The Chicago Reader is a local institution. It dates back to 1971, one of the oldest free weekly papers in the country (preceded by the Village Voice and perhaps one or two others). And it’s been near and dear to my heart since I first moved to Chicago in the mid ’80s. It always provided a reliable weekly dose of irreverent local commentary and, more importantly, it was the clearinghouse for information on what was going on around town where and when, and whether it was worth your attention.

Then, two years ago, it was sold to Tampa’s Creative Loafing media company. It’s been downhill ever since.

Yesterday, after a lengthy court battle, the Reader changed ownership again… in bankruptcy court. And what happens next… is anybody’s guess.

The paper’s founders obviously saw that they were facing the same challenges as lots of other dead-tree media in recent years. Much of their revenue used to be in classified ads, but the Internet ate their lunch there, just as it did to everybody else. Over the previous decade they tried various format changes—adding color, rearranging sections—some of which helped, and some of which didn’t. Still, they saw the writing on the wall, and facing a lawsuit from a troublesome minority shareholder, they decided to get out when the getting was good… hence the 2007 sale.

Creative Loafing, owner of several other urban weeklies, promptly set out to homogenize the Reader and whittle away what had made it distinctive. They switched from a quarterfold to a smaller tabloid format, for instance, cheaper to print but also harder to flip through to find desired information, or to hold together while reading on the train. They did away with the syndicated independent cartoons. They laid off significant portions of the editorial staff. But all that wasn’t the worst of it.

Through all the previous format changes, the heart of the paper had remained unaltered: the listings. The Reader was unrivaled at providing compact yet comprehensive listings of all the movies showing in town at every theater, every week, with capsule reviews of everything; every band and musician playing at every venue, every week, with highlights and recommendations; every play on every stage, every week, with reviews, openings, and closings. Plus museum exhibits. Author readings. Festivals. Everything. All in a handy, accessible format.

Chicagoans know what I’m talking about here; others may not. I’ve read local weeklies and entertainment sections in quite a few other towns. Really, nothing compared.

Once the Internet came along the Reader actually managed to use it to add value:  in addition to duplicating all of the above content, in familiar yet searchable form, it added what was hands-down the best, most customizable restaurant search database I’ve ever found anywhere. It had a user-friendly search engine on which you could specify kind of cuisine, kind of bar, kind of seating, price range, and tons of other variables, including most prominently location:  you could specify restaurants within a specific distance (1/4 mile, 1/2 mile, etc.) of virtually any significant public building in town, including theaters and cinemas, making it easy to plan an entire outing. It had up-to-date info on almost every dining establishment in town—both professional reviews, and numerical ratings derived from the aggregate of reader-written reviews. It listed precise “typical meal” prices, not just broad-brush ranges. It broke the numerical rankings down by food quality, by atmosphere, by value for money. It even featured a (searchable) “three-R” rating system that designated places scoring in the top 10, 20, and 30 percent of the cumulative ratings.

In print, it was better than the johnny-come-lately Chicago edition of Time Out. Online, it was better than the Tribune Co.’s Metromix site(s).

Creative Loafing gradually but systematically changed all of this. To start with, they cut back on the listings. As it was put in a “letter from the editor” last January:

…In print we’re reducing our listings somewhat, cutting back on things that repeat week after week and information that’s widely available elsewhere so that we can emphasize the sorts of things that only the Reader can provide: insightful analysis, in-depth reporting, entertaining event reviews and previews.

In theater, for instance, we’re no longer printing every review of every show for as long as it runs. Instead we’re including, in addition to the week’s new reviews, only shows that are in previews or opening. Stand-up comedy, improv and sketch, and dance have been merged into our Theater & Performance section. Readers will find reviews and schedules for all those ongoing productions in our extensive online listings system.

In the music section, you’ll still find our critics’ takes on the week’s most interesting shows, as well as expanded lists of shows our staff finds notable, all organized into a handy calendar. But we’re greatly reducing the quantity of listings that run without comment…

The response from readers was vociferous. Curiously enough, the entire discussion thread disappeared when the Reader recently revamped its web site… but a diligent reader had archived it and reposted everything, so it’s still there to be perused. Editor Alison True weighed in to defend the decision, and in the process demonstrated a complete misunderstanding the Reader‘s true strength and source of its reader loyalty (and thus, not incidentally, its appeal to advertisers):

…complete listings are widely available. What’s not is our informed and well-written analysis and criticism. So we’ve chosen to cut back on the labor costs of collecting pure data, and the space the data consumed in print, and spend our resources instead on the writing.

If you want to know what [acts are] playing at Ronny’s for a month, you can ask Ronny’s. If you want to know which Ronny’s shows our critics consider notable, ask us.

As one respondent noted,

You misread – I wrote the listings *are a strength* of the Reader. This means something few sites do as well, let alone better.

The Reader has a reputation for accurate, comprehensive and easy to use listings since print only times…

The Reader has lots of competition for decent recommendations, and if you can’t be bothered to know what’s going on, then why should we trust your choices?

Her response? It has to be seen to be believed:

To the contrary, we go to a lot of trouble to bother to know what’s going on. We don’t spend further resources on publishing all that information.

Moreover, the change in format came with a change in release date—each Wednesday, rather than each Thursday—for no reason that was ever explained; certainly readers weren’t clamoring to start planning their weekends a day earlier. The most notable result of this was that the movie listings were increasingly incomplete, with “showtimes not available by print deadline.”

The owners didn’t respond to this problem by hustling to improve their data-gathering from local cinemas, or by finding a way to push their print deadline back to where it had always been. No:  they addressed it by doing away with the movie showtimes page.

As correspondent Melissa Sandfort eloquently put it:

A part of me responded with intellectual disdain and anger when I read the little black box on page 30 of the July 9 Reader: “In the coming weeks the Reader will stop running movie showtimes in print, devoting the space to features instead of data that can be used conveniently online.” This part of me wanted to lash back by asserting, “The phrase ‘data that can be used conveniently online’ is as awkward as it is absurd.” …

The less academic part explained: “I don’t always plan my movie-going at home in front of a computer, I decide on the fly, browsing through the Reader at a cafe, realizing, ‘My god! I have 20 minutes to get to the Music Box!'” A genuinely upset part of me added: “I tear out the movie page—one page, for cryin’ out loud!—and carry it around with me all week. One page!” Finally, the disdainful part had to get the last word in: “Whatever ‘features’ you’re planning to replace the showtimes ‘data’ with—good luck making them more convenient and useful than the what, where, and when of all the movies showing in the city every week.”

But at least a paper that’s stripping down its print version must be preparing to meet the future by strengthening its online version, right? Well, no. Remember that web site revamp I mentioned a little bit ago? It managed to add insult to injury, systematically removing or hobbling all the “convenient” online features to which the PTB had been referring people. It was implemented piecemeal over weeks, so links to archived stories came up broken and database searches came up dry. And the end result was clearly designed not to please the end user or play to the paper’s strength, but rather to make it easier to manage everything (and presumably outsource it) in a single database.

No longer is it possible to see all the movie listings on a single screen, for instance—now you have to pick a specific movie, theater, neighborhood, or day to get any useful information. From another letter-writer:

You guys are knuckleheads. The new formatting of the movies section is a mess. Where there was once easy navigation and visual clarity there is now confusion and annoyance.

Worse yet, the restaurant listings (and their search engine) were completely changed, with many of the customizable details eliminated. In particular, it’s no longer possible to do a targeted geographic search, and they’ve done away with the number-based three-R rating system—incomprehensible changes in both cases, since those features were so useful and popular that the Reader had entire marketing campaigns built around them. In their place are generic “neighborhood” categories (useless for anyone who hasn’t memorized the names and borders of all the city’s countless neighborhoods) and  generic star-based rankings.

As of July 30, they were reduced to telling complaining readers that “improvements are ongoing,” and the site is “still being adjusted.”

Through all of this, the management insisted that the real strength of the Reader was its journalism. That’s an odd claim, since editorial content has always occupied by far the lesser portion of its page count. It’s true that the paper still has the indefatigable Ben Joravsky doing terrific, muckraking City Hall journalism, and Michael Miner doing interesting media criticism in his “Hot Type” column. (Both of those veteran old-school journalists are the kind worth following, but in a worst-case scenario they’re also the kind who would in all likelihood have new jobs next Monday if the Reader vanished on Friday—in much the way, for example, that the terrific Charlie Savage landed at the New York Times when the Boston Globe began its death spiral.)

Beyond that, virtually all of the other editorial content is syndicated columns (e.g., Dan Savage’s “Savage Love”), the sort of thing it really is just as easy to find online.

Beyond that? Take a look at the site for Creative Loafing’s “home” paper in Tampa, and you’ll get a taste of the kind of feckless content that may have been in the Reader‘s future. More than a taste might be bad for your digestion, though.

That future has been sidestepped, however, by the decision of Tampa bankruptcy judge Caryl Delano. Control of Creative Loafing’s properties has been handed for $5 million to Atalaya Capital Management, the New York-based hedge fund  that helped finance CL’s purchase of the Reader with a $30 million loan only two years ago. CL CEO Ben Eason put in a bid of his own, but as the primary creditor Atalaya had no problem beating it. Eason complains that he’s been a victim of a fast-changing market and a down economy, and to some extent that may be true… but it’s at least as likely that his problems were self-inflicted, the result of a fundamental lack of understanding of what made a publication like the Reader valuable in the first place.

But wait… now the paper is owned by an out-of-town hedge fund? What does that hold for the future?

My smart-ass side says that however the Reader is managed from here forward, it certainly can’t be any worse than the last couple of years. But seriously, there may be some reason for optimism. Atalaya apparently plans to make a serious go of it. As the now under-new ownership CL site reports, Atalaya managing partner Michael Bogdan

…is surrounding himself with people rich in media experience on the board of the new company. Other members include former Los Angeles Times editor Jim O’Shea…; Richard Gilbert, a former executive with the Des Moines Register, and the Pioneer Press in suburban Chicago; and Michelle Laven, formerly of the New Times alternative weekly chain and currently at Clear Channel LA.  Elaine Clisham, formerly of the Village Voice and the American Press Institute will also advise the board, Bogdan said.

O’Shea in an interesting and encouraging choice. He’s a Chicagoan, but he made headlines for his tenure at the L.A. Times for the Tribune Co. a couple of years back, where he took a stand for the value of a strong newsroom. He came on board because the new owners convinced him they “believe in investing in the industry.”

Gilbert, who will serve as interim CEO, is also a Chicago press veteran, and he reportedly

…insisted that taken from an investment company’s perspective, rebuilding what the papers offer readers is the only path to success.

“What has been made very clear is that if a newspaper is unsuccessful, its value plummets,” Gilbert said. “There is no indication that reducing the value for readers increases the value for you.”

Let’s hope that’s not an empty promise. And let’s hope that while they’re rebuilding the editorial and sales staffs, they don’t forget the listings sections. Let’s hope that when all is said and done, the Reader can find its way back to being what it always was:  the place to go to learn who’s who and what’s what in Chicago.

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4 Responses to “The slow, sad decline of the Chicago Reader”
  1. Andrew says:

    Surely things come and go, just as empires rise and fall … it’s natural.

  2. Errol Reeves says:

    I sympathize on the movie showtimes. Frankly, the movie showtimes were the only reason to pick up the Reader for about ten years. Like you, I was once a big fan of the Reader. It was packed with smart and entertaining stuff to *read* — but then it all started to all read the same (boring). I think Alison True has always been the editor — I wonder why she changed? (I wonder how she keeps her job.)

  3. Bill says:

    I think newspapers are in decline right now but will ultimately make a comeback in a retro kind of way. I for one do not want to give up reading a physical paper in the morning with my copy. Tactile feel make a difference. Diginal even with its instant advantages is a nice supplement but not replacement.

  4. Wishing you the best of luck with that. I don’t think that the X Press here in Ottawa has ever quite recovered from being “acquired” by out-of-town interests. At least not yet.

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