Requiem For the Chicago Reader

For me the story goes back to the mid-nineties. Yes, I know the actual story goes back to 1971, but the mid-nineties is where I first saw the paper – all four sections in proud newsprint.

As it happened, that was when the megabookstores (Borders and Barnes & Noble) were moving into Chicago and taking up massive spots in the middle of town, causing independent bookstores to close down all around them. And the Reader was busy reporting on every move made by both the megastores and the independents.

(They would end up getting ripped later on for ignoring the death of the record/CD store during the 2000s, but that’s another story.)

When I moved into town I started picking up The Reader whenever I made it into town (which was quite frequent once I discovered the poetry scene going on around me). I didn’t necessarily focus on the front page story (more likely I was to hunt down the comics up and down the cavernous classifieds section), but I often read it since it was often interesting.

By this time the internet was beginning to flex its muscles. Music stores started closing down all around, starting with the Chain stores and eventually hitting up the independents. Bookstores were feeling it as well, as Amazon.com made it easy to order whatever books you wanted, both cheaper and without sales tax (thereby thumbing it to two “the mans” at the same time, never mind that a new, bigger, more powerful “the man” was rising up). And Craigslist was starting to hit at the true profit-center of the newspaper – Classifieds.

At first, there was massive talk about the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times putting out daily microtabloids (Red Eye and Red Storm, respectively). The Sun-Times had the better microtabloid, but they gave up on that war, leaving the Tribune to continue giving the paper out for free.

Then the two major papers started bleeding red ink. Turns out both of them were under severe mismanagement during the ten years before they both declared bankruptcy, and plummeting classified sales were one of the drivers towards the bankruptcy and shrinkage of the papers.

This happened alongside the collapse of the daily newspaper throughout the United States. Papers grew slimmer, smaller, tackier, less well colored and less and less read.

Then it started affecting the Reader. At first, it was a drop-off from four sections to three, with a select shrinkage in the posting of in-town happenings (Poetry/Spoken Word listings were amongst the first to be dropped off the printed page). Then came the sale to a weeklies conglomerate – at the peak price, it turns out (the silent partner was finally right). Then all the in-depth reporters that were digging up stuff on Chicago on a regular basis were cast out from the paper. Finally, it was turned into a magazine-like format in one section, with the main paper on one side and the music section on the other.

Most recently, the paper was sold to the Chicago Sun-Times conglomerate. That news was confirmed by two things:

  1. The Sun Times box at a bottom corner of the Main part of the paper.
  2. “Kicking Ass Since 1971” on the masthead.

Most telling is the “Kicking Ass Since 1971,” since it makes obvious what most of us have known: The Chicago Reader can no longer kick ass. Sure it can try to do some journalism, but its shrunken size betrays the weakened state the paper is in.

Sure, it’s nice to have an article on squirrels and everything about them, but there is something about a paper that was able to independently expose the dirty underbelly of Chicago. I’m not sure it can do that anymore, though I’m sure it will try.

Maybe we’ll know they’re back when they no longer need to talk about how they’ve been “Kicking Ass Since 1971.”

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