Dan Sinker/blog

I'm Back with Scars to Show

I was fresh out of college and needed a job. I was also two years into Punk Planet at that point and needed something that could give me a steady paycheck, but also give me flexibility to work on Punk Planet's demanding production schedule. The Chicago Reader, the storied alternative weekly, fit the bill.

Production at the Reader was a full 40+ hours crammed into three intense days (I worked out a deal with my boss that I could sleep under my desk during down times). Pay was low, maybe eight bucks an hour, but the flexibility was unparalleled. Most everyone in the production department was there in part because of that flexibility. Musicians and artists and weirdos of all stripes. It was glorious. This was in the heyday of papers like the Reader—fat on classified ads and local arts and entertainment listings—and the production department alone was probably ten of us. The whole staff took up four or five floors. The Reader itself owned its building right in the heart of River North, a huge yellow R painted on the side. The paper was four thick sections, delivered across the city on Thursdays. Times were good.

Of course, you know how this story goes, at least in part.

Craigslist gutted the Reader's classifieds business in the blink of an eye. They were slow to adapt, as so many publications were, and a lot of the wounds they took over the next few years were self-inflicted. A decade after I left the Reader it had been sold, and the thick four-section paper had been turned into a diminutive tabloid. The company it had been sold to went bankrupt a year later and the Reader was handed off to a hedge fund. Layoffs followed, because of course layoffs followed, and shit got dark for a long while. Eventually, the Reader got bought by a flashy local rich dude who had already bought the Chicago Sun-Times. A series of disheartening decisions later—including firing an editor via phone before they got on a plane at O'Hare—and that flashy local rich dude had run the Sun-Times and the Reader into the ground, and sold them both to a local consortium, thankfully beating out the Chicago Tribune who almost certainly would have shut them both down. About a year later the Reader was sold off to a different investment consortium with the goal of transitioning the Reader to a nonprofit. Of course, if this entire gigantic paragraph tells you anything, it's that nothing is easy, and that spin-off got hung up in a fight between one of the owners and the entire staff and for a while the fate of the whole paper hung in the balance. Thankfully, the dispute resolved at the last second and in 2022 the Reader became a nonprofit. Phew.

Writing all that, I'm pretty sure that the Reader is unkillable, which is great because the Reader is still really good. For coverage of arts and music and film and theater in this city, there's no parallel. For an independent voice keeping City Hall in check, it's still formidable. It's been through a lot, to be sure, and there are lots of scars to show (I've got plenty myself at this point). But it's small and scrappy and full of people that are hungry to make a difference.

Which is why I've re-joined the Reader on a six-month sprint to help turn its website into something truly vital again. The content is there (in fact it's so there that reviews I wrote back in the 90s are still accessible), but there's a lot of work to do to make something worthy of that content. I'm excited. I'm daunted. I'm ready to go.

It's nice to be home.

(Also, hell, throw the Reader some cash while you're here.)

Published February 28, 2024.

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