Sunday, July 29, 2007

More on the Reader and the myth of "hyperlocalism"

So the new owners of the Chicago Reader, Creative Loafing (ugh), have announced that the entire production of the paper is moving to Atlanta. The entire Reader production staff, along with its award-winning art director, will be out on the streets within six weeks. Additional rumors have the paper's printing being outsourced from long-time printer Newsweb in Chicago all the way out to North Carolina, where it will be trucked 14 hours cross-country. Once they're through, it's a safe bet that a good amount of the editorial will be produced out-of-town as well--after all, you don't have to live in a place to review a movie, right?

These moves away from Chicago by a company that claims to be "pioneering the opportunities offered by convergent print, web, and new media applications" (ugh) underscores why my bullshit detector goes up every time I hear someone talking about "hyperlocalism" as the savior of newspapers.

Hyperlocalism--for the three of you that don't already know--is the latest buzzword for locally-focused content that's combined with community-driven content. When you hear the investment brokers and money handlers talk about it, they always dredge up the example of junior-high school sports scores--traditional newspapers can't dedicate the space to print them, they say, even though plenty of parents want to know them. That junior-high sports scores have no real bearing on anyone's life (junior-high schoolers notwithstanding), and that real local news doesn't ever seem to register in analysis hasn't stopped the hyperlocalism bandwagon from picking up steam.

But there's always the question of production: Who's driving that wagon? In typical "convergence" fashion, it's big media companies, silicon valley startups, and cheerleaders from among the technoscenti. There's often not a damn local (let alone a hyper one) among them. And so hyperlocalism is bound to fail the same way the Creative Loafing (ugh) run Reader is bound to fail: "Local" is a word that still means something--you can't replicate it from 1,500 miles away, no matter how much money you spend.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Chicago Reader, RIP

So the venerable Chicago alt-weekly announced today that it's been sold to a Tampa-based alt-weekly publisher with the unfortunate name of Creative Loafing. That the new owners have entered a market much larger than their largest holdings (Tampa? Sarasota? Jesus...) seems like a bit of a kick in the sack for the Reader, which has been kicked quite a few times already.

Once the end-all be-all for what was young and happening in Chicago, as well as one of the flag bearers for high-quality (if, let's face it, sometimes quite boring) alt-journalism in the country, the Reader has been on a slow, painful slide from the top for years now. It was a slide started by the introduction of "The Red Papers," competing commuter rags introduced by the Chicago Tribune and the Sun Times (who started their Red Streak for no reason other than to toss something in front of the oncoming onslaught of the Trib's Red Eye). The Red Papers undercut the Reader's ad rates and promised a much larger circulation (and, good god, much worse writing). The entrance of Time Out Chicago further stretched the ad market as well as took the legs out of the Reader's editorial coverage, offering a more readable look at the goings-on in the city (the Reader's attempt to freshen up before TOC's arrival, an odd and confusing redesign, didn't help matters from the start).

But the biggest nail in the Reader's coffin--and the nail being driven into all the other alt-weeklies in the country--was Craigslist. Back when I worked at the Reader (in the production department, which I think it's now safe to say I tried to unionize during my two years of employment) the classifieds commanded the largest and most labor-intensive section of the entire paper. It had an entire floor of sales reps and production on the section would have its own night. It brought in millions of dollars a year--dollars that were then able to be spent on "real" journalism elsewhere in the paper. It was the lifeblood of the paper, as it is for many alternative weeklies around the country.

The Reader even adapted to the Internet quickly--their online classifieds were the go-to page for apartments and jobs in the city for years. But they charged for those listings, and they found it impossible to compete with the Craigslist juggernaut (and frankly, how could they?). The classifieds slowly shrank, the final insult being the awkward incorporation of the entire classifieds section into two different parts of the paper. What was once a four-section paper suddenly became three--I'm sure the new owners will fold it all down to one soon enough.

And so it is that the once-mighty Reader is absorbed by a C-list alt-weekly chain, not even good enough for a New Times buyout, let alone a purchase by the Tribune. The owners I'm sure were well compensated, but those that work the long, thankless hours at the paper now face very uncertain futures. It's hard being an object lesson, as every other underpaid employee at a weekly is watching to see what happens to them, and I'm sure they will weather this storm just as poorly as you can imagine (my thoughts go out to each and every one of them).