"It just got harder to call the Chicago Reader an 'alternative weekly,'" Feder wrote when the sale went down. "Alternative to what?"
Everything is an alternative to something. When I was a happy camper in the nicotine-besmogged city room of the Sun-Times in the early 1970s, we thought of ourselves as the young, hip, nimble-footed alternative to the old, lumbering Tribune across the street. We were also the profitable AM tab alternative to the Daily News, the storied but obsolete afternoon broadsheet down the hall.
Personally, the Sun-Times was a welcome alternative to the tiny UPI bureau in Saint Louis where I’d been broken in as a journalist. For others, it was an alternative to papers in Milwaukee and Waukegan and to Chicago journalism’s favorite boot camp, the City News Bureau.
The Sun-Times boasted the young Roger Ebert, the young Ron Powers, the young Bob Greene and Roger Simon and Scott Jacobs. I was in my mid-40s then (as I am now), but all around me youth swaggered. But what happened in 1971? The Reader came along as an alternative to us!
We can load up with movie critics and theater critics, reasoned the founders, and since we'll make no pretense of being anybody's family newspaper, we can get away with four-letter words and raunchy ads and let subjectivity run wild. The Sun-Times might write to our generation, but we'll be its house organ.
The dailies fought back with alternatives to the Reader. An early one was Sidetracks, embedded in the Daily News. Much later came RedEye, unworthy of comparison in every way yet free and available and another place for advertisers to put their money. One of the more formidable alternatives is Feder's Time Out Chicago. And just last year the Reader completely changed its design to create a more attractive alternative to itself. The most ingenious innovation was a back cover that could be displayed as an alternative to the front cover.
So it goes. Today's Sun-Times, whatever you think of it, is also an alternative. It's Michael Ferro's alternative to a Sun-Times as dead as the Daily News.
Which brings me to the conclusion of Feder's piece.
"As relieved as Miner must feel that the Reader will survive and that he still has a job, it has to be galling to be back on the payroll of a newspaper company that fired him in 1978."
Feder misunderstands. It was galling to be fired in 1978, when the Daily News folded and Field Enterprises combined the two staffs. Rebirth arrived when I was asked, before my last day at the Sun-Times even arrived, to please stay on. Because I no longer felt that I belonged in daily journalism, and would have fired myself if the list had been mine to make, I said no. But being asked made all the difference.
That wasn't the last time the Sun-Times asked—to no avail. This time, of course, they didn’t ask. They swooped up the entire Reader and me with it. So is it galling to return to the employ of a company willing to pay me to bite the hand that feeds me? Not especially. The alternative—there is always an alternative—to dwelling on the pain is to dwell on the absurdity. When you’ve been in your mid-40s as long as I have, you've learned it's the smart way to approach things.