I heard the other day from Gary Dretzka, who was reacting to the troubles and apprehensions at the Reader. "I haven't the foggiest idea what could be done with the Reader that wouldn't cost lots of money and wasn't labor intensive," he wrote. "Dumbing a product down requires more work than one would think possible."
Nobody at the Reader has said dumbing down is a consideration. Even so, in the current media climate, writers and editors of any journal such as the Reader that regards itself as resolutely antidumb feel they're marching into a stiff headwind.
So I wrote Dretzka to say it sounded as if he had an important message to impart, and I asked him to elaborate.
Dretzka used to be the Tribune's features editor. In the mid-90s he was sent out to LA to cover the entertainment industry. Then he and his paper acrimoniously parted ways. He's stayed in LA and we've stayed in touch.
"Remember that I'm just spitballing here," Dretzka began. "If memory serves, the concept of 'dumbing down' (a.k.a., re-branding) didn't come into play until the almost concurrent arrivals of USA Today, CNN, People magazine and Entertainment Tonight. USA Today and CNN came out of nowhere, but it's worth recalling that People had a distinct identity within a diverse family of publications, while the mandate of E.T., under Jim Bellows, was to use journalistic techniques to cover the entertainment and celebrity industries. The latter experiment ended when it was decided Mary Hart's legs attracted more viewers than box-office exposes.
"The backers of USA Today and CNN failed to see a profit for several years, but they had deep pockets, great patience, conscripts available to work for peanuts, and the huge egos of their founding fathers. Ted Turner and, to a lesser degree Gannett's Al Neuharth, wanted desperately to be taken seriously by the same mainstream-media types who couldn't contain their smirking and snarking. Now, they're considered to be visionaries.
"Turner, though, already owned the cable infrastructure he would need to launch CNN [in 1980] and Headline News , as well as sufficient broadcast talent for staffing. Even so, it wasn't until that little girl [Jessica McClure] fell down a well in Texas [in 1987] and CNN covered the rescue wall-to-wall, did average viewers begin to pay attention. (Tienanmen Square would convert everyone else.) It wasn't news, exactly, but the masses ate it up. This kind of turn-on-a-dime coverage made stars of news anchors—Bernie Shaw and Bobbie Battista, still the homeliest anchor to achieve fame—and reporters who were getting paid a tenth of what their network peers earned. That meant, if it wanted to, CNN could hire five times the number of reporters and anchors, cover five times the number of events (or triple-team coverage), create five times the number of headlines, and still anticipate the day when the network turned a profit."
"CLTV was built on the same model, with conscripted Tribune journalists, a minimum-wage full-time staff and the intention to service the suburbs ahead of the city, which, theoretically, could still be handled by the paper's 'volunteers.' I distinctly remember the event that demonstrated how unprepared CLTV was to compete with the local affiliates: it was the [Brown's Chicken] massacre. . . . It was the kind of thing that transfixed viewers . . . but CLTV was conspicuous with its absence.
"USA Today still depends on tourists and bulk sales/giveaways at hotels for high circulation numbers. At first, Gannett actually drafted employees from chain papers and forced them to move temporarily to Washington, where they were housed in 'stay-free mini-pads.' I don't know if they even got a cost-of-living stipend, altho it seems likely. (Eventually, reporters began to enjoy working in a Major League town and stayed willingly.) It was the sports section that actually created the paradigm shift among newspapers, though. It deluged fans—especially those tourists and part-time residents in towns with hideously inadequate newspapers—gamblers and rotisserie-league junkies with as many reports, columns, stats, grafs, box scores, state-by-state bits and photos as they could digest poolside. Color photography had marginal impact, I think, but the color-coded logos and headings really helped navigation and had great subliminal affect. (Walking thru an airport, I could spot from 50 feet a leftover section that I wanted to read—but wouldn't buy—simply by its color.)
"Even 30 years later, the mainstream media is trying to draft behind the success of CNN and USA Today, only without paying the freight of a large staff or increased coverage. Everybody in the newspaper world fell in love with color—no more so than Tribune editors—but I don't think it brought in a single new subscriber..."
Dretzka spent a couple of paragraphs recalling what, in his view, was the baleful effect of USA Today on the Tribune. Then he got to the matter at hand.
"What does all this blather have to do with the Reader? If I'm reading [publisher Alison] Draper right, what she wants is for younger people to look at Reader honor boxes and think, 'Gee, that doesn't look like my parents' weekly ... let's go to Starbucks and flip through the ads.' This could also be achieved with a Reader app, but c'mon, too much else would have to be sacrificed ...
"Can Draper and her lieutenants succeed in their efforts to re-invent, re-energize and re-brand [the Reader]? Can any editor convince the company to provide the manpower necessary to retain the 'core' product and add the kind of snappy copy and design every new-age editor now demands? These journalists don't grow on trees or the coat racks of j-schools ... I'm not even sure Onion-style writing is or could be taught. One either has it or they don't.
"I'm pretty sure that magazine editors and publishers look at shows like TMZ and the gossip tabs with great envy. They're generating headlines and beating the MSM, after all. Watch TMZ carefully, however, and you'll see an infrastructure that affords a small army of young, savvy, underpaid, overworked and likely amoral reporters; definitely amoral and highly compensated photographers and videographers; a network of freelancers in every celebrity port-of-call; and a vigorous marketing team. The Enquirer and Star pay their staffs and freelancers extremely well and have a substantial war chest available to buy information. Can the same be said of Creative Loafing?
"In short, you get what you pay for. Look at the Gawker family: the affiliated sites produce a ton of highly readable, mostly accurate, snark-heavy copy—rewrites and fresh stuff—but the staff turnover is extremely high; reporters' pay is based on hits; and the good ones don't seem to have trouble landing gigs at better-paying companies. Its bosses, too, whine of not being profitable enough.
"So, forget about doing it on the cheap. If all one aspires to do, however, is compete with Red Eye and TimeOut ... sure ... but you're betting on the come that your advertisers will continue supporting an inferior product, when circulation dips even further. If the editor is committed to a closer examination of neighborhood issues and events, an Internet-style network of barely paid freelancers would have to be gathered, as well as several more copy editors to fact-check and put the stuff into English. Talk about time-consuming and labor-intensive. Even if it's determined that the longer articles could take a trimming, something would have to pick up the slack ... and, yes, that would cost money, too, or a palpable reduction in size ..."
Dretzka had specific suggestions to make, some of which suggested to me he no longer closely reads the Reader. He'd rehire John Conroy "in a heart beat." He'd add a "killer restaurant critic"—I think Mike Sula fills that bill—and a movie critic with the "same profile as previous writers." But movie critics prior to Jonathan Rosenbaum made their reputations at the Reader, and J.R. Jones is doing the same. More usefully, perhaps, Dretzka proposed "someone able to cover the college scene with diligence and flair; and a gossip columnist/blogger with razor-sharp teeth and tentacles that reach into the cultural, political, sports, fashion and nightlife communities."
And he added, regarding something that the Reader, for better or worse, has never paid attention to, "I'm pretty sure, as well, that the celebrity craze is beginning to reverse itself, as well ... not that Chicago will have any when Oprah's gone and Blago's in stir...
"No one's doing it well enough to make lots and lots of money in print, anymore, or on the Internet, which continues to resemble Great Salt Lake ... vast, but shallow. Greed and fear continue as the driving principles for publishers and investors, while survival is the motivation for everyone else. It will be interesting to see who [Draper] hires as the new editor and what commitments are made to him/her. If an increased budget and new hires aren't included in the deal, that person can't be expected to succeed any more than Alison was, no matter how dumb the Reader gets.
"I may be wrong, but any city whose sports fans have steadfastly refused to do the Wave certainly isn't going to accept an MTV version of the Reader."
Note to self: Find out if Chicago fans still won't do the Wave.