Dino Buzzati once began a story: “A strange thing has just happened to me – an extraordinary thing – I haven’t decided whether or not to tell my editor.” That’s a chilling but accurate glimpse into the soul of the freelance writer. For the better part of the last twenty years, whenever anything strange or extraordinary has happened to me, I’ve immediately wondered whether to tell it to Alison True, the editor of the Chicago Reader. I got lost on the way to the airport – a perfect little anecdote for the Reader. I contracted a rare eye disease – during the treatment, I was taking notes for the eventual feature story in the Reader. A man sitting next to me on the subway dropped dead of a heart attack – and I began musing, “Write this up for Alison, collect a couple of hundred bucks … hey, this is turning out to be a pretty good day.” The Reader is one of the most successful and longest-lived alt-weeklies in America. Alison started there in 1984, just out of college – her first job was in the mail room – and she was named editor in 1995. She’s spent her entire career staying out of the limelight. If you Google her – or anyway if you did up until a couple of weeks ago – the only hits are in generic articles called things like “Fifty Women in Chicago Publishing.” No controversial interviews, no grand pronouncements on the future of journalism. Her byline has rarely appeared in the Reader itself; in most issues, the only place her name turns up is on the masthead. But the paper has been, week after week, a continual demonstration of her skill and taste as an editor. Many people who’ve worked there over the years have thought of it as Alison’s high-pressure boot camp in old-school journalism.
Mostly the Reader has specialized in local affairs – which given that the locality is Chicago has meant a certain preoccupation with the corrupt and the bizarrely violent, the sorts of hot-button issues that the local mainstream papers are too complacent to touch (there were two decades of stories about police torturing confessions from suspects – the ringleader was recently convicted in a federal court). But Alison has also encouraged writers to wander and experiment. I spent many years, with Alison’s encouragement, pushing at the boundaries of long-form journalism. 30,000 words about American memories of World War 2. 35,000 words about my father-in-law, a Russian émigré who grew up in China. 45,000 words about the history of my family house in small-town Illinois. Each time I’d tell Alison that I’d finally come up with an idea for a story she’d never be able to use. “Try it anyway,” she’d say. “I love a challenge.”
Alison has also put her pervasive but unobtrusive stamp on the Reader’s internal culture. Its original crew of editors practiced a management style I’d call “hippie machismo.” They weren’t a touchy-feely crowd, those guys (and they were all guys). I told one of them that I’d been writing for the Reader for years and still had no idea whether they even liked my work, because they’d never said a word to me about it. “We publish you,” he answered. “That ought to be praise enough.” Alison changed all that. She’s regularly complimented people on good work (the first time she did it with me, I thought she was being sarcastic). The Reader’s copy editors became unfailingly nice, even when they were persecuting your first draft with mosquito-swarms of nitpicks. Alison got to be an adept at the dark art of coaxing writers into revisions. One time when I was dawdling over a story, she called me near midnight and said she couldn’t go home until I turned in the revised copy. I parried by suggesting that we both get some sleep and I’d send it to her first thing in the morning. She sighed. “That’s okay, I understand,” she said. “You get some sleep. I’ll just stay here and catch up on my paperwork.”
I knew she was bluffing. But I capitulated anyway – because I also knew (and she knew I knew) that she was eight and a half months pregnant.
Alison cajoled, and nagged, and bribed, and badgered; she put up with all kinds of tantrums (my wife says she once passed by my study and heard me yelling into the phone, “I am speechless with rage!”); I ultimately wrote around a quarter of a million words for her – and I wasn’t even one of the Reader’s most prolific contributors. Some of it is among the best writing I ever expect to do. But the highest compliment I can pay to Alison as an editor is that I think the Reader got better after I stopped writing for it.
The Reader was a comfortably profitable business for three decades, and then almost overnight began hemorrhaging money (the advent of Craig's List wiped out its gigantic weekly section of classified ads). Since then, there’s been wave after wave of budget cuts, staff firings and layoffs, and the inexorable shrinking of editorial space down to almost nothing. My long-form stories were among the first casualties. There were no hard feelings (I’ve gone on to an even longer form known as “books”) and Alison has still tried to get in a couple of little pieces of mine into the paper every year or so. But meanwhile, with a ghost-town office and a skeleton staff, she’s rallied and been printing some of the finest journalism in the Reader’s history. The Reader has been running stories about Chicago’s hidden world of financial chicanery that in a just world would have earned a Pulitzer. But then, if there really was any justice, people would be talking about Alison’s run at the Reader as the alt-weekly equivalent of William Shawn’s glory days at The New Yorker.
In the last few weeks, as the news spread that Alison was suddenly gone from the Reader, I’ve been getting emails from some of the old crew asking me how she’s doing and what the real story of her departure is. I love gossip as much as anybody, but the answers are disappointing. She’s not bad, considering; and there isn’t much of a real story. The Reader’s newest owners have a new business plan (it involves “pushing at” the firewall between editorial and advertising) and Alison doesn’t fit in. Nothing personal. There’s just for a lot of us around town the soundless gut-punch awareness of her absence. It’s a strange, even extraordinary feeling. I keep thinking I should write it up for her. It’ll take me a while to get used to the idea that I can’t.
Lee Sandlin is the author of Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild, to be published in October by Pantheon.