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Chicago magazine's outgoing editor: 'You can't feel like Lear raging against the storm'

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When Richard Babcock took over as editor of Chicago magazine in April 1991, it was a time to worry. My column marking the occasion began:

"We heard ominous rumbles out of Chicago magazine about the new man. 'A martinet.' 'He doesn't suffer fools gladly.' 'He's alienated everybody.'

"The art director quickly resigned.

"An eyewitness: 'He was very New Yorky, very arrogant. People felt he talked down to everyone. He thought everyone in Chicago was sort of stupid. He'd explain the simplest things over and over again. Or he'd mention some magazine in New York and say something like "Have you ever heard of that? It's a big magazine in New York." That kind of attitude. He seemed sort of gratuitously insulting to people.'

"Not until now did we realize that Hillel Levin, the old editor, had been not just liked but beloved . . ."

Despite this reception, Babcock put in 20 years on the job. Not until he resigned last month did I realize that the old editor, Babcock this time, was not just liked but beloved. One staffer I recently asked to react to my 1991 column replied:

"The person described in that piece is utterly unrecognizable to me. In fact, in almost every way he is and has been the polar opposite. A martinet? Arrogant? Condescending? No. Open-minded, thoughtful, and gracious are words that come to my mind. . . . Dick was, by far, the best editor I've ever had. It's not even close."

Other Chicago staffers said the same thing. So it's again a time to worry. The magazine is now owned by the Tribune Company, and when Babcock departed in April, publisher Rich Gamble—from the company's advertorial subsidiary, Chicagoland Publishing—sat in on a couple of editorial meetings, which was ominous, and seemed to some to be plumping for more of what one staffer called "society type, bold name, black-tie stories." A staffer confided, "There's a lot of panic, fear, and anger on the staff."

Gamble, who, staffers concede, hasn't made attending meetings a habit, didn't get back to me for comment.

Managing editor Shane Tritsch has run the magazine for the past six weeks and would like Babcock's job. But Gamble is casting a wide net. Unfortunately, the quality of the net has deepened concerns. The position of editor in chief is being advertised nationally online in language that suggests inanity isn't a barrier to employment:

"Chicago Magazine wants a true storyteller, someone who understands the Chicagoland area and knows how to capture the hearts and minds of our readers in all the ways that matter. We're looking for someone who will not only be a host to visitors of our great city but help Chicagoans understand, explore and be inspired by where we work, live and play. At Chicago, we sort through the noise and only provide our audience with the best the city has to offer."

The best is Chicago's stock in trade—the best doctors, the best private schools, the best this and that identified in service features that circle around as reliably as a carousel's Appaloosa. They're a genre, and glossy city magazines everywhere exploit it. But I wondered if Babcock had decided enough was enough, and I called and asked him. He did not explicitly say no.

"You do have to fight what sometimes can be kind of an internal weariness about tackling those subjects," he allowed. "You have to be pushing yourself and pushing your staff to approach them with freshness every time. But the reason those articles do repeat themselves is that they are gobbled up by the public. We weren't just tossing out those perennials because we didn't have the imagination to think of something else."

But the sturdy perennial isn't what builds esprit and loyalty at a magazine, and I asked Babcock what he considers his triumphs. "I think we were able to consistently turn out narrative nonfiction equal to the narrative nonfiction produced anywhere in the country—better than a lot of it," he said. "It's really an art form."

Perhaps a vanishing art form. "It's so easy to fall into old fartism," he warned, then set off anyway. "As a writer, I sometimes worry the next text manuscripts will have to be so cluttered with links, streaming this, video that, some very private connection between the eye and the text is going to be lost. But you can't feel like Lear raging against the storm. And a lot of it has to do with what you and I have grown up with in our reading habits. I still am a believer in the notion of progress. And as so many people have said, including people I respect, there still seems to be a market for the storyteller."

But as for his triumphs—

He recalled John Updike speaking at a Chicago Humanities Festival in the early 90s. Babcock said he and his wife, the biographer Gioia Diliberto, "were sitting there stunned by how smart and witty and thoughtful his speech was. His whole point was how the disparity between the wealthy and the rest of us was undermining the country. And I was so impressed I made a deal with Updike and the Humanities Festival to print it. I wonder how many people read the damn thing. I got a nice note from Updike and that was about it. I sent a copy to Bob Reich, the labor secretary.

"It was certainly a high point for me. It was probably not the smartest move for a magazine that has to deal in the marketplace. A long, complicated speech by someone even as smart as John Updike—you're asking a lot from your readers."

Not from all readers. But for them, I suppose, there's the New Yorker. Chicago is what it is. It consistently made money under Babcock, and now that he has left it to work on a novel (it will be his fourth), there is not much to say but Godspeed. "It's hardly a career," he says of his fiction, "but at five or six in the morning it keeps me busy."

One of his many champions is freelance writer Carol Felsenthal. Good friends with a senior editor who never got along with Babcock and eventually was fired by him, Felsenthal was wary at first but eventually decided, "He was the best editor any writer could have." She told me in an e-mail, "He gave me contracts to write say 5,000-8,000 words and I'd give him 30,000. He'd take his red pencil to it—he always edited on hard copy—and turn something so dense and overwritten into something readable and sane.

"He made me feel that this kind of exuberant, over the top research, the reluctance to stop interviewing and start writing, made my pieces different than other writers who worked for him who went about things in another way.

"I don't recognize the man in your column from 20 years ago."

And she went on, "Sure, people are afraid of the unknown. One of the editors on staff told me at Dick's goodbye party that they feared that Chicago would turn into a party pix magazine; the perception and the reality is that Dick fought for space for serious articles."

At a bankrupt corporation, any profit-making property will be valued for the profit. But where does that leave literature? Twenty years ago the Chicago staff could worry about the new editor. Now they can worry about everything. 

E-mail Michael Miner at mminer@chicagoreader.com.

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