejas says. “It was a great time for trying anything you wanted to do. It was so much fun. I wrote a story once, the entire story was about buying a hot dog and sitting at this place, I think it was just off Chicago Avenue, and watching the traffic outside the window. But I wrote it all in second person. So it read a little bit differently. And they published it, for god’s sake.”
Jessica Hopper, a freelancer from about 2004 to 2012, praised the Reader for its willingness to print edgy material, including a line in her story about the band Dinosaur Jr. “that some people really took issue with.” In it, Hopper described the band as “three greasy–looking dudes who wouldn’t have made it past the door at a loft party in Brooklyn in 2005—they’ve got teenage trauma in their eyes and look like they’ve probably never seen a tit in real life.”
“The Reader kind of spoiled us,” Hopper says.
Another edgy freelancer was the mysterious Ed Gold, who wrote a column in the mid-90s called Bobwatch that mocked the Tribune’s Bob Greene for his sappy and repetitive columns. Gold turned out to be Sun-Times reporter Neil Steinberg.
As time went on, the Reader hired some writers as staff members, and they produced some of its finest work.
Perhaps the most significant work ever printed in the alt-weekly was John Conroy’s “House of Screams” investigation in 1990 that revealed police torture by Commander Jon Burge and his underlings. The story was the first of a 17-year series of reports on police misconduct by Conroy that set the stage for later investigations by many Chicago news outlets.
Ben Joravsky’s two-part story “A Simple Game” in 1992 followed the Roosevelt High School basketball team for an entire year and gained widespread attention for its journalistic merit.
Gary Rivlin was the Reader’s City Hall reporter during the Harold Washington administration, and his reporting from that time led to a highly regarded book, Fire on the Prairie.
In 1988, the Reader published Steve Bogira’s article “A Fire in the Family,” a deep dive into the struggles of a poor west-side family.
“I grew up on the southwest side near Midway Airport,” Bogira says. “I always had a chip on my shoulder about how the daily papers ignored the southwest side and blue-collar people generally. I think it was partly because my dad was a CTA mechanic and he used to take my brother and me on train rides around the city when we were small. I saw other neighborhoods that were poor and Black and I was interested in them. And when I was in journalism school I thought about how we on the southwest side might feel neglected, but it’s nothing compared to what it’s like for people who live in North Lawndale or Greater Grand Crossing.”
Tori Marlan was another staff writer whose work had major impact.
Levine cites Marlan’s story “Brickyard Blues,” from 1999. “It was about Chicago brick. Literally, the bricks that are on the sides of all the two-flats and the three-flats,” Levine says. “The front of the building can have nicer brick, but the sides were this old crummy brick. That’s what the cover story was, and what a glorious thing that you can have a publication that will put that on the cover.”
True recalls that Marlan “wrote an incredible story about women being illegally strip-searched in Cook County Jail before they left. After they were released, they were being strip-searched. Then the sheriff banned her from the jail for no other reason than retaliation, and we sued them and won.”
Also, True recalls, “Mick Dumke and Ben Joravsky wrote incredible coverage of City Hall and corruption,” especially about Mayor Richard M. Daley’s controversial parking-
The depth and breadth of Reader writing is impossible to capture in a single article.
You can’t talk about the Reader’s film criticism without mentioning Myron Meisel, Dave Kehr, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and J.R. Jones. No matter how often you drop in the name of a Reader writer like Lee Sandlin or Liz Armstrong, there’s always a Neal Pollack or a Terry Curtis Fox who would also deserve a mention. If you cite Mike Sula without citing Harold Henderson or Deanna Isaacs, that would be wrong. Same for Ted Cox. And if you brought up Albert Williams but not Peter Margasak or Bill Wyman or Monica Kendrick, all hell might break loose.
These talented writers had talented editors.
Hopper was impressed by the “five layers of edits” at the Reader and by the meticulousness of music editor Philip Montoro.
“If I said something had a polka beat, I had to play it over the phone for Philip if he couldn’t find the music online, and he would count the beats,” Hopper said. “And he’s like, ‘For it to be a polka beat, it’s like this-this-this. What you’re talking about is this. What you could say is it’s a waltzing beat, but you can’t say it’s a polka beat.’ What kind of person gets edited like that? But it taught me.”
Editor Kate Schmidt recalled that even syndicated copy got a careful look. For example, Dan Savage’s Savage Love column originated elsewhere, but before the Reader editors ran it, they fact-checked it. That’s how they caught Savage referring to the wrong zoo as the home of gay penguins in a column in 2004.
Of course, for every talented editor like Martha Bayne you mention, you might be leaving out a Kitry Krause, a Laura Molzahn, or a Mara Shalhoup. The Reader’s editing corps was a long, strong suit.
Obejas has high praise for editor Pat Clinton as a champion of her work. “It was the place where I’ve been best edited,” she says. “I don’t think I’ve ever had editors who were as precise, as engaged, as interested not only in the story but in my development as a writer.”
For the Reader’s philosophical leader, Bob Roth, the paper’s long-form journalism is its greatest legacy.
“The number one thing I’m proud of is the full-length literary features,” Roth says. “That’s what the Reader really stands on. So many truly spectacular writers doing fabulous work for years and years.”
Don’t forget the visuals
If the Reader’s classified section wasn’t enough of a draw because of its apartment ads, the section was also a destination for lovers of alternative comics.
“I think the whole idea was just to put a little punch in those very gray classifieds,” Dave Jones says. “Because it would be just oceans of gray back there with just the classifieds running. Roth’s idea, and I think it was a good one, was to add some visual interest.”
There was Phoebe and the Pigeon People by Jay Lynch and Gary Whitney, and Free Associates by Matt Freedman. Also, comics by Heather McAdams and P.S. Mueller. On Mueller’s website he says his cartoons “have appeared in scores of alternative weeklies, magazines and books, as well as in the hallucinations of total strangers.”
A Reader comic artist who hit it big was Lynda Barry, who penned Ernie Pook’s Comeek. She told the AV Club in 1999 how her friendship with Matt Groening led to her break in the Reader.
“Bob Roth called me from the Chicago Reader as the result of an article Matt wrote about hip west-coast artists—he threw me in just because he was a buddy, right? And then Bob Roth who runs the Chicago Reader called and wanted to see my comic strips, and I didn’t have any originals. I didn’t know anything about originals, that you don’t give them to newspapers because newspapers lose them. So I had to draw a whole set that night and Federal Express them. So I did, and he started printing them, and he paid $80 a week, and I could live off of that. And because he’s with this newspaper association, the other papers started picking it up. So it was luck. Sheer luck. [Matt] got into the Los Angeles Reader. For a long time the Los Angeles Reader wouldn’t print me, and the Chicago Reader wouldn’t print Matt even though they’re sister publications. So we both worked on the publishers and the editors to get each other in. It was really funny: when we got into each other’s papers, everything sort of took off for both of us.”
Barry, now an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, went from a weekly $80 Reader paycheck in the late 70s to winning a $625,000, no-strings-attached MacArthur “genius” grant in 2019.
The Reader likewise has been a showcase for photography.
One well-known Reader freelancer was Mike Tappin, whose photos appeared in the Reader for two decades and whose shot from a Talking Heads concert ran in Rolling Stone’s 20th anniversary issue.
When Tappin died at age 47 in 1998, Bob McCamant was interviewed for the Tribune’s obituary and cited Tappin’s photos for a 1983 story headlined “$144 a Month,” about welfare recipients.
“He took absolutely beautiful portraits of them, and it really added tremendous dignity to the lives of these people,” McCamant told the Tribune.
A 2015 exhibit at Roosevelt University of black-and-white photos from the Reader included work by Kathy Richland, who often shot pictures to run with stories by her husband, Grant Pick.
“Reader photographers took great pride in our prints, always shooting full frame to show that we composed while shooting, no cropping,” Richland told the Reader at the time of the exhibit. “For a while in the late 80s, a visual style was to file the opening of the enlarger negative carrier to show the photo with a black outline proving it was full frame, i.e., not cropped. Prints were hand delivered at deadline, often still damp.”
Another photographer featured in the exhibit, Lloyd DeGrane, told the Reader, “I remember driving to the Reader offices with wet prints that I sometimes held out the window of my car to dry while I slowly drove.”
Among other photographers whose work was exhibited: Eric Futran, John Sundlof, Paul Meredith, Jim Newberry, and Cynthia Howe. A highlight of the show was a 1995 picture by Marc PoKempner of an up-and-coming young politician playing basketball with children. The pol had an unusual name: Barack Obama.
When PoKempner started as a Reader freelancer in 1974, the paper was paying $25 for photos with a story no matter how many pictures they used.
“My father was an economist, and he pointed out to me that this was a losing proposition, that it cost me more to do the assignments than I was getting paid for them,” PoKempner says.
The money eventually got better, and PoKempner had no complaints about how his photos were displayed in McCamant’s page designs. For one thing, McCamant drew the pages around the photos instead of plugging them into a predetermined hole as some designers do, PoKempner said. Also, “He was always good as far as picking the right picture. Always.”
The Reader provided a career boost for many photographers.
“The Reader did all these serious investigative stories as well as all the funny stuff, and everybody who mattered in the media community read the Reader,” PoKempner says. “I think it was within a year from my first publication in the Reader, I was recruited to work for People magazine by the bureau chief in Chicago because she saw my stuff in the Reader.”
PoKempner says the Reader “was the basis of my career. It was how everybody in town knew me. It was a godsend to me.”
“‘JUST SKATE AWAY then!’ you yelled. I did, too embarrassed. 5/15/95 about 7pm, south of Belmont on lakefront. You: WF, brunette jogger, headphones, gorgeous eyes. Me: muscular, WM, rollerblader, long brown hair, jean shorts/tank top. I fell in front of you; you fell on me. Interested in doing dinner?”
The Missed Connections and I Saw You ads were a destination for many of the Reader faithful.
But whether people were looking for a wholesome friendship or something more unusual, the Reader’s personal ads provided a window into the yearnings of Chicagoans. In at least one instance, the ads were also a tip sheet for the cops.
In 1989, police raided a north-side apartment and arrested two women after they placed an ad in the Reader offering a “dungeon” featuring “a variety of mistresses and dominant nurses.” Police said they found whips, chains, and manacles, and they charged the women with prostitution.
In 1987, two University of Chicago students used Reader ads to “out” gay people. They placed ads offering gay relationships, and when people responded, the students sent letters or made phone calls to their families and neighbors identifying them as gay. The U. of C. was notified of the scheme and gave the students lengthy suspensions but did allow at least one of them to graduate.
In 1998, a community group called the Alliance for Harm Reduction picketed the Reader’s offices on Illinois Street, demanding that it stop running ads for escort services because they were fronts for prostitution. Levine told the Tribune that, barring proof, “we are not going to stop running a whole category of advertising because this group says some of them may be prostitutes.”
In a precursor to online matchmaking, personal ads seeking relationships boomed in the early 90s. Yoder told the Tribune in 1992 that such ads had more than tripled in the Reader since 1990.
One young woman who placed an ad in the 90s was Seana Hasson, who now works in the research department of the YMCA of the USA.
“There were three of us, three women who did everything together, and two of them were single and had decided to put ads in the Reader, and then I broke up with the guy I was dating and so last minute I’m like, ‘Fine, I’m going to do it too,’” Hasson says. “It was February of ’96. It was all a phone-based system with different boxes. So I do still have my letter from them with instructions on how to set up my box and record my greeting.”
Her Matches advertisement was chosen as Ad of the Week, which meant it got extra prominence and “you got a dozen roses,” she says. It read:
“I WANT YOU to want an equal, not an accessory. Rarely bored SWF, 27, Ivory girl looks, favors Docs, Kundera, spontaneity, beer, www, movies, alternative and industrial music over student loans, vegetables, laundry, deceit, and pink. Seeking interesting, literary, confident SWM 25-32, to inspire me to wear a dress.”
Interested parties called in and left messages, and the person who placed the ad could choose to respond or not.
“I’m sure I had hundreds,” she says, “but I whittled it down to six.”
One of them was John Johnson, who is now a fundraiser for a medical research foundation.
“John left a message and I didn’t call him back, and he left a second message,” Hasson says.
“Because my first message, I was nervous and dumb and I didn’t say anything about myself,“ Johnson explains.
Hasson, who still has six pieces of paper with her notes on the finalists, wrote down that Johnson was “funny.”
“I did call him back,” Hasson says, “and our first date was on the Ides of March at the Duke of Perth on Clark. We sat in the back, and I think John took the signal when the waitress came by and asked, ‘Do you want a second drink?,’ and I said yes.”
They got married in August 1998 and celebrated their 23rd anniversary this year. Their son turns 17 in October.
After they got together, they concealed the true story of how they met from their families.
“Online dating is so prevalent and socially acceptable now,” Hasson says. “At the time my friends and I did this, there still was a little stigma around it. Like, we didn’t run out and tell our families that we met. We have a story that isn’t that we met by placing an ad in a newspaper.”
Hasson still enjoys the Reader. “It was such a part of our lives then, and I still read it through social media,” she says. “You get it out of the box, you read it on the el. It’s just a fixture.”
A publication run by white liberal arts grads was covering a city that was roughly a third Black, a third white, and a third Latino.
Lenehan sums up the situation well in an e-mail:
“The Reader’s diversity story, which I think was probably pretty typical for alt-weeklies of our vintage and small businesses in general, is that (1) we started the company as a cohort of like-minded (and like-colored) friends and acquaintances, (2) focused really intensely on survival and success, paying very little attention to the outside world, (3) eventually got to the point where we could afford to turn and look outward, whereupon we (4) discovered, much to our surprise, that everyone in the company looked like us. Which in the case of the alt press meant we had joined the establishment we were so fond of criticizing.”
Achy Obejas, who is Cuban American, says, “I don’t think I, in my entire career at the Reader, had an editor who was of color. The whole time, and I was there a good 15 years.”
Obejas speculates that the lack of diversity sprang from the Reader’s standard operating procedure of simply opening its doors and considering work by whoever walked in. “The Reader just did not believe in outreach,” she says. “They really believed in just ‘We’re here, and anybody can come to us.’”
But in the 90s Lenehan did make efforts to diversify the contributors. First, by establishing a minority internship at the Reader and Washington City Paper. Then, by working with Northwestern professor Abe Peck to create an Academy for Alternative Journalism in which young journalists, primarily of color, would get months of training with the aim of making them attractive candidates for jobs at alt-weeklies. The Reader and other interested parties made financial contributions, and Lenehan and Peck lured Charles Whitaker away from Johnson Publishing to run the program at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. It lasted about nine years. Whitaker is now the dean at Medill. One person who went through the program, Vernal Coleman, shared in a Pulitzer Prize this year for his work at the Boston Globe.
While the staff and its readership were predominantly white, the Reader regularly published stories about minorities, and often covered communities of color with greater depth than the dailies. Perhaps that wasn‘t a high bar, but the Reader became known for trying to make relatively privileged people care about victims of poverty and prejudice.
“I thought about it a lot when I was writing these stories about people who lived in West Garfield Park and Englewood,” says Steve Bogira. “Because the Reader didn’t circulate and we didn’t have newspaper boxes in West Garfield Park and Englewood. You would think that the editors would be like the editors at the Tribune and the Sun-Times and say, well, you know, our audience is these people, so why don’t you write about—by ‘these people,’ people who live in Lincoln Park or even in the suburbs. That’s who reads our paper, so why don’t you write stories about those [people]?’ I never got any kind of pressure to write about somebody else.”
Pushing back on the idea that Reader had few readers of color, current co-publisher Tracy Baim says: “When I took over, I had that notion too, and I’m not saying that notion is not probably 70 percent correct, but there are people I met and heard on the phone and met at events from all walks of life. And loyal dedication among the African American community in particular to the Reader shocked me.”
The Reader’s leadership and staff have evolved dramatically in half a century. First with the change to predominantly female leadership in the 1990s, then with the moves to diversify racially and ethnically under current ownership.
Today the Reader’s co-editors in chief are a Black woman, Karen Hawkins, and an Indian American man, Sujay Kumar.
“I grew up in the suburbs reading the Reader, loving the Reader,” Hawkins says. “My story is that I used to tell my mother we were going to the Bakers Square in Homewood and then we would sneak into the city and go to Scenes—there was a coffee shop at Clark and Belmont. I used to hang out in Boystown, looking at drag queens, to pick up the Reader. I was very aware at the time that even though I knew I wanted to be a journalist, I would say I’d never get hired at the Reader. And I was very aware that one of those reasons is that they only hired white people at the Reader. ‘Oh, you can tell our stories but you don’t want us to tell our stories. It has to be from your point of view.’”
That has changed markedly under the new management.
“When we separated from the Sun-Times [in 2018], there were, I believe, 16 Reader staffers and there was one woman of color,” Hawkins says. “And now I think we’re at 30 percent people of color.”
As far as distribution, Hawkins said, “we’re at 1,200 locations and we have really diversified where those locations are, and we have tried to be more responsive to folks saying ‘Hey, I opened a shop in Bronzeville and I’d love to be on the Reader’s list.’”
Everything changed when the Internet happened.
But its impact didn’t arrive suddenly, and there were reasons to think the Reader could adjust to changing times and maintain its dominance. After all, it was still a cool product in a lucrative market in the year 2000, when the movie High Fidelity came out, with a character who was a Reader music critic. But it should have been a sign that the movie was about an already-struggling industry, the record store.
In 2002, the Reader’s revenue reached an all-time high of $22.6 million, double what it had been a decade earlier. And the Reader continued to branch out, acquiring a minority interest in The Stranger in Seattle and the Portland Mercury in Oregon. But technology was creating major disruptions for newspapers.
“Being younger and less established than the dailies, at the time we thought that we were doing a better job of staying on top of this stuff,” Lenehan says. “And we were more open-minded about the possibilities. I think the first thing we did is we started putting our rental ads, for apartment rentals, in a fax-back program. Fax-back was a technology that had a heyday of about ten or 11 months, I think. It was sort of like a crude Internet search. You’d call a number and you’d enter some search criteria and we’d sort the ads and send it to you with a fax. It was like an online search without a monitor. When Web browsers and so forth came around, that system was easily translatable to Web browsers. In that way we were like pioneers.”
McCamant says the Reader initially made the right moves on Web classifieds.
“The dailies were our competition for classified ads, and we immediately put all of our classifieds on the Web. It took the dailies a long time to give up the idea of charging extra to be on the Web. That drove lakefront housing advertising, apartments for rent, over to us overnight.”
But still, Craigslist was on the march, and would ultimately waylay classified profits for both the dailies and the Reader. At the time, though, Rehwaldt says he was more worried about display advertising than classifieds. “We couldn’t imagine that anybody would give away vast quantities of classified advertising like Craigslist did,” he says. “That was ultimately the thing that killed the Reader’s profitability.”
The Reader was especially criticized for being slow to put its stories on the Web.
“We decided that we would make specific services available online,” Levine says. “We would do what the Internet did better than print. And we would resist what ‘everybody’ thought we should do, which is put the paper online. So we didn’t put the paper online for a long time.”
Though she concedes that was probably a mistake, Levine notes other innovations, such as the Reader’s Restaurant Finder. “It would help you search for restaurants in the way that people do: You’re going to the movies at the Music Box. Where can I eat near the Music Box? Where can I eat Mexican near the Music Box? Where can I eat cheap Mexican near the Music Box? Nobody was doing that then. There wasn’t off-the-shelf calendar software like there is now, and the mapping part of Restaurant Finder was really difficult because we had to enter all of the coordinates for everything.”
The Reader was not only criticized for being slow to put its stories online but for doing so in PDF form at first.
“We wasted a year or a year and a half—this was all my doing—trying to convert the Reader into a Web presence with PDFs so people would see the ads,” Lenehan says. “And in fact, they looked so much better on-screen than they looked on our crappy black-and-white printing—it was really quite an attractive product, but we were trying to hold on to the old model instead of figuring out what the new model was. We weren’t alone.”
In 2002, both the Tribune and Sun-Times got into the free newspaper business, with the Trib’s RedEye and the Sun-Times’s Red Streak trying to appeal to young readers. The Reader responded to the challenge with a bit of humor, publishing an issue with a nameplate that said Redder instead of Reader and was red, a jarring touch of color for the longtime black-and-white newspaper.
Two years later, the Reader got serious about color, with a redesign by Spanish firm Jardi + Utensil that included a color cover.
Interviewed by the Tribune about the re-design, True expressed the growing sense that the business was losing momentum: “We’re well aware of a much more crowded field of entities distracting people from the Reader. The way we think about what we do had to change. We haven’t felt for a long time we could take readers for granted the way we could for so long.”
Rehwaldt recalls another purchase attempt by the Village Voice. “Ultimately they were offering $60 to $65 million for it around 2003,” he said, noting that the offer was much more than the sale price a few years later. Rehwaldt, who had prevented the sale to the Voice in the late 80s, said he was now “advocating very strongly” to accept the offer, but his partners didn’t go for it. Levine left the Reader in 2004 to return to Seattle, and Rehwaldt says “Jane was the only person they could all trust,” so he thought it was time to sell.
Meanwhile the Reader’s revenue plunged by a third from 2002 to 2006, going from $22.6 million to $14.2 million.
Rehwaldt’s dealings with his fellow founders continued to deteriorate, and he suspected they might try to squeeze him out, though Yoder says, “I don’t think it ever crossed my mind.” Rehwaldt says he thought his partners wanted to add their printer, Fred Eychaner, as a new partner.
Eychaner, who made a fortune from his acquisition and sale of television station WPWR as well as from his printing business, says he vaguely recalled offering to buy into the Reader.
“As the years went by, irreconcilable differences emerged, and I’m sure I tried to help understand and calm the waters,” he says. “Don’t recall details but likely suggested I could buy some of the shares, to no avail.”
Rehwaldt, who became a lawyer after being fired at the Reader, filed suit for a second time, accusing his partners of acting against him in an “illegal, oppressive or fraudulent” manner.
The Reader’s Michael Miner quoted an unidentified owner as saying of the lawsuit: “It wasn’t the straw that broke the camel’s back. It was the three-pound bag of manure that broke the camel’s back.”
Rehwaldt told a friend about his wrangling with his partners, and that friend told Ben Eason, head of an Atlanta-based chain of alt-weeklies, Creative Loafing. Eason made a bid for the Reader, and the deal was done.
The timing was fortunate for the owners, with the Great Recession only months away.
“If we had sold four or five years [earlier], we would have really cashed in,” says Lenehan, who owned a small stake. “But if we’d waited another two years, we wouldn’t have gotten a dime.”
Rehwaldt says he heard from his attorney soon after: “He calls me up two weeks after we close the deal with Eason in July of 2007 and says, ‘Man, you guys just have unbelievable timing. You realize that all of the money in the world is now dried up for mergers and acquisitions, and it’s just happened in the last couple of days.’”
“We were lucky to get out when we did before the money all dried up,” Rehwaldt says.
Yoder says the owners “tried to do right by the employees,” leaving them with “a pretty generous contribution to their profit-sharing plan.”
Roth told the Tribune: “I think Ben Eason has a better idea of how to fix our company than we do.”
That didn’t turn out to be true. The sale to Creative Loafing ushered in a period of tumult in which the Reader changed hands four more times as it struggled to find its footing in a dramatically changing marketplace.
Asked how she viewed the Creative Loafing sale, editor Alison True says, “As the end of an era, for sure. It was the end of my era. And I think in a lot of ways it was the end of the Reader as we knew it. Creative Loafing was an avatar of a condition that has afflicted journalism ever since. They came in not realizing that the things they tried to streamline or economize on had a bad effect on the quality of journalism. They fumbled it really badly. We had an incredible production department with all these artists and people we thought of as friends. And people who were dedicated and were being paid hourly and would still work until midnight or later. They found out their department was closing in a report on WBEZ.”
True was retained for a few years, leaving her with the painful task of laying off Reader stalwarts such as John Conroy, Tori Marlan, and Steve Bogira. The Reader changed from its quarter-fold format to a standard flat tabloid, and the printing was moved from Chicago’s Newsweb to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in Wisconsin.
Just 14 months after Creative Loafing took over, it filed for bankruptcy. The next year, Creative Loafing’s biggest creditor, Atalaya Capital Management of New York, assumed control of the Reader. The next year, True was fired and was succeeded by her highly regarded lieutenant, Kiki Yablon, who soon left too.
Even with the chaos, the Reader was still producing journalism that mattered. A 2009 Reader story about uninspected pork prompted state inspectors to seize bacon from one of the city’s most high-profile restaurants, Frontera Grill. In 2010, the Reader’s Mick Dumke asked Mayor Richard M. Daley why he thought Chicago’s handgun ban was effective and the mayor bizarrely responded: “If I put this up your butt, you’ll find out how effective it is. Let me put a round up your, you know.”
In 2011, the Reader got another makeover under art director and subsequent creative lead Paul John Higgins, this one featuring a glossy cover and staples at its spine. And in a sharp departure from the founders’ separation of advertising and editorial content, publisher Alison Draper explained the importance of ad placement to a Tribune reporter: “Every bit of this content can deal with a different psychographic or demographic, so we’re being very strategic and selling positions.”
Along with “psychographics,” there were psychodramas ahead.
Atalaya sold the Reader in 2012 to Wrapports, and it became a sister paper of the Sun-Times. Three years later, Reader staffers successfully started a union membership drive and, like the Sun-Times’s staff, became a union shop under the Chicago News Guild. Wrapports made controversial moves at the Sun-Times, including laying off nearly the entire photo staff, but it largely left the Reader to drift as it became a pawn in a larger Chicago media reshuffling. Wrapports’s leading owner, Michael Ferro, became the largest stockholder in the Tribune’s parent, Tribune Publishing, and avoided a conflict of interest by donating his share of Wrapports—including the Reader—to a foundation. After changing Tribune Publishing’s name to Tronc (which comedian John Oliver said “sounds like the noise an ejaculating elephant makes”), Ferro tried to get Tronc to buy the Sun-Times and the Reader, which would have made him their owner for a second time. Ultimately, a group including former alderman Edwin Eisendrath and labor unions bought the Sun-Times and Reader to help preserve Chicago’s status as a two-
The Reader was still producing strong journalism, such as Aimee Levitt and Christopher Piatt’s 2016 story about mistreatment of the cast and crew at Profiles Theatre. But the iconic alt-weekly was clearly struggling for attention in an increasingly crowded and digitally focused media environment.
And the Reader ran into its own embarrassing public spectacle. In 2018, Pulitzer Prize winner Mark Konkol was named the Reader’s executive editor. Nine days later, Konkol called editor in chief Jake Malooley at O’Hare, where Malooley had just returned from his honeymoon, and told him he was fired. Eight days after that, Konkol himself was fired after a Reader cover illustration featuring a Black lawn jockey upset many people, including the writer whose piece it was illustrating.
The Reader looked like a distressed property.
“I worked very hard to save the Reader, overcoming the anger from folks on the Sun-Times side of the company who thought of it only as a drain on their resources, and skepticism from some among my board of directors,” Eisendrath writes in an e-mail.
Amy Matheny, now vice president of sales at the Reader, had a metaphor for the relationship of the Sun-Times and Reader before the separation of the two publications: “The Sun-Times was the dog of the family. It demanded food, water, and walking every day, and, rightly so, it needed that attention and care. The Reader was the goldfish. You walked by every now and again, when you remembered, to see if it was alive. You’d be relieved to see it still swimming, sprinkle in a little food, and then forget about it until you walked by again.”
If the Reader could gain its independence, it could achieve dog status. But if it couldn’t and continued to be ignored, the goldfish might go belly-up.
To the rescue
In the wake of the Konkol disaster in 2018, Tracy Baim, publisher of the Windy City Times LGBTQ+ weekly, began talking to Eisendrath about taking over the Reader.
According to Eisendrath, “Tracy was the first on my list. I always thought she would be the best person to manage the publication.”
Baim recalls: “When I walked in his office, he said, ‘You could have it for a dollar.’”
But it wasn’t that simple.
“My proposal said I would come in and run it for three months under the Sun-Times to see if it was viable,” Baim says. “They said, no, you can have it but you have to take it today. I said, well, it will fold next week. I could not meet payroll without a plan, right? So then they pursued other suitors.”
One of those suitors was Kenneth Smikle, founder of Target Market News, a trade magazine and research firm focused on Black consumers. Smikle “ultimately could not bring the capital,” according to Eisendrath. Smikle died later that year at age 66.
Another suitor was Elzie Higginbottom, a well-known Chicago real estate developer who had bought one of his first buildings after seeing an ad in the Reader.
Higginbottom was an investor in the Sun-Times and Reader, but Eileen Rhodes, president of his East Lake Management Group, says the developer was hesitant to take on the Reader as a spin-off. “We said we would love to be of help, it’s just that the amount of cash it’s going to take and the time, we can’t make a commitment,” Rhodes says.
Eisendrath says he talked with Jessica Stites, a Sun-Times board member and executive editor of the political magazine In These Times, and she recruited prominent attorney Len Goodman, a Sun-Times and Reader investor, to help bankroll the effort. But as the Higginbottom–Goodman team looked into it, they realized that while they had the funds, they didn’t have the expertise. Higginbottom had brought in Dorothy Leavell, publisher of the Black newspaper Chicago Crusader, to be the Reader’s publisher, and she was helping out. But she planned to keep running the Crusader, and it became clear that the Reader needed its own full-time publisher.
The rescue effort was in doubt.
David Roeder of the Chicago News Guild, who was trying to save union jobs at the Reader, called Baim to see if she would get involved. She says she got the impression that the Reader was “days away from being shut down,” and she agreed to call Eisendrath.
Meanwhile, according to Eisendrath, he told Rhodes and Higginbottom about Baim’s past interest and asked for a green light to reach out to her. “I arranged for Eileen and Tracy to meet, and knew they would like each other,” Eisendrath writes.
The deal happened quickly. Higginbottom and Goodman bought the Reader for $1, with Baim as publisher and Leavell as board chair. The Reader was set up as an L3C, a low-profit limited liability company, and the owners invested more than $2 million over the next two and a half years.
As Rhodes summarizes it: “Len and Elzie put in a lot of money, and Tracy didn’t sleep for 24 months.”
Soon it became apparent to Baim that conversion to a nonprofit was the right move. For one thing, philanthropists and other donors are more willing to give money to nonprofits than to commercial enterprises. And nonprofit status also sends a clear signal of a public service mission.
Higginbottom and Goodman agreed to the shift to nonprofit, and Rhodes became board chairwoman of the Reader Institute for Community Journalism, which oversees the newspaper.
“We don’t know what the future is beyond 50 [years],” Baim says, “but this gives us a much better bridge to the future than if we were constantly begging rich people who owned it.”
Baim started the application for nonprofit status shortly before COVID-19 hit.
The pandemic caused the Reader’s advertising to plunge 90 percent, forcing the paper to go “dancing for dollars,” as Baim put it. The Reader changed to biweekly print publication, put some employees on voluntary furloughs, and got federal Paycheck Protection Program loans of $278,300 and $278,395. The paper also pulled new features out of its bag of tricks, including a book club, a coloring book, and a cookbook.
Meanwhile, Baim pushed forward with creation and promotion of the Chicago Independent Media Alliance, in which 69 members representing 85 media outlets across the city collaborate on fundraising and try to increase their visibility and impact.
“The proudest thing about that COVID [response] was the emergency fundraiser we did for our Chicago Independent Media Alliance members,” Baim said. “That’s a project of the Chicago Reader. It’s one of the dreams I’ve always had, and when I took over the Reader, we really implemented it very quickly.”
CIMA, run by media partnerships coordinator Yazmin Dominguez, is a reflection of a philosophical shift in Chicago media in which cutthroat competition has largely given way to collaboration in order to counter market forces threatening local journalism.
“There’s just a great potential there to help lift the Reader along with everybody else,” Baim says. “The Reader can’t be the last paper standing, because then we’re going away too.”
Rhodes emphasizes that Baim’s efforts go well beyond the Reader.
“What Tracy has brought to the effort is that it’s not enough just to save the Reader and get the Reader on good footing,” Rhodes says. “She’s making the case to foundations across the country, and to philanthropists and individuals and family foundations, about why community journalism is essential, and that’s where democracy comes from.”
Abe Peck, now a Northwestern professor emeritus, says Baim’s “collaboration model is an interesting idea. I hope she’s on to something.”
So what is the Reader’s role going forward?
“We have this beautiful, robust, really diverse [media] ecosystem,” says Karen Hawkins, who is also co-publisher. “I think the Reader’s place is still seen as the place for long-form journalism. I don’t think anybody else is doing the kind of long-form pieces that we’re doing. And it’s still an alternative to what we consider the mainstream media.“
One role the Reader still has, according to Baim, is the “curation of the unique culture that has yet to explode. It’s before people make the cover of other papers, before their album hits a million, before they’re playing Soldier Field. We want them on their way up or at the end of their careers when they have such an important story to tell. And that’s in music. It is in other culture, but in music in particular. I think that’s one of the most important things the Reader does.”
Major Chicago print publications—not just the Reader but the Tribune and Sun-Times as well—have lost influence in the last few decades. New players have moved in, among them Block Club Chicago, ProPublica, City Bureau, Chalkbeat, and The TRiiBE. Other longtime players such as WBEZ public radio and the Better Government Association have increased their news firepower.
In a time of media specialization, Rhodes says she believes the Reader’s wide scope can be a strength.
“You can go way down the rabbit hole on your individual interests,” Rhodes says. “But if you pick up a copy of the Reader, you have the ability to look down the rabbit hole on multiple people’s interests. You can find a restaurant you didn’t know about. You can find a band you didn’t know about. You can hear a lot about housing issues you may not have picked up on. It’s kind of an antidote to the super-niching by having a spread of things. There’s an advantage to having a wider platform than an individual micro-niche voice. I think that the Reader is still going to be a unique Chicago voice.”
The Reader’s print circulation is 56,000— just 40 percent of what it was in 2007—but the founders are rooting for its future success.
“More power to ’em,” says Bob McCamant.
“The not-for-profit model may be the way to go,” says Tom Yoder.
Now based at 2930 S. Michigan after a few years at the downtown Apparel Center and then 30 N. Racine during the Sun-Times era, the Reader is again being praised for its innovation. A national industry group, the Local Media Association, gave the Reader first-place honors for Best Philanthropy Journalism and/or Fundraising Strategy in its 2020 Digital Innovation Awards.
Hawkins notes the sense of loss some may feel for the Reader’s old glories, but said it’s time for reinvention, not nostalgia.
“I hope that we are in a place where we can respond to changes in the industry, that we are more nimble than we used to be,” Hawkins says. “And I hope that we now understand our strengths and our place in the ecosystem, and focus on the things that we know that we can do and not the things that we used to do. I understand the grief that people have about the loss of the old Reader. I didn’t live through it, but I understand it. I want to create space for that grief while at the same time moving forward and saying, ‘But we survived and we have this amazing opportunity to become the next great thing.’”
Mark Jacob, a former Chicago Tribune metro editor and former Sunday editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, is editor of the Medill Local News Initiative website at Northwestern University.