Credit: Slug Signorino

I am an overworked, underpaid proofreader at the Chicago Reader. Editors here act like it’s a big deal that this is our 40th anniversary issue. But my friends laugh. They say nobody reads anything that’s in print any longer, and the Reader used to be big and fat but that was years ago. I want to tell them to stick it up their ass, but what if they’re right? Cecil, you know everything. Should I listen to my friends? —Virginia

Goodness, has it been 40 years? I began my earthly mission a little over a year after the Reader started, so that means I’m coming up on—my God—year 39. High time, then, that we had a little talk about the subjects raised by your impolite friends, namely: (1) how did we get here? and (2) what the hell do we do now?

Let’s acknowledge at the outset that this exercise has its self-indulgent aspects. We’re far from the only people in town, to say nothing of the country, who are worried about the future. The difference is that, whereas the average wage slave stews in obscurity, we get to do it in the pages of a newspaper. I can justify that solely with this thought: on our best days, we make a difference in people’s lives. The question, given the radically altered economic and technological landscape in which we find ourselves, is how we’re going to manage that from here on out.

I think there’s a way, Virginia, and I think you and I, with some help from our friends, could go a long way toward finding it. Before we get to that, though, we need to consider our present ticklish situation and what has contributed to it. This unavoidably gets into some history. Don’t worry, I’ll keep this brief.

We’re the beneficiaries of two things, Virginia. The first is a brilliant business concept: the free newspaper. Sure, there were free papers before the Reader. They were called shoppers—ad rags, basically. They got no respect, and for the most part didn’t deserve any. They published very little journalism and sometimes none at all.

The genius of the Reader was to show that you could publish a quality newspaper that you gave away. In the age of the Internet this surprises no one, but it was a daring concept at the time. It took a while to catch on. The Reader today is thinner than it used to be, but you should have seen it in 1971 or 1973 (when I signed up) or for quite a few years thereafter.

The idea did catch on, though, and with the clarity of hindsight it now seems obvious that it would have seen success. Circulation revenue—what newspapers make from selling their product to readers—historically has been a relatively trivial portion of total income, most of which derives from advertising. Equally important, and forgive me if I lapse into business speak, a paid subscription is a barrier to market penetration. Traditional newspapers, even the best ones, are read only by those who cared to pay for them, which generally is a fraction of the audience. The Reader‘s concept was: put out a really good free publication and distribute it in the parts of town our advertisers are trying to reach, and we can truthfully say everyone reads us.

And by and large they did. Old Reader hands speak fondly of the days when crowds would descend on the shops and restaurants where bundles of the paper were dropped on Thursday nights and clear out the entire pile in an hour. It was a powerful sales pitch, and in time we didn’t need to bother making it. Advertisers streamed in the door.

That brings us to the second thing we’re a beneficiary of, Virginia: the freedom to write about almost anything we want. By “we” I ought to clarify that I mean those of us who wrote feature stories, criticism, and columns. This accounted for only a part of the Reader‘s editorial product—in some ways not the most important part. The other part was the arts and entertainment listings. They were the Reader‘s bread and butter, the reason people picked up the paper, one of the major reasons advertisers advertised in it. Nowadays there are lots of places, in print and online, where you can find out what’s going on in Chicago; in the early years there was one comprehensive place, and the Reader was it.

The predictability of the listings meant us writers could be unpredictable. We weren’t tied to the tyranny of beats the way reporters for the dailies were. We didn’t have to show up at City Hall or the courthouse every day; we could follow an interesting story wherever it led us. Sometimes it led to places nobody found interesting but us, at least not right away. John Conroy on police torture. Ben Joravsky on TIFs. Those guys hammered away to the point where I’m sure many were rolling their eyes. But time proved them right.

What made all this work was the fact that it came as a package. If you wanted the arts and entertainment listings, you had to take the advertising that came with it. If you wanted the classifieds—for-rent ads were a Reader mainstay for years—chances are you’d take home the whole paper.

All that came apart with the arrival of the Internet. I’ll pass lightly over this, Virginia, because it’s a story you know all too well. The Internet made it possible to unbundle the components of publications like the Reader and distribute them separately, often faster and more cheaply, and sometimes to a wider audience. Craigslist killed the classifieds business. Entertainment listings—maybe not as comprehensive as ours, but for most purposes good enough—are available from multiple sources. There’s no way to defend against this.

I remember having three thoughts when Mrs. Adams first called my attention to Groupon: (1) This is a fantastic idea. (2) I wish we’d thought of it. (3) It wouldn’t have made any difference if we had. Groupon’s success didn’t require that it be embedded in a newspaper. People signed up for it because it offered them super deals and that’s all. The extraneous elements—the parts you and I contributed to, Virginia—were stripped away.

The Reader had always been free, so the fact that most of the info on the Internet is also free wasn’t as crippling for us as it was for some publications. But the Internet undercut us in a more fundamental way; the Reader is no longer the one place to go to find out what’s happening in Chicago. Google, Yelp, Facebook, Twitter, and countless ventures also can tell you most of what you need to know.

All that having been said, Virginia, the Internet extended an opportunity to us that we’re only now beginning to grasp. What the Reader created above all was a community. Given the limitations of the technology we had to work with we could do this only imperfectly. Publishing a newspaper is inherently a top-down enterprise, a product created by a handful of people and distributed to the masses. Our readers could contribute only by submitting letters to the editor.

The letters section was always my favorite part of the paper. (Well, my second most favorite part.) The long-running disputations, the howls from artistes disparaged by the critics, and best of all (as Mike Miner’s “Reader at 40” pieces have reminded me) the unexpected twists. The reputation of the late University of Chicago child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim suffered the first in a fatal series of blows when a Reader letter writer accused him of child abuse, and others who’d been under his tutelage wrote in to agree. The letters pages of the past offer a glimpse of the future, Virginia. I have no doubt that facilitating a conversation among our readers—who will become less readers than participants—will be a central part of what we do from now on.

Like a lot of other publications we let readers post comments to the online versions of our stories, and occasionally this gives rise to illuminating exchanges. But apart from the fact that it takes place online, the approach is surprisingly old-fashioned: we write, the readers respond. They only rarely interact with one another. The child development experts would call it parallel play.

There’s another way to do it, and the big picture is this. We assume you—and by you now I mean the Reader community—have made a conscious choice to live where you do, be it Logan Square or Kenwood or Oak Park, and furthermore that the motive was something other than that it was cheap or near an expressway exit. We’ll guess you thought it was a place where interesting things happened and interesting people lived.

Perhaps you’d like to meet some of those people. At minimum you’d like to know what’s going on. Very well. We at the Reader can provide a sort of online corner tavern where you can find out.

You don’t need to actively participate if you don’t care to. You can watch what’s on the widescreen TVs above the bar—these are the articles we publish. You can read the notices stuck on the bulletin board—these are the ads. Or you can eavesdrop on the conversations at the bar, and if you’re bold join in. Some of these conversations may have been inspired by Reader articles; more often they’ll be conversations that start the way most conversations start, with someone’s random thought. If you don’t find any of the conversations at the bar especially stimulating, there are tables and booths for those with particular interests. The music scene. Home remodeling. The Bears.

Some will say: but all those things are available on the Internet now! As individual pieces, sure. There are bulletin boards and local-news aggregators and special-interest blogs galore. But no one has assembled them into a whole that exceeds the sum of its parts.

Not saying the job would be easy, Virginia. But it might as well be us.

Cecil Adams, the world’s smartest human being, has been struggling since 1973 to eradicate ignorance one Straight Dope column at a time. He’s been assisted over the years by Mike Lenehan, who was the Reader’s longtime executive editor; Dave Kehr, currently a New York Times columnist; and Ed Zotti, who’s been filling in till someone better comes along.