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).


Whetstone said...
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Whetstone said...

We can only thank our lucky stars that we weren't bought out by New Times. One of my friends went through the VV bloodbath, and I'm happy to take a "C-list" chain over the altweekly buzzsaw of New Times.

Paul M. Davis said...
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Paul M. Davis said...

(Previous post removed for egregious grammatical issues)

It seems like even for print pubs that have been proactive about moving online, it's one of those "damned if you do..." propositions. I'm counting the minutes until I come across some blog talking about it being like "ha ha this is what happens when print media doesn't adapt to the Internet."

The Reader is an example of a pub that was very proactive and have still been screwed by the transition, so...the armchair quarterbacks that make up the media analysis blogosphere is wrong once again. Too bad people's memory on the Internet goes back about as far as what comes up in the top three Google and Technorati results.

Paul M. Davis said...

Also, I will say that for work I read a number of the Creative Loafing pubs on a regular basis, and the quality is pretty high, so from an outsider's perspective, this bodes much better for the paper than a New Times buyout.

However, the whole idea of indie publishing conglomerates is inherently problematic, and I imagine as online classifieds continue to cut at the bottom line, the only solution will be to trim staff and reprint content created by one editorial staff across the country. Which will distinguish these publications from mainstream media in what way, exactly? Because they'll all reprint a syndicated advice column from a sassy Seattle media baron who responds with language the MSM won't reprint?

Sinker said...

Whetstone--If you think there won't be a Creative Loafing (ugh)-based bloodbath at the Reader, then I'd love to know how they're going to return the paper to profitability.

If it's shrinking the paper, jobs are lost. If it's outsourcing production, jobs are lost. If it's centralizing ad sales, jobs are lost. If it's gutting the hard news, jobs are lost.

Maybe they do things differently in Sarasota (jesus), but the Reader's been losing money (probably more than we know) for years--they didn't buy it out to lose MORE.

Sinker said...


You're 100% correct about the "damned if you do" situation. I heard rumors about the Reader and a few other alt.weeklies tossing TONS of money down the drain after a "Craigslist killer" a few years back. God bless them for trying, but how many years did they cut off the paper by tossing good money after bad on that?

HOWEVER, I'll also say that while the Reader did amazing work on getting their classifieds online early and making them VERY useful, they held out on getting their regular content online until it was far too late.

Who remembers their cockamamie idea of uploading PDFs of the entire damn paper instead of repurposing content in a CMS? Holy shit that was dumb! While they were dicking around with hot-clickable PDF ads (oy), Gapers Block and Chicagoist and even fucking Metromix was getting it right. By the time the Reader realized what they'd be doing wrong, they'd already been beaten at their own game. Again.

William Sachis said...

Sinker --

Funny that you say the paper was losing lots of money. I remember reading in a Crain's profile of owner Bob Roth -- this must have been in about 2000 or 2001 -- that the Reader alone had revenues of $50 million a year. That did not include City Paper. They were minting money. And their classified revenue was up, too. The collapse must have come fast.

If you ask me, the problem was the Reader stopped printing stories that were worth reading. The arts coverage was always decent, but the news and features stuff lost their strength in recent years. I remember enjoying reading the paper at one time -- now all the writing reads the same, which is to say, boring.

You're right, though, they shoud have been on the Web years before. For a long time, even before the PDF fiasco, all they would provide was classified ads.

Sinker said...


The collapse has come fast for everyone. 2000 might as well be a hundred as far as newspapers are concerned. Times have changed.