Monday, December 10, 2007
MERRY F-ING XMAS: BAD TIMES AT THE BACKWARDS R
Catesey told me this morning that the Chicago Reader just dumped four of its senior staff writers - John Conroy, Steve Bogira, Tori Marlan and Harold Henderson.
I was dumbfounded. I knew the new owners were cutting heads.
But this is a travesty - especially when you consider the writers who remain. (This excludes the brilliant Ben Joravsky, who remains the sole muckraker at the paper. Week after week he goes after the city, and finds dirt that eludes the big papers, with their resources. Yet one can't help but fear that his days too are numbered).
John Conroy singlehandedly broke the story of Chicago PD police torture back in 1990, and has kept it in the public eye ever since. His story archives are here - for the time being at least.
The torture case has finally had its day in court - one of the lead attorneys is an avid ashtangi - and the city must now pay $20 million to the plaintiffs (actually we're paying. But that's another story).
Tori Marlan is a careful investigative reporter who wrote about such things as Guantanamo (interestingly, her ex - who writes about food - has not been canned. Yet.).
Bogira's stories about the Cook County Courts became a book that inspired an upcoming HBO series.
Henderson was hard to categorize - my favorite kind of writer.
Apparently the Reader story was important enough to get a mention on today's Democracy Now! and a big story in the New York Times, in which David Carr writes:
It is as if Creative Loafing executives bought a shiny new doll and then once they got their hands on it, felt compelled to tear its head off.
Some background - The Reader is a free weekly that goes back to the 1970's and has (had) a reputation for excellent writing (sorry NYers - it was far superior to the Village Voice). Its focus was super-local, and the style was along the lines of the New Yorker's "Talk of the Town." Things started to go downhill in 2002, after beloved editor Pat Arden was fired. The paper got a raunchy resdesign that elimited a lot of editorial content in September 2004, when TimeOut Chicago came to town. In July the Reader was sold to Atlanta-based Creative Loafing, which owns other free weeklies. Many employees were soon let go, and the paper turned into a tabloid. Some sections shrank. More editorial was lost. They started paying writers (me) less for their movie capsules. More staffers were purged.
As former Chicago magazine media writer Steve Rhodes says in (on?) today's Beachwood Reporter:
...this is an age when the bean counters, marketers and greedy corporate suits have completed their victory in an age-old battle against the very journalists upon whose work they profit. This is a battle that has always existed in the industry, but newsrooms have lost by getting arrogant and lazy while remaining uneducated about the business side of their business. Instead of scrutinizing the false claims of their corporate masters the way journalists might be expected to, journalists of this era instead have absorbed the marketing values and selfishness of their paymasters while chasing off the kind of creativity and imagination that could very well have saved their organizations from the kind of doom - oh boo-hoo, our criminally huge profit margins aren't as fantastically fat as they once were - that has become the norm as actual, real reporting disappears when it is needed most.
The Reader's actual Dear Journalist memo was excerpted in The Chicagoist:
Unfortunately the financial pressures of our industry continue unabated, and I'm very sorry to announce that as a cost-cutting measure we eliminated several positions in editorial this week.
The people we cut — John Conroy, Harold Henderson, and Tori Marlan, as well as Steve Bogira, who's been on a leave of absence — are all staff writers, and as you might guess, this move represents a shift in the financial structure of our relationship with contributors.
I'm by no means a great writer or reporter, and no one has really noticed my absence from the Reader. But the letter does remind me a bit of the Dear Caca E-mail I received back in 2004 - just ten days before I was scheduled to return from a trip to India and resume writing the Days of the Week calendar (a job I'd held for eight years, and which made up 3/4 of my income):
I'm looking forward to having you back in the paper, but I think it's time to make a transition to a new DOW writer, and this leave of absence is as good a time as any to make the change. There are various reasons this seems like a good idea, not least the benefits that arise from making change for its own sake.
Please don't in any way interpret this as punishment or retaliation for your having taken time off.
One can't help but thank one's lucky stars that one didn't bite when a staff writer position was proffered back in 2003. That silly intuition - it's never wrong.
But it is interesting to read what Reader media writer Mike Miner has to say about it - and to see him try to report the story without pissing off the new overlords (the full text is here):
They're gone because the Reader couldn't afford to go on paying them their salaries -- "As you might guess, this move represents a shift in the financial structure of our relationship with contributors," True wrote. They're gone because a few years ago Craigslist moved in on our classifieds section -- and classifieds represented a huge portion of our income. They're gone because the old Section One -- the editorial section -- was for decades the tail that wagged the dog here, and when revenues fell it became impossible to continue to allocate the same funds to it.
I called the boss, Ben Eason, in Tampa and reminded him that the last time we'd talked he was saying John Conroy deserved a Pulitzer Prize. (That's a popular idea around here. He's been writing about police torture since 1990, but there's no Pulitzer for persistence, no matter how important the subject.) The first time Eason and I talked, just after Eason had bought the paper this summer, I said that Conroy was, in effect, the canary in the coal mine -- as long as he was OK readers would know the Reader was OK.
"I know, I know," said Eason, who was informed of True's intentions before she made her move. "All I've done is, I've said this is what the budget number is. This is what we’ve got to have. And it’s the same number that’s been out there since August."
Eason and Creative Loafing have some interesting, and let's hope brilliant, ideas about the future of the Reader and the CL chain of six newspapers. "It's ultimately to me a navigation problem," Eason told me. "How do you keep putting out a newspaper at a quality people expect and how do you migrate this stuff to the Web, which is ultimately the future? We’re in a fight over who can tell you more about the street corner in Chicago....."
Whatever. What I do know is that it's nearly impossible to make a living as a writer anywhere these days - let alone find an entity that will publish your work in a place where people will actually see it.
I wish them the best.