Chicago’s classic alt-weekly reacts to a shifting market
Copyright 2005 by Jandos Rothstein
Originally published in the Summer, 2005 Design Journal
When the Wall Street Journal brought color and a new design to its front section a couple of years back, everyone sat up. That bastion of oldstyle newspapering had finally joined the modern world, and a paper that had been close to unchanged for generations was transformed.
Last September, with considerably less fanfare, the Chicago Reader—another traditional gray lady—also finally went color, and with a redesign far more transformative than the Journal’s. There are few remnants of the old Reader’s characteristic look, which grew up along with Chicago through the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. And like the Journal’s, the Reader’s shift seems bittersweet: The new design is undeniably more functional and streamlined, but gone is a last visage of the old alternative press.
The alternative press
The Chicago Reader is one of the oldest and most successful of the alternative weeklies. Founded in 1971, only The Village Voice, which dates to the 1950s, and The Boston Phoenix (1966) predate it. It is an often-repeated but mostly untrue maxim that the alternative press emerged from the underground press of the ’60s. To be sure, early alternative editors were idealistic, but they were more interested in the potential of the new journalism—which to them meant literary and advocacy journalism, true but honest in its biases—than in fomenting revolution. The genius of the alt-weekly template relied on the then new notion that newspapers could be given away and still turn a profit. (thanks to the the IBM Compositor and other lowend typesetting systems.) And, they relied on a rather more calculating editorial formula than the assumption at The Berkeley Barb and other true undergrounds that incendiary headlines would move copies until the revolution came. (Full disclosure: Until 2003, I was art director of Washington City Paper, which is locally managed but owned by the Reader Corp.)
Alternative circulation rested and continues to rest on a three-leggedstool of investigative reportage (in the case of the Reader, extremely long-form investigative journalism). Entertainment listings with criticism and classified advertising that (at least before the Web) served as a community forum as much as a place to sell goods and services. Many alternatives weeklies continue to give away a large percentage of their classified section to ensure a section varied and interesting enough to peruse week after week.
The alternative press became a real force through the ’80s and ’90s when cities as small as Pittsburgh and Dayton became the home of at least one, and often competing, alternative weeklies.
Through it all, the Chicago Reader stood apart from the revolution it had helped create. The Reader used the unusual extended-tab format (shared with the Phoenix, but practically no one else), which was as wide as any tab but was a good 4 inches taller, giving the page the more elegant and authoritative aesthetic of a small broadsheet rather than the expedient-read-it-on-the-train feel of the standard minitab. Unlike most alternatives, which use the cover as a poster to advertise the contents, the Reader usually started its main weekly feature on the cover itself, using the top half (all that was visible when folded and stacked) to hold the headline, deck and teasers and the bottom half to start the story. Art Director and coowner Robert McCamant and later Sheila Sachs were remarkably good at bringing variety and visual interest to this restrictive presentation, relying on unusual grids, typographical special effects, a use of novelty fonts that somehow never slipped into hoaky and strong black and white photography to keep the cover vigorous.
Inside, its design had evolved over the years but was very much a product of the ’70s, when the paper was founded. The logo, with its parallel inset lines, looked as if it could have been made out of letraset scotch rule tape, and while the Rob Kelly influenced slab serifs had vanished at some point, the design had, if anything, become increasingly ornate, with half-point rules running between columns, sculpted columns, and signage with drop shadows and extreme contrasts in scale. The paper, to some extent a victim of its own success, had broken into and remains one of the few multiple-section alt weeklies—though sections two through four contained mostly arts listings and advertising. The various sections, launched and modified at different times, had stylistically drifted from one another.
The front cover is the biggest change in the new design. The folded top of the former cover now forms a complete unit. The flag is reduced to a simplified version of the Reader’s traditional backwards “R” and several stories are featured, usually with art. The half cover is probably the most challenging part of the new design, says Art Director Sheila Sachs. “I usually don’t see the art until Tuesday afternoon (for a Wednesday evening close). Trying to find four or five elements that work together is tough. but the paper looks more together because of it. We needed to let people know more about what’s inside.”
Predictably, this approach works better sometimes than others—some weeks a coherent high-impact design and other weeks a sea of disparate items. The lead story starts opposite the mini-cover, and because section one folds around the other sections, it can be confusing to find the true news start, which is reminiscent of old Reader covers, but is much more formatted.
Type use is now strictly confined to Miller and Amplitude, the new signature fonts, and while layouts can vary, the paper’s previous experiments with wide leading, interwoven lines of type and shaped text blocks are now clearly verboten.
Previously, most creative energy was expended on the first section. The new Reader feels more coherent section to section—and sections two and three offer more longer pieces, as well as browsable listings. Sections two and three start with “The List—critics’ choices of events around town,” with the section two list on general events and section three featuring music—the rock scene still constitutes a large core of advertisers and readers.
The new lists replace what had been a favorite spread of arts news in the old section one, which gave an overview of the arts in Chicago with much more visual whimsy then can be found in the new design.
As a working designer, the new Reader can make me tired just looking at it. While the old design opened and contracted, was elegant in places and expedient in others, the new design requires a uniform dedication to perfection to produce. Photographs are now arranged in grids, rather than sprinkled around the page and sized to meet production needs. A generous but fixed amount of head space can squeeze columns of text on a high ad line, and there are clearly few options for headline sizes, leading or arrangement. Because the Reader still practices literary journalism and rarely edits text to meet layout needs, there are few places for page designers to find flexibility.
Designer Marcus Villaša of Jardi + Utensil, who did the redesign owns that the new Reader is far more formatted than the old design. “It was a mandate to (make it more formatted) and a wise branding decision.”
Still, one wonders if a firm that has predominantly done magazine designs was conscious enough of the kind of techniques that can bring both variety and structure to the hurry-up newspaper world.
Because the new design is so elegant, if less flexible, those few places where the design is working less well really stick out. One of these is the paper’s habit of bracketing shorter features in thick orange bars in section one only, the unfortunate practice of setting some long blocks of text in a bold sans serif type, which has the visual effect of shouting at the reader, and a thick black line separating editorial copy and ads (a trick adapted, along with a few others, from the groundbreaking Willamette Weekly redesign of a few years ago) that is too close to the text, making the bottom of pages feel pinched. The new Reader also uses uncomfortably diminutive text sizes to fit some features in spaces that are really too small to house them.
Still, reaction to the new paper seems to be overwhelmingly positive, according to publisher Mike Crystal—and Chicagoans I talked to bore this out. The new design is “less intimidating and boring. It’s more accessible” according to Steve Gadlin, a Web master. The previous design was more pretentious, it’s now more like UR (University Reporter), or even RedEye.”
Annmarie Vanaltena, a commercial real estate agent, prefers the new look, but to a point. “From what I’ve seen, it’s more colorful, it looks more like Illinois Entertainer, (but) it’s not something I turn to first. Other resources have gotten better. I pick it up once in a while for the cover article.”
So why did the Reader redesign now?
The years around the change of the millennium were full of exuberant articles about the alternative press’s immunity to the circulation erosion that has worried big dailies for the last decade. In March of 1999, for example, Columbia Journalism Review wrote that alternative press revenues had doubled in the previous two years, and in 2000, The New York Times reported that, unlike the dailies, alternative circulation (taken as an industry) had blossomed from 3 million to 7 million during the same time that the major dailies had bled readers—and it didn’t hurt that the alternatives were attracting young urban readers, just the sort advertisers want.
Since then, the news has been more mixed. While some alternatives continue to strengthen their numbers, just as many others have hit a wall or are losing. The Reader has been particularly hard-hit, In a 2003 article on slipping circulation posted on the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies Web site, then-publisher (now executive vice president) Jane Levine poo-pooed the significance of the Reader’s circulation drop to 130,000 from a late ’90s high of 137,000. But since then the numbers have only gotten worse. Circulation now stands at 119,000, and the Reader faces new challenges from a city that is increasingly hostile to the paper boxes that free weeklies depend on for circulation, and the launch in March of TimeOut Chicago, the third glossy in the Time Out chain, which specialize in art listings and reviews. Indeed, much of the new Reader listings design seems TimeOut-influenced.
According to Crystal, the hype about the alternatives was just a misinterpretation of the data. “In lots of these markets, (New papers) had been introduced in just the last few years. There’s more titles being circulated. Older papers that had already reached market saturation weren’t continuing to grow.” Whether the alternatives are just now facing the same circulation issues as dailies, or have been for some time, it is, of course, still an issue. While it seems unlikely that the alternative press will die out anytime soon, it is no longer certain that future generations of young readers will be drawn to the print versions of alt-weeklies as they have reliably for the last 30 years.
Crystal sees the loss of print readership as a shift rather than a loss. “Often these are our readers, they just use our Web-based space finder (rather than our print real estate listings).”
Still, like the loss of the Reader’s original design—flawed though it may have been—the shift away from print in the alternative press seems bittersweet. While classifieds and entertainment listings translate well to the online search engines, literary journalism does not. One can’t help thinking that a shift to the Web represents a quieting if not a stifling of a voice that has been part of the national discourse for 30 years.