The Chicagoan (An Editor's Entreaty)

Thursday, April 12, 2012


The Chicagoan is a new media company/publication (which—full disclosure—I’m an editor for) generating buzz for an innovative approach to funding and long-form storytelling.

I’ve been thrilled to contribute to this publication (with many talented others; check the masthead here), because the mission is so very rad. In the 1920s, The Chicagoan was launched to compete with the New Yorker et al, in the arts/culture coverage of a city then commonly called “Porkopolis.” But, the insular society stories the mag published weren’t compelling to either the general public or Chicago socialites and it didn’t last long. (The issues were collected in a book, “The Chicagoan: A Lost History of the Jazz Age” by cultural historian Neil Harris in 2008.)

After meeting with Harris, JC Gabel, the publisher and editor behind the now-defunct arts and culture mag Stop Smiling, decided to resurrect the original Chicagoan with a new mission “to document the arts, culture, innovators and history of Chicago and the greater Midwest through long-form storytelling.”

In that, Issue 1 succeeds. Don’t take my (biased) word for it: Janet Potter at The Millions calls the stories about a beat cop and the documentary film The Interrupters “complicated, antireductive pieces.” John Dugan at the Economist says the magazine “feels elegant and built-to-last.” And, as Robert Feder put it in a Time Out Chicago article, it’s a “sumptuous 194-page magazine that carries a dazzling array of articles, artwork and photographs, zero advertising and a cover price of $19.95. A line beneath the nameplate describes its mission as nothing less than ‘documenting the arts, culture, innovators and history of Chicago and the Greater Midwest.’”

Issue # 1, released at the end of February, resembles a book more than a magazine in length and quality, and has been admired for being “heavy on design” - it's a limited-edition and sold only in independent bookstores, online, and in pop-up stores. The 194 pages include profiles about Indiana outsider artist Peter Anton, Blackbird chef-turned-social-justice-food-advocate Tara Lane, short fiction from Joe Meno, and much more. Perhaps most notably, there’s a 25,000-word retrospective of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, “The Original Frenemies,” excerpted at

Gabel noted the singularity of the length of these stories. “I’m pretty proud of all the stories, because I don’t think they could have appeared anywhere else in the city in any other periodicals at that length….Some of these things have been covered before, but they get a mention or a blurb — not a six-page feature.”

But the word counts, coupled with the fact that ads aren’t funding the project, means that even though 500 copies were sold in an hour, funding is the big issue. Gabel noted: “The next issue is still being lined up—but will likely come from deep-pocketed donors with an interest in promoting Chicago as a cultural centre.”

What’s that? Twenty bucks for a publication is a lot of money? You’ve gotten used to reading articles for free? I know. I know. Me too. But the thing is, it wasn’t always this way. People used to understand that in order to read great stories, you had to pay for them. Can I tell you what a pleasure it’s been for me as an editor to sink into a long, poignant story about burning a farm in Kansas? Or Ling Ma’s odd, intimate profile of Pitchfork founder Mike Reed, instead of charticles and listicles? This is work that reminds me why I am called to storytelling.

In the last few years, we’ve gotten away from that idea; that you’re supposed to pay for writers to do solid storytelling and I don’t know about you, but my experience as a reader has suffered; (the aforementioned charticles, copious typos, boredom). We’re even further away from the idea that the Midwest deserves a publication focusing on long-form essays and stories (think The Atlantic, Harpers), enjoyed by the east coast. I hope that we, as a culture, are starting to realize that good storytelling - the kind that transports you and changes your thinking - requires talented writers who are paid a fair wage for their work. But if we don’t, we’re going to end up with only content like this. And this. Or this. And no one wants that. (Right?)

So, if you also support the idea of telling stories of Chicago and the Midwest well and fully, vote with your dollar and buy a copy of the mag. And/or, help fund the project and tell your wealthy, culturally-savvy friends to do the same. But if you’re trying to nab Issue #1 - and help ensure there’s an Issue #2 - you might want to hustle: Bookstores are having trouble keeping it in stock and, as The Millions notes, “getting your hands on the issue became the coup du jour for hipsters and literati alike.”