The Reader loses writers, the city just loses

The Beachwood Reporter says it so I don’t have to.

No matter what your stripes, or what you look for from your local periodicals or city journalism, you should be mourning the loss of John Conroy from the Reader’s pages. If a newspaper can be said to have a soul, he was it. That’s no knock against the work that Henderson, Mogira and Marlan turned out, but Conroy was the living, breathing spirit of the paper’s advocacy wing.

As usual, Michael Miner is offering the best reporting on the Reader’s goings-on including the spot between a rock and a hard place that editor Alison True’s been living in since August: cut the budget but don’t lose what makes the Reader, the Reader. The rock just gave way.

I think the Reader is about a year away from going online-only, and I have yet to have someone tell me why that would be a bad thing, or how it would be any more damaging to the paper than a move like this.

9 comments for “The Reader loses writers, the city just loses

  1. December 7, 2007 at 4:00 pm

    I’ve got two reasons: First, New Times Media purchased the Reader so they can complete their collection of large market outlets. Now that they have Chicago, LA, NYC — as well as quite a few others — they can command big national ad bucks. Also their sales people can forgo using sales intermediaries like the Ruxton Group and pick up that 15% that would have gone to them as commission.Second, if you talk owners of alt newspapers, there’s three papers people talk about with reverence: the Madison Isthmus, the Village Voice and the Reader. There’s just too much warm cuddlies associated with the paper to kill the paper edition. It would have to lose money before any alt owner would let that happen. Even NTM.Oh yeah, and a third is NTM credibility. They still want to grow, and since most alts are still owner-operated, most potential sellers would recoil from NTM if they thought their precious papers would be shut down once they were sold.The Reader will never stop printing.

  2. December 7, 2007 at 5:06 pm

    I won’t argue with your first point, Mike, but on your second point: the Reader has been losing money, and a lot of it. If those national buys (and the savings from moving their production) can help it rebound then I’ll be singing a different tune. But content gives people a reason to pick it up. Conroy – and as Margaret points out on Chicagoist today, Ben Joravsky – is the kind of writer who distinguishes the Reader from the other pubs in town. Folks like that are the reasons why people still pick up the paper even though it’s a shadow of its former self.

  3. Sara
    December 8, 2007 at 2:39 am

    Melt With You? Huh?

  4. December 8, 2007 at 8:25 pm

    Sara> Maybe I’m the only one but when I hear Melt With You in a TV show or movie, it automatically signifies that romance – usually unrequited is in the offing.

  5. December 9, 2007 at 7:50 am

    Mike’s points would be totally valid if the Reader had been bought by NTM, but it was actually Creative Loafing, based in Atlanta, that made the purchase. With the Reader and its sister, the Washington City Paper, CL now has properties in six markets, Chicago being the largest.So Mike’s second reason may still have weight, and maybe even the third, but the first is out the window. (Frankly I’ve had a couple of people suggest to me that the forthcoming sale of the Reader’s 11 E. Illinois building was of greater value to the buyers than the paper itself.)

  6. December 10, 2007 at 1:13 am

    You’re totally right Kris. I realized it was CL later on. I think I’d heard NTM was trying to buy Reader, but was rebuffed. My brain gets mixed up now and then.Still, printing isn’t that expensive when it comes to producing a paper. Back when I did analysis of a few alts in b-school, printing and distribution was about 20% of the cost, where straight labor costs were about 50% — the remaining 30% were other management and administration.I’m guessing Reader’s format change was connected to being moved to a different press where it can be printed cheaper and maybe in the same run as some other publication. That may have shaved 1% of the margin.There’s something else important about costs v. profits with alts — most big-city alts used have a margin of about 18-22% before bad, old Craigslist came along. That’s not bad. The loss of classifieds knocked them for a loop — but not so they were losing money, just so margins were down to 5-10%.Papers like Reader had a lot of fat. Crappy websites (aka, poor electronic monetization of content), expensive offices in trendy parts of town (aka 11 E. Illinois), poor cash management, bad printing deals, poorly managed distribution, very highly paid E-in-C’s, owners that treated the company like a checkbook…the list goes on and on.But because alts were supposed to be “cool” and not run like businesses, they were run that way. So long as people kept making money, it wasn’t a problem. Now it is.I’m a bit bitter about this, since I gave an impromptu speech at the Assoc of Alt. Newspapers warning about these things a few years back, and was basically hissed at. I hate the fact that I was right. Back in those days, CL was 3 papers, and the NTM/VVM groups only owned 9 papers between them. People called me “corporate”. Now the corporations own them.

  7. December 10, 2007 at 1:20 pm

    Ironically, Mike, most of what you just listed as problems with alternative weeklies are the same problems faced by mainstream dailies.What the old wisdom that yesterdays counterculture eventually becomes the establishment?

  8. December 11, 2007 at 3:53 pm

    i had a friend drop into town from milwaukee, where he now lives. he wanted to grab a copy of the reader for old time’s sake. and he was horrified to see its new layout. he grabbed his milwaukee weeklies and laid them on the table and exclaimed, “there’s no difference between these and that!”he wanted to know what happened to the ability to grab section three or four, even though he laughed sarcastically and said that you always had to check a reader before picking it up to make sure it had the section you wanted in it.he was totally bummed about how the reader looked and said it was no more than a new city now. it was sort of sad to see the print edition through his eyes. truth be told, i haven’t picked up a print edition of the reader in ages. maybe if i’m eating out alone and desperate.

  9. Anonymous
    December 12, 2009 at 2:17 pm

    The Reader has been on the decline for most of the last decade. People like to blame the idiots at Creative Loafing, but the Reader's old owners share in the blame — they didn't understand the allure of their own publication and allowed the decline in quality to happen before unloading the paper onto CL. You mentioned Alison True, who is often painted as a martyr in all of this. She presided over the paper's drop years before CL entered the picture. She tried a lot of gimmicks, including a massive redesign, but apparently also never realized what made her publication interesting to Chicagoans. I am amazed she can hold onto her job.

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