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Fear and Loafing on the way to moguldom

We're not a media giant, but among the midgets, we are gargantuan

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Michael Miner has been kicking around Chicago's news biz since the '70s. His media columns shoot straight. He writes without fear or favor, which is as it should be, but all too often isn't.

Miner knows that in a few short years the media have traveled from the calm seas of easy profits and predictable challenges into a tempest of digital uncertainty. He speaks of how his newspaper, the Chicago Reader, during its "heyday" was so flush with cash and space it ran stories that, when submitted, sprawled across 100 typewritten pages. That's roughly six times longer than the lengthiest article nowadays in Creative Loafing.

As the Columbia Journalism Review commented last week -- on Rupert Murdoch's all-but-certain assimilation (resistance is futile) of the Wall Street Journal, but applicable to all newspapers -- "Great stories ... require talented, forceful and occasionally odd individuals operating in an environment where they feel they are, more or less, free to do what they do."

The sad fact is those odd individuals are endangered. Investment bankers have little patience for coddling temperamental (and expensive) journalists.

For Miner, such considerations aren't abstract. He regards me -- and the rest of the CL crew -- with wariness. On July 24 we bought the Reader and its sister, the Washington City Paper.

"We have a sense of ourselves, built over many years, as muckrakers," Miner sighs. "I'm not sure we will still be able to rake muck any longer. That has ratcheted up the anxiety here."

To say OUR CEO, Ben Eason, hasn't been welcomed like Jesus arriving in the Second City for the Second Coming would be an understatement.

"[S]ounds like this guy is interested in one thing and one thing only: making $$$," wrote "not so sure" in a comment on Miner's blog.

In Washington, the "DCeiver" blogged: "someone bought the City Paper, so now it's poised to become like the sort of crap New Times Media excretes on the sidewalk, but a whole lot lamer." New Times -- aka Village Voice Media -- is the nation's largest alternative chain. As it gobbled up papers, including the alternative granddaddy Village Voice, its cookie-cutter approach has run off talent and scuttled nationally respected commentary in favor of hyperlocal trivia.

Of course, cookie-cutterism is afoot at CL, too. The Reader's trademark three folded sections will be standardized with other CL papers as a one-section tabloid (although apparently that was planned before the merger).

Our own staffs are uneasy. We may tilt left, but we're awfully damn corporate in many ways. The fellows at the top occasionally are oblivious to the serfs. Example: Part of what will enable the new deal to work is consolidating design and production in Atlanta, which means cutting jobs in Washington and Chicago. The people whose paychecks are vaporizing learned the bad news by reading it in the Crain's Chicago Business newspaper. That was clumsy.

But I'll say this for Eason: He believes alt-weeklies can help readers strengthen their communities. I work at CL because as the rest of the media world was turning to shit in the 1990s, alternative newspapers offered many scribes the last best hope to craft honest journalism.

Eason loves to see controversy in his newspapers. He admits mistakes, takes risks and has an ambitious vision for new media. His lieutenants often disagree with him; he listens ... sometimes. I ranted in print in 2000 about our partnership with Cox Newspapers when Eason bought the family business from his mother. Eventually, he agreed. We felt that Cox, which owns the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, was using its position within CL to undermine us; we escaped from the Coxopoly with only minor (but expensive) lacerations.

Like many alternative publishers, Eason shies away from national politics. I believe we live in tumultuous times, and that the would-be totalitarians now running this country aren't going to relinquish power easily. That critically concerns our readers -- people who are educated and energetically involved in politics and life -- as much as where to have a good meal, see a flick or hear the hottest band. The pathetic failure of the mainstream media in covering George Bush, the Iraq war and the disintegration of the American dream presents opportunities for the alternative media to excel as the "gateway of connectivity" (as Eason might put it) for our readers. We were the dissident press a generation ago; we should reprise that role today.

But it would be as misleading to describe CL's purchase of the Chicago and Washington papers as an idealistic foray as it would be to cast it as a hostile takeover of independent papers that could have carried on without facing up to change.

The merger stems from a broader crisis in the publishing business. The Reader's profits had evaporated. It didn't have a game plan to attract young readers who are shunning print.

As terrible as it will be to lay off production staff in Chicago and D.C., CL can build profitability through efficiencies in printing and support operations. And the idea is that advertising sales will be bolstered by offering access to three of the nation's top 10 markets.

The high hurdle is to make money without eviscerating our edgy approach to news, analysis and criticism.

At substantially more than $40 million a year in revenues, we are twice as big as two weeks ago. We have twice the readers at 1.4 million a week. And, with close to 11 million Web hits each month, we've trebled that audience.

That hardly makes Ben Eason a mogul in the class of Faux News' Murdoch. The major difference isn't size, however; it's the values we hold. We are passionate muckrakers. I just hope Eason and the rest of us at CL comprehend that our shiny new national media organization is a treasure and a trust as well as a balance sheet. If we do, we'll have a new heyday.

FULL DISCLOSURE: John Sugg is a shareholder in Creative Loafing. He says: "That means, with the new acquisitions, I own a helluva lot more debt."

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