Of Birthdays, Gracie Allen, and Exiles
Baby steps at Illinois Times
September 18, 1980
I wrote this on the fifth anniversary of the founding of Illinois Times. It seemed a milestone worth noting at the time, and I guess it was. As I write, the paper is nearing its forty-fourth. The achievement of publisher/owner/editor Fletcher Farrar to keep the paper that is still alive and still matters—more now than then, probably—and to do it in what is one of the smaller markets for such a paper in the U.S. cannot be over-praised.
We had a birthday here at the Illinois Times a couple of weeks ago, and no one remembered to send a card. On September 11, 1975, the IT first appeared on the streets of Springfield and central Illinois. Vol. 1, No. 1 was a credible effort, all things considered. It established many of the themes which the paper has elaborated on in the 254 issues that followed it. Its lead story was about the self-help effort in the town of Athens, followed by pieces on pig judging and residential energy conservation, a profile of Decatur politician Webber Borchers, a review of the Alamo restaurant, a recipe, instructions on how to make corn husk dolls and how to buy a houseplant, an elucidation of Montessori teaching, and three guest essays of opinion.
We made the usual first-issue boo-boos. The cover photo was too small (we enlarged it next issue), the trim color was too light (we darkened it), and we realized only later that a tongue-in-cheek letter of congratulations from New Yorker editor Roger Angell contained a not-at-all respectful inquiry about a well known Democrat U.S. senator and a certain sexually transmitted disease.
I am one of the only three survivors from the IT's founding staff. (The others are Florence Hardin [since deceased, sadly], who began as the bookkeeper and who now serves as librarian, and contributor-calendar coordinator Susan Mogerman.) Though I make my living selling freelance to a number of magazines, the greatest number of a year's pieces still show up in the IT. It is a relationship I maintain for sentimental as well as professional reasons. Five years ago I made my living as a paste-up artist and odd-job specialist, a trade which nearly bankrupted me both financially and morally. The IT made it possible for me to learn to be a journalist instead. Letters of complaint may be addressed to Editor, Box 3524, Springfield, IL 62708.
When the paper was founded, many in Springfield said it would not survive very long. IT’s immediate predecessor was the Springfield Sun, an undistinguished offset tabloid which managed to hobble along from 1964 to 1973; it specialized in wedding portraits and editorial crusades against weeds growing on downtown sidewalks. There was growing advertiser resentment against the brigandage in rates being practiced by the monopoly of Copley Press, true, but there was the example of the Sun to overcome too, plus the fact that the IT was being promoted as a regional weekly, of which there wasn't one in downstate Illinois in 1975; as a rule, small town retailers don't like to try anything that hasn't been done at least four times by somebody else.
There were other reasons for skepticism at the time, though they were not widely known to the public. I recall looking around the cluttered layout rooms during the birth of Vol. I, No. 1 and realizing with a shudder that the publisher had never published before, the editor had never edited a whole paper before, only one of the the staff writers had ever written journalism] before, the art director's background was in advertising rather than journalism, and the typesetter had never set type before. None of the editorial, reporting, photo, and production staffs had lived in Springfield for longer than three years (and only one had lived here even that long); in fact I was there mainly to show the out-of-towners how to get to the statehouse.
I worried at the time that these were defects. I was wrong. The early staff saw things with fresh eyes, and in the process reminded readers of things they'd long since overlooked. True, what was reflected in their work sometimes landed at oblique angles to reality, after having bounced off their essentially Eastern urban sensibilities. (The paper was consciously modeled after The New Yorker magazine and the weekly newspaper Maine Times.) The result was a little too much lush romanticism about central Illinois, a little too much of Paris in the '20s—inevitably, I suppose, given that we are all expatriates of one sort or another.
Under its new owner, the IT has regained its balance. The virtues of the people who now write and edit the paper are in many ways reverse of its founders.' They include intimate knowledge of the region based on many years' residence, a savvy, sometimes cynical appreciation of its people and institutions, and a refusal to be taken for fools. There is, in short, less gee-whizzing and more god-damning. Some faithful readers tell me they miss that early, innocent IT. So do I, once in a while. But while the early IT made for better reading, the new one makes for better journalism.
Indeed, the IT today is a better paper in most important' respects than the one that appeared five years ago. That should surprise no one who knows how much talent and money have been put into it. A more intriguing question is whether central Illinois is a better place than it was five years ago, and whether this paper has had anything to do with it if it is. I suspect that it is, in mostly unimportant ways, but others will disagree.
For example, our opinion pages (including staff columns, which debuted in January of 1977) are among the most popular features of the paper. I like to think that through them we have accustomed readers to a livelier, more complex, less timid mode of discourse. I deduce this from the fact that we don't seem to stir the fuss we used to when we were saying much less. Of course, it may be merely that those who agree with us are no longer surprised to be agreed with, while those who don't have learned to ignore us. Those people who used to tell us that they couldn't imagine Springfield with an IT in it have begun to tell us that they can't imagine a Springfield without an IT in it.
People usually find in a newspaper what they look for. To some readers, the IT plays Gracie Allen to the Copley Press's George Burns. But that was never a role the paper chose for itself; rather it was thrust on it by readers. Some have read in our columns a leftish programmatic bias, a sort of soft-core sixties radicalism. Others have accused us of being middle-class elitists, often in the same causes; according to them, we don't lean left or right so much as we lean upward. Both charges are true if you want them to be. Like any paper, the IT reflects the biases of the people who run it, and the people who run the IT have been young, college-educated, middle-class children of the activist sixties. The IT has no program that I am aware of, beyond the one outlined in its first issue by founding editor Alan Anderson Jr.: "We shall follow events of regional, as well as local, interest. We shall give you brief character sketches of people in whom you may see a bit of yourself. Occasionally we shall tackle issues as broad as energy or agriculture in their entirety, giving our best judgment of a new trend or an old weakness."
Ultimately the readers have as much a hand in defining a paper's program as its editors. Ah, the readers; it is one of the mysteries of the last half-decade that we don't know them better. I believe that the IT's voice has always fallen most melodiously on the ears of a certain class of exile. They are state workers, academics, middle class professionals, artists, dusty radicals from the '60s, eccentrics, and loudmouths. Some of them literally are outsiders to central Illinois, sentenced here from big cities or the coasts, but most of them are long-time residents who are outsiders only in a spiritual sense. The former are used to papers like the IT. But to those who had endured long exile here, the IT took on a deeply personal role. By giving them and their concerns a voice, we made them a community to some extent. Speaking as one of them, I count that among this paper's signal accomplishments.
Our typical reader is not very typical, a fact which gives rise to occasional complaints that the IT caters to an elite. I can't speak for the management, but it is a charge to which I plead guilty with enthusiasm. We continue to make demands on our readers. We expect them to be literate, to have the mental muscle to comprehend complex issues, to enjoy news and commentary and be sophisticated enough to tell them apart, to bring a relative disinterest to the contemplation of events, to appreciate the fact that Nothing is simple anymore. It is an elite of intelligence and concern, and the day this paper quits pandering to it is the day I quit.
One of our fellow weeklies, the Gazette-Times in Virginia, has been living since 1872 by the motto, "To fear God, tell the truth, and make money." Alas, things are more complicated today. God is beyond the scope of ordinary weekly journalism. Making money is harder than it used to be. So, even, is telling the truth. There is more than one truth to most stories. For five years the IT has tried to tell as many of those truths about the region as it could. It has been sometimes an uncomfortable business but seldom a dull one, and all in all not a bad way to have spent five years. ●