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Chicago Reader
Reader cover.jpg
Type Alternative weekly
Format Tabloid
Owner Creative Loafing Inc.
Publisher James Warren
Editor Alison True
Founded 1971
Headquarters 11 E. Illinois St.
Chicago, IL 60611
United States
Circulation 100,000 [1]
Official website

The Chicago Reader is an alternative weekly newspaper known for its literary style of journalism and intelligent coverage of the arts, particularly film and theater. It was founded in 1971 by a group of friends from Carleton College.[2] In July 2007, the paper and its sibling, Washington City Paper, were sold to Creative Loafing, publisher of alternative weeklies in Atlanta, Charlotte, Tampa, and Sarasota. Creative Loafing filed for bankruptcy in September 2008.[3] In August 2009, the bankruptcy court awarded the company to Creative Loafing's chief creditor, Atalaya Capital Management,[4], for a $5 million bid; Atalaya had loaned Creative Loafing $30 million to purchase the Reader and the Washington City Paper.[5]

The Reader, as it is commonly known, is dated every Thursday and distributed free on Wednesday and Thursday via street boxes and cooperating retail outlets. As of March 2009, the paper claimed more than 1,900 locations in the Chicago metropolitan area[6] and an audited circulation of 100,000.[1]

The Reader is recognized as a pioneer among alternative weeklies for both its style of journalism and its commercial scheme. Richard Karpel, who at the time was executive director of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, wrote:

[T]he 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, a cornerstone of today’s alternative papers. The Reader also developed a new kind of journalism, ignoring the news and focusing on everyday life and ordinary people. [7]


1971-1996: Beginnings, Growth, Success

The Chicago Reader was the brainchild of Robert A. Roth, usually called Bob, who grew up in the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights and attended Carleton College in Northfield, MN. His ambition was to start a weekly publication for young Chicagoans like papers he had seen in Boston (The Phoenix and Boston After Dark). Those papers were sold on newsstands but were also given away, mostly on campuses, to bolster circulation. Roth believed that 100-percent free circulation would work better, and he persuaded several friends from Carleton to join him in his venture. They scraped together about $16,000 in capital[8] and published the first issue, 16 pages, on October 1, 1971.[2] [9]

One year later, in its first anniversary issue, the Reader published an article titled “What kind of paper is this, anyway?” in which it answered “Questions we’ve heard over and over in the past year.” This article reported that the paper had lost nearly $20,000 in its first ten months of operation but that the owners were “confident it will work out in the end.” It explained the rationale behind free circulation and the paper’s unconventional editorial philosophy:

Why doesn't the Reader print news? Tom Wolfe wrote us, "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.'" That sums up our thoughts quite well: we find street sellers more interesting than politicians, and musicians more interesting than the Cubs. They are closer to home.[10]

In its early years the Reader was published out of apartments shared by the owner-founders, first in Hyde Park--the University of Chicago neighborhood on the south side of Chicago--and later in Rogers Park on the far north side. In 1975 the paper began to earn a profit, incorporated, and rented office space in the downtown area that later came to be known as River North. In 1979, a reporter for the Daily Herald of Arlington Heights, Illinois, called the Reader “the fastest growing alternative weekly in the U.S.[2] In 1986, an article in the Chicago Tribune estimated the Reader’s annual revenues at $6.7 million.[8] In 1996, Crain’s Chicago Business projected revenue of $14.6 million.[11] The National Journal’s Convention Daily (published during the 1996 Democratic National Convention in Chicago) reported that the Reader was “an enormous financial success. It’s now as thick as many Sunday papers and is published in four sections that total around 180 pages.” This report put the circulation at 138,000.[12]


The Reader was designed to serve young readers, mostly singles in their 20s, who in the early 1970s lived in distinct neighborhoods along Chicago’s lakefront: Hyde Park, Lincoln Park, Lakeview, et al.[2]Later this demographic group moved west, to neighborhoods like Wicker Park, Bucktown, and Logan Square, and the Reader moved with them. The paper’s appeal was based on a variety of elements. Most obvious early on was a focus on pop culture for a generation who were not served by the entertainment coverage of daily newspapers. Like many alternative weeklies, the Reader relied heavily on coverage and extensive listings of arts and cultural events, especially live music, film, and theater. It also prominently featured the writing of young critics. The paper is often credited with nurturing Chicago’s then-nascent theater scene, giving early coverage to storied companies such as the St. Nicholas Theater, the Organic Theatre Company (both now defunct) and the nationally famous Steppenwolf Theater Company.

As the paper prospered and its budget expanded, investigative and political reporting became another important part of the mix. Reader articles by freelance writer David Moberg are credited with helping to elect Chicago’s first black mayor, the late Harold Washington.[13] Staff writer John Conroy wrote extensively, over a period of more than 17 years, on police torture in Chicago; his reporting was instrumental in the ouster and prosecution of Commander Jon Burge, the alleged leader of a police torture ring, and in the release of several wrongly convicted prisoners from death row.[14]

The Reader was perhaps best known for its deep, immersive style of literary journalism, publishing long, detailed cover stories, often on subjects that had little to do with the news of the day. An oft-cited example is a 19,000-word article on beekeeping by staff editor Michael Lenehan. This article won the AAAS Westinghouse Science Journalism Award, awarded by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in 1978.[2][15] Steve Bogira's 1988 article "A Fire in the Family" used an apartment-building fire as the starting point for a 15,000-word chronicle of life among the underclass, following three generations of a west-side family and touching on urban issues such as addiction, discrimination, crime, and teen pregnancy. It won the Peter Lisagor Award for Exemplary Journalism, awarded by the Chicago Headline Club. Ben Joravsky's "A Simple Game" followed a public high school basketball team for a full year. Published in two parts, a total of 40,000 words, it was reprinted in the anthology Best American Sportswriting 1993.

Another element of the Reader’s appeal was its advertising. In what might be called a print precursor to craigslist, the Reader offered free classified ads to individuals. The free ads created an active marketplace that attracted paid ads from commercial advertisers, especially realtors and landlords, with the result that the Reader was widely recognized as the best place in Chicago to find or offer a rental apartment. In display advertising, the Reader offered unusually low rates, which attracted small local businesses. The paper consciously pursued ads that would appeal to and help define its young urban readership, concentrating on categories such as music clubs and records, bicycles, audio equipment, and inexpensive furniture and housewares. Ads were seen as another source of information alongside the journalism and listings.[2]

1996-Present: Competition in the Online Age

Like all newspapers, the Reader faced severe competitive pressure starting around the turn of the century, as some of its key elements became widely available online. Numerous Web sites offered entertainment listings, schedules, and reviews. Classified ads, a major source of revenue in the 1990s, migrated to craigslist and other online services that published ads for free and made them easily searchable. Record labels and record stores, both important sources of advertising revenue, were devastated by file sharing and other online forms of music distribution.

The Reader began experimenting with electronic distribution in 1995 with an automated telephone service called “SpaceFinder,” which offered search and “faxback” delivery of the paper’s apartment rental ads, one of its most important franchises. Later in 1995 the paper’s popular “Matches” personal ads were made available on the Web, and in early 1996 the SpaceFinder fax system was adapted for Web searching. Also in 1996 the Reader partnered with Yahoo to bring its entertainment listings online and introduced a Web site and an AOL user area built around its popular syndicated column “The Straight Dope.” In 1999 it introduced the Reader Restaurant Finder, which quickly became one of its most popular online features.

By that time much of the paper's content was available online, but the Reader still resisted publishing a Web version of the entire paper. It concentrated on databased information like classifieds and listings, leaving the long cover stories and many other articles to be delivered in print only. In 2005, when many similar publications had long been offering all their content online, the Reader began offering its articles in PDF format, showing pages just as they appeared in print--an attempt to provide value to the display advertisers who accounted for much of the paper’s revenue. By 2007 the PDFs were gone and all of the paper’s content was available online, along with a variety of blogs and Web-only features.

A 2008 article in the Columbia Journalism Review by Edward McClelland, a former Reader staff writer (then known as Ted Kleine), faulted the Reader for being slow to embrace the Web and suggested that it had trouble appealing to a new generation of young readers. “Alternative weeklies are expected to be eternally youthful,” McClelland wrote. “The Reader is finding that a tough act to pull off as it approaches forty.”[13]

In 2008, under a budget cutback imposed by the new owners at Creative Loafing, the Reader laid off several of its most experienced journalists, including John Conroy.[16] As of this writing (January 2010), the paper has de-emphasized the tradition of long, offbeat feature stories in favor of theme issues and aggressive, opinionated reporting on city government, for example its extensive coverage of tax increment financing (TIFs) by Ben Joravsky, who has been a staff writer since the 1980s. Though the staff is much smaller than it was before the sale, many other key figures remained as of January 2010, including editor Alison True, managing editor Kiki Yablon, media critic Michael Miner, film critic J.R. Jones, arts reporter Deanna Isaacs, theater critic Albert Williams, and music writers Peter Margasak and Miles Raymer. In November 2009, James Warren, former managing editor for features at the Chicago Tribune, was named president and publisher.[17] In March, 2010, Warren resigned.[18]

Design and Format

When the Reader appeared in 1971 it was noticed for its clean, distinctive look. Devised by owner-founder Bob McCamant, it owed more to contemporary magazines than it did to traditional newspaper design. Over the years the paper gradually grew to two, three, and finally four sections. In the four-section format, which became a hallmark of the Reader, the first section was devoted to feature articles, columns, and reviews; the second to movie, theater, art, and restaurant listings; the third to music listings; and the fourth to classified ads. The paper kept the same distinctive look until 2004: a long page (17-inches), "quarterfolded" widthwise, printed in black and white, with text of the lead story on the cover. The original nameplate, hand-drawn by McCamant, was unchanged for more than 30 years. In 2004 a major redesign by the firm of Jardi + Utensil (Barcelona, Spain) introduced a new logo and extensive use of color, including a magazine-style cover. In 2007, under the ownership of Creative Loafing, the paper was converted to a single-section tabloid, the conventional alt-weekly format.

Founders and Key Figures

In college, Robert A. Roth briefly published the Carleton Underground Magazine (C.U.M.). After graduating from Carleton in 1969, he began graduate work in political philosophy at the University of Chicago, but he dropped out eventually to focus on the Reader. His titles were publisher from 1971 to 1994, and also editor from 1975 to 1990. Roth proselytized among alt weekly publishers for the free-circulation model, which was eventually adopted by the whole industry. Starting in 1983, he served four terms as president of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, the industry's national trade group.

Robert McCamant, who graduated from Carleton in 1971, served as co-editor of the Carleton student paper, the Carletonian, and was listed as the Reader's editor in its first issues. But his forte was design and layout and he soon took the title of art director. He ran a small advertising agency on the side, where he later indulged a passion for typography, and in 1984 founded the Sherwin Beach Press, a small fine press specializing in handmade books of nonfiction prose. As of January 2010 he was a member of the Society for Typographic Arts, the Fine Press Book Association, Association Typographique Internationale, and the Caxton Club, whose monthly publication, the Caxtonian, he edited.

Thomas J. Rehwaldt graduated from Carleton in 1970. He was the Reader's circulation director and later operations director, responsible for distribution, accounting, and other business functions. In 1983 he became publisher of the Los Angeles Reader, a wholly owned subsidiary, which had been established in 1978. He returned from that assignment in 1987 and continued as operations director in Chicago. In 1988 Rehwaldt was relieved of his position, although he retained his ownership share in the company and continued to hold a seat on the board of directors. He sued his partners twice. The first suit, filed after he was fired, was settled by the adoption of a shareholder's agreement meant to ensure that Rehwaldt would not be cut out of the paper's profits. The second suit, brought in 2006, helped to force the sale of the company to Creative Loafing in 2007.[19]

Thomas K. Yoder graduated from Carleton in 1970 and went to work at the Berlin Reporter, a weekly in Berlin, N.H. In 1973, after the Reader had been publishing for about 15 months, Yoder joined his Carleton friends in Chicago and eventually assumed the duties of Reader advertising director, which post he held until 1994. From 1987 to 2002 he was also publisher of the Reader's sibling publication, Washington City Paper.

Michael Lenehan graduated from the University of Notre Dame in 1971 and started writing features for the Reader the following year. In 1973, writing under the pseudonym Cecil Adams, he started the Reader's first column, "The Straight Dope" (which was later written by others). He joined the founder-owners as associate editor in 1975. In 1981 he reduced his involvement with the Reader in order to write for the Atlantic Monthly, where he became a contributing editor. He returned to the Reader full time in 1987 and served as managing editor, editor, and executive editor until the sale to Creative Loafing in 2007.

Jane Levine first worked for the Reader as a student intern while she was attending Macalester College. Upon graduating, in 1975, she joined the staff and in 1978 was named the first publisher of the Los Angeles Reader. In 1983 she left the company and worked for the Independent Weekly of North Carolina (1984-85), Microsoft (1985-86), and the Seattle Weekly (1986-1994), where she was VP for advertising and marketing. She returned to the Chicago Reader as publisher from 1994-2004.

Alison True, a graduate of Vassar College, joined the Reader staff as an editorial assistant in 1984 and became editor in 1995.

Michael Crystal graduated from the University of Washington in 1969 and worked for many years as an executive, eventually publisher, of the Seattle Weekly. He joined the Reader in 2004 and served as its publisher through 2008.

Patrick Clinton graduated from Notre Dame in 1970 and joined the Reader as an associate editor in 1979. He was managing editor from 1983 to 1987.

Kiki Yablon graduated from Northwestern University and after stints at Outside magazine and Chicago magazine came to the Reader in 1996 as its first music editor. She became managing editor in 2004.

Key contributors: Nancy Banks, another Carleton alum, was managing editor briefly but soon turned her attention to writing. She was instrumental in establishing the Reader's early emphasis on feature (as opposed to news) stories and created the "Reader's Digest of Neighborhood News," a long-standing column.[2] Other prominent feature writers were Steve Bogira, John Conroy, Harold Henderson, Flora Johnson, Robert McClory, Grant Pick, and Toni Schlesinger. Politics and urban policy contributors included Henry DeZutter, Ben Joravsky, David Moberg, Salim Muwakkil, Gary Rivlin, and Don Rose. Some important music critics were Don McLeese, John Milward, Neil Tesser, David Witz, and Bill Wyman. The key film critics were Dave Kehr and Jonathan Rosenbaum. Important theater critics include Anthony Adler, Terry Curtis Fox, Lenny Kleinfeld (writing under the name Bury St. Edmund), and Albert Williams, winner of the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism for 1999-2000.[20] Michael Miner wrote for the Reader's first issue in 1971 while he was a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. He joined the Reader staff in 1979 and as of January 2010 was still writing its media column, Hot Type, one of the paper's best-read features. Starting in 2007, food writer Mike Sula significantly expanded the Reader's coverage of restaurants and culinary issues. In 2009 his Whole Hog Project, which followed a rare heritage pig from birth to table, was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation journalism award.[21]

Several visual artists played important roles in the Reader's success, among them illustrators Andrew Epstein and Slug Signorino, and photographers Marc PoKempner, Kathy Richland, and Mike Tappin. The Reader's first cartoon was "Phoebe and the Pigeon People," by underground comic artist Jay Lynch and Gary Whitney. It ran from 1978 to 1990. The Reader was among the first papers to publish the cartoons of Lynda Barry and Matt Groening's "Life in Hell," which originated in the Los Angeles Reader. Other cartoonists the Reader has featured include filmmaker David Lynch ("The Angriest Dog in the World"), P.S. Mueller, and Chris Ware.


  1. ^ a b "About the Chicago Reader". Chicago Reader. Retrieved December 31, 2009. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g Tom Valeo (November 4, 1979). "The Chicago Reader: A '70s Success Story". Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL). Retrieved January 21, 2010. .
  3. ^ John F. Sugg (September 29, 2008). "Creative Loafing files for bankruptcy protection". Creative Loafing. Retrieved December 31, 2009. 
  4. ^ Mara Shalhoup (August 25, 2009). "In the auction for Creative Loafing, the winning bidder is...". Creative Loafing. Retrieved December 31, 2009. 
  5. ^ Thorner, James (2009-08-26). "Tampa's Creative Loafing chain taken over by hedge fund Atalaya". St. Petersburg Times. Retrieved 2010-03-08. 
  6. ^ "Where can you find the Reader?". Chicago Reader. Retrieved December 31, 2009. 
  7. ^ Sisson, Richard; Zacher, Christian; Cayton, Andrew, eds. The American Midwest: An Interpretive Encyclopedia. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. 
  8. ^ a b Jon Anderson (March 14, 1986). "A publisher who is proud of his readers". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved Januuary 21, 2010. 
  9. ^ Jerry Nemanic (April 29, 1985). "Writing Chicago". WBEZ Radio. Retrieved January 21, 2010. .
  10. ^ "What Kind of Paper Is This, Anyway?". Chicago Reader. September 29, 1972. Retrieved January 21, 2010. 
  11. ^ Jeff Borden (September 30, 1996). "Uneasy Reader: A quest for youth". Crain's Chicago Business. 
  12. ^ Ben Wildavsky (August 25, 1996). "The Reader: Not for Political Junkies". National Journal Convention Daily. Retrieved January 21, 2010. 
  13. ^ a b Edward McClelland (September-October 2008). "Hope I Die...Will the Chicago Reader Finally Grow UP? Should it?". Columbia Journalism Review (preview only online). Retrieved December 31, 2009. 
  14. ^ Mark Brown (October 22, 2008). "Reporter kept the focus on police torture". Chicago Sun-Times. 
  15. ^ "About AAAS: History & Archives". American Association for the Advancement of Science. Retrieved January 31, 2010. 
  16. ^ Michael Miner (December 6, 2007). "Through muscle, into bone". Chicago Reader. Retrieved January 5, 2010. 
  17. ^ Phil Rosenthal (October 27, 2009). "Ex-Tribune M.E. Jim Warren named Chicago Reader's publisher". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved January 5, 2010. 
  18. ^ Marek, Lynne (2010-03-08). "Jim Warren resigns as Reader publisher". Crain's Chicago Business. Retrieved 2010-03-08. 
  19. ^ Michael Miner (Aughust 23, 2007). "The Suit Behind the Sale". Chicago Reader. Retrieved January 3, 2010. 
  20. ^ "Albert Williams, drama critic for the Chicago Reader, wins $10,000 George Jean Nathan Award administered by Cornell University". Cornell University. Retrieved December 31, 2009. 
  21. ^ "2009 James Beard Foundation Awards Winners". Retrieved February 21, 2010. 

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