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Alison Draper, publisher of the Reader, has talked a little with me about the decision she and Creative Loafing CEO Marty Petty came to to fire this paper's editor, Alison True. "It was made with tremendous thought, and regardless of my personal feelings for Alison True and her years of amazing service, I stand by my decision," Draper said. "It is nothing short of a leadership issue." True "was highly successful leading the paper through years and years of amazing coverage and she carried the paper through difficult times," but in Draper's view she wasn't the person best equipped to lead the Reader into an uncertain future.
"The best and most seasoned editors are finding it most difficult to function in the new environment," said Draper. "This is a very complex job. You've got to be able to step out of the traditional silos and look at the business through different windows."
Silos? Historically, said Draper, the editorial and business sides of the Reader operated independently. "There has not been collaboration and strategic planning done together. So again, you asked me, was I looking for followship? I'm not looking for followship. I'm looking for innovative, well-rounded leadership that responds to the current and future needs of the business, not only to the past."
I had suggested to Draper that followship, not leadership, was where she and Petty thought Alison True fell short. No one who's worked here for the past several years—as ownership changed twice, as the company controlling us entered and emerged from bankruptcy, as budgets and staff were slashed, as the news hole shrank, yet editorial standards remained high and the remaining staff continued to believe in what they were doing—could doubt True's leadership. But perhaps she simply wasn't Petty and Draper's cup of tea.
Or as God once explained to Moses, the right leader to navigate the wilderness isn't necessarily the best person to lead the Israelites into the promised land.
Not that the promised land beckons from anywhere nearby. Draper pointed to the recent PricewaterhouseCoopers prediction that ad spending nationally will increase annually from 2011 through 2014 yet in 2014 still be 9 percent less than it was in 2007. In 2009 ad spending plummeted 15.2 percent from 2008, and Draper said the Reader wasn't an exception to this collapse. "The editor of the Reader," said Draper, "has to work closely with sales to find innovative ways to take our fair share of the dollars that are shrinking and shrinking quickly." She promised me that she wouldn't "blur" the line between editorial and advertising, but she would "push" it. The distinction was clearer to her than it was to me.
I'm being asked at the office, I told Draper, why they fired Alison, and I reply that I don't know much more than anyone else does, but I think she might have been seen as someone too protective of the Reader's legacy to be the agent of change needed to take it into the future. Is that correct? I asked her.
"Yes," Draper said. "It is."
True came to the Reader 26 years ago and was its editor for the past 16 years. It had never occurred to me that she'd outlived her usefulness — the idea makes me shake my head. I thought she'd tenaciously stood between her changing cast of bosses and threadbare but still committed staff trying to do right by both. Draper said she believes this paper's "core assets" — which she identified as “our distinctive journalistic advantage, strong loyalty amongst our core readers, and our rich archives"—are what the Reader must "build upon and sustain," and a new editor will do better at that than the old. I think the old editor did just fine with those assets and would have been eager to build upon them if given the resources. But I am not the new sheriff in town.
True was fired at the corner Starbucks Friday morning, at what she was told would be a brief strategic meeting with Draper prior to a staff meeting at the Reader. Everyone who attended the staff meeting walked away stunned by Draper's announcement that True was out. But it began on a celebratory note: The Best of Chicago issue had just been published, and it was the Reader's fattest, most successful issue in years, a triumph True and Draper should have been sharing in.
True comments, "I was given very clear communication that strategic conversations were to be reserved till after the Best of Chicago issue came out. Everyone on the business side was exclusively focused on making a successful sales effort. Now I think what they were really saying was that strategic conversations had to be reserved till after I was gone."