Still Alternative After All These Years
Springfield and Illinois Times after 35 years
September 30, 2010
A look back at 35 years of Illinois Times. The piece is as much about Springfield as it is about the paper, Springfield having disappointed the hopes for it the paper always entertained. I’m old enough now to appreciate that this was not the fault of the town, which is what it is and must be, but of our own extravagant expectations.
I don’t often look at calendars—so often they remind me that there is an editor somewhere, impatiently drumming his fingers on his desk because the article draft I’d promised him is late. But look at a calendar one must do occasionally, and last week it reminded me that it has been 35 years since the first issue of Illinois Times was published.
I well remember the night in 1975 when the first issue was laid out for the printer. I’ve not had children, and I had nothing to do with conceiving this one, but birthing a newspaper can’t be much different (for fathers at least) from birthing a child—the tension, the exhileration, the exhaustion. The difference is that with a newspaper you have to make another one next week.
The new paper promised to be merely the most polished and sophisticated of several that began to litter the streets of the capital in the latter 1960s. The World Wide Web had been anticipated by a very different kind of web whose effect on local communications was very similar—the web offset printing press, which liberated pamphleteers from the mimeograph machine.
Publishing a paper then was like blogging today, only people got their fingers dirty when they read it. Local political agitators had a paper, young African-American activists had a paper, and college kid know-it-alls had a paper. The last included me and those of my friends who believed that what stodgy old Springfield needed was a good strong dose of us. So, at an age when I should have been going to college I became a writer editor, paste-up hand, and, most laughably, a publisher.
I gave up the papers but not the appetite, so when the founding publisher of IT asked me to breakfast to discuss my contributing to a real paper, I was delighted. The original model was the Maine Times, which was one of the first of what became known as alternative newsweeklies. All such papers strove to be local in coverage, cosmopolitan in viewpoint, rigorous with facts but relaxed about style. As the name hints, they strove to provide an alternative to what now known as the mainstream media, and thus cultivated an outsider’s attitude.
The IT celebrated the local and the quirky; our natural allies were fellow local businesspeople, who shared the paper’s optimism and desire for independence. Most alternatives, had roots in the drugs and music culture or in Left radicalism. (They tended to sprout in big cities or university towns.) Compared to them, IT was and is a bunch of young fogeys, closer in world view to the Democratic Party than to Students for a Democratic Society.
Since then, city has grown out, many IT readers have grown old, and, under the leadership of publisher and editor Bud Farrar, the paper has grown up. The Maine Times closed in 2002 for lack of readers—a reminder that the most remarkable thing about the IT is the fact that it still thrives in one of the smallest markets served by an alternative paper. The alternative newsweekly proved a viable business model in same way that an old VW bus was a viable motor vehicle. It works, but only with a great deal of devoted tinkering by the owner.
If the paper has changed for the better since 1975, the city has not. Not, that is, as much as some of us at the paper once hoped, or in the ways we had hoped. Most dramatic is the ways that Springfield, in spite of its adding more than 20,000 residents and spreading out like paint spilled on a kitchen floor, feels smaller than it did 35 years ago. Back then Springfield felt like a city, with a functioning downtown crammed with hotels, theaters, restaurants, bars, and clubs. (Its fate by the way was all too accurately predicted in these pages by Mark Heyman, the SSU architecture prof after the opening of White Oak Mall in 1977.) Today the capital feels like a suburb, an everyplace and anyplace of parking lots and chain stores and generic housing tracts and a downtown done up to look like the mall that killed it.
Illinois Times had always wanted to make Springfield a better city; Springfield, it seems, wanted to make itself a better small town. Which reminds me that another thing that has not changed in 35 years are complaints that the paper is too critical and fails to appreciate the good things going on in Springfield. It would be more accurate to say that the paper has always allowed people like me to be too critical. However, there is some justice to the complaint. It is probably the fate of every paper to be disappointed in its host city. That’s what happens when one cares. ●