Jazz Age magazine becomes media experiment
by David Lepeska
in The National
One Sunday afternoon in mid-February, a mostly forgotten magazine from Chicago's Jazz Age resurfaced in a most 21st century way. "A secret no more," founding editors JC Gabel and Josh Schollmeyer tweeted. "Please welcome back into the world The Chicagoan."
Sold only at local boutiques, independent bookstores and 1920s-style pop-up news-stands, the 194-page ad-free publication quickly became an almost mythic object of desire. "I couldn't read my copy of @TheChicagoan on the train today because everyone wanted to look at it," local writer and filmmaker Kevin Elliott tweeted.
Friendly notices appeared in local and national media outlets. As the number of available copies dwindled, Sarah Freeman, a local artist, expressed a twang of guilt: "The roommate and I both have copies of @TheChicagoan. I feel like we are hoarding a precious resource."
Nearly 5,000 copies sold out in a month, at $20 each, shocking even the men behind the operation. "The whole thing took on a life of its own in a really great, wonderful way," Schollmeyer said during a joint interview with Gabel. "Now we have to go out and make it a business."
Their experiment - building a newfangled, non-profit media outlet fronted by a biannual print magazine - is sure to be closely watched. For now, observers are mainly applauding the creation of a throwback publication in a throwaway age.
"So much has been lost in the print world that it's really refreshing and encouraging to see some brilliant, young, media-savvy guys get together and say, 'Let's try it this way'," says Robert Feder, a respected Chicago media analyst.
The tale of the original begins in 1926, with Chicago at its economic peak. Stockyards butchered 20 million animals a year. The city's population ballooned. Skyscrapers began to crowd the Loop, home to the world's largest building and its largest hotel.
Slums, squalor and racial conflict festered, too, and in the era of Prohibition, the gangster Al Capone held the city's newsmen in thrall. Enter The Chicagoan, published every two weeks in top hatted-trim and looking to counter "Hog Butcher to the World" and den-of-vice stereotypes with sophistication and high-mindedness.
Editors came and went and the writing often fell short of the high standard set by The New Yorker, founded the previous year and The Chicagoan's obvious model. Yet its art matched that of any contemporary, particularly the cover images.
One 1927 story examined Chicago as the capital of bootlegging, detailing the "multitude of blind pigs, speakeasies, drinking clubs and booze joints which harass the peace of the Second City". But as the years passed, the magazine, full of writing errors, attracted few noteworthy contributors. Readership declined as its editors chose to ignore the Great Depression and focus on what books to read, where to eat and shop.
In late 1933, Esquire appeared. Its first issue, marked by an urbane intelligence and work from Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos and Dashiell Hammett, sold more than 100,000 copies. Its second issue quadrupled that, and 16 months later, in April 1935, The Chicagoan closed.
Six decades on, the cultural historian Neil Harris stumbled across nine dusty volumes with "The Chicagoan" on the spine in a library at the University of Chicago, where he teaches. Struck by the magazine's artwork and seriousness, he looked it up and found no record.
"It was unknown," recalls Harris. "I'd been in Chicago for a few decades and had never heard about the magazine."
Harris and his wife worked for two years putting together a gorgeous, 400-page volume, The Chicagoan: A Lost Magazine of the Jazz Age, published in 2008 by the University of Chicago Press. It reproduces one 1927 issue in its entirety, along with 80 full-sized cover images, and retells the magazine's history.
The tale soon reached JC Gabel, editor of Stop Smiling, a respected arts and culture magazine he launched at 19 years old in 1995. He wrote an essay about The Chicagoan, which never ran: in early 2009, Stop Smiling stopped printing, and Gabel took to freelancing. "I got out there and the marketplace was terrible," he recalls. "Everything became advertorial service industry slop."
In January 2010 he met with Harris, a media-world acquaintance, and talk turned to the failure of Chicago media outlets to run important, deeply reported stories. "Almost in jest we were like, 'Let's just restart The Chicagoan'." says Gabel. "It seemed like a pipe dream, but we talked to some friends in the media and all of them were enthusiastic about the idea."
Harris had exhumed and dusted off the corpse. Gabel began updating and reanimating it. At the urging of a friend he met with Schollmeyer, who directs digital content for Playboy and had also been bemoaning the decline of journalism in Chicago.
The two began to envision a smartly written and well-produced print publication with a strong online presence, and sought advice from the sages of Chicago media. "They were talking about using the highest stock paper, the best reporting and photos, printing long-form stories, getting the rights to some publication from the 1920s," Feder laughs, recalling an early 2010 meeting with the duo. "I thought to myself, 'If this ever makes the light of day, I'll be amazed'."
With a dusty, 1929 drawing of an old-time news-stand on the cover, the first issue contains 26 stories, including fiction and poetry, a profile of a local jazz musician and a look at atomic-age postcards.
There may be a few clunkers in the bunch, but Schollmeyer's 48-page oral history of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert - the Chicago film critics who became national treasures - more than offsets the price of admission. The 26,000-word article, which required more than a year of work, interlaces 50 interviews with key players to tell the story of the critics' combative relationship.
It exists mainly because Schollmeyer refused to accept the 3,000-word limit offered by local publications when he first shopped it around. The e-book, released in March, climbed into the top 120 sellers on Amazon and became a Kindle bestseller. "It's a masterpiece," says Feder, who is among those quoted in the story, "and it would not have seen the light of day in any other media."
But precisely what sort of medium is The Chicagoan? Certainly it is not its predecessor. The original focused on the high life. The revival is an intelligent response to a preponderance of similar content today. The first was born in the city's salad days, the second in tough economic times, with journalism at death's door.
The new Chicagoan also represents an embrace of two related but divergent trends. The rise of n+1, McSweeney's and Intelligent Life - all featuring smart, long-form writing and marketed as stylish objects with lasting value - testify to the first.
The second is an unavoidable reality of 21st-century life. "Everybody says, 'Why don't you just do the print thing and make it very bespoke and stick with that?'" explains Gabel. "That would be walking around with blinders on."
In November, the editors plan to publish their second issue and offer a $99 annual membership that includes two print issues plus access to web-exclusive stories, a monthly tablet-only article and public events. Their app will arrive around the same time, with a blog-laden website due next spring.
But Gabel and Schollmeyer are in no hurry. Printing the first issue and registering as a non-profit organisation cost nearly $50,000, paid for by donations from board members and staff. Now broke, they realise their vision needs time to take root and plan to launch fundraising efforts this month.
Contributors, staffers and bills require payment. "This has to be done very carefully or it becomes a boondoggle as a non-profit," says Gabel. "Look at what happened to CNC."
The week The Chicagoan launched, the Chicago News Cooperative, a three-year-old non-profit media experiment and partner of The New York Times, announced it would cease operations. CNC had sought to build an online portal for sharp local reporting. Schollmeyer, who made his name by turning the little-known Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist website into a national award-winner, is confident The Chicagoan can better navigate the shoals of 21st century journalism.
A March report from the Investigative News Network found that 75 per cent of all non-profit news efforts fail in their first year, in part due to poor planning and a poor grasp of new technologies. Those that succeed tend to grow at a modest rate and accept little foundation funding.
The Chicagoan may be on the right track. But CNC's demise remains a hurdle locally. "When we go to cultural institutions looking for funds, there's no way anybody's going to take the risk," says Gabel. "The money we need is not astronomical, but we're only going to do this if we can do it for real."
Gabel estimates The Chicagoan, which recently moved into sponsored office space in the city's Loop, would be sustainable with 20,000 annual $99 members, in addition to grants, subscriptions, sales and donations.
The editors claim to be "platform agnostic", or willing to embrace any format that works. "We want to do long-form, new journalism with high-end short fiction and break new voices about Chicago and the Midwest," says Schollmeyer. "That's our mission; how we get to you doesn't really matter."
Whether it ends up as a website that runs monthly e-stories, an irregularly published literary journal or something else entirely, its creators intend to stick to that mission.
This city has produced several noteworthy media outlets: Esquire and Playboy many decades ago; The Baffler, This American Life and Stop Smiling more recently. This summer, the satirical publication The Onion is moving to Chicago from New York.
Like the editors of that multi-platform outlet, Gabel and Schollmeyer are conscious of their brand. They understand their fanbase, its lust for a locally focused publication crafted with care.
They saw it firsthand a few months ago. "I can promise you that spirit we created will never be co-opted," says Schollmeyer. "If that means we only do one of them, so be it. It's going to be pure and beautiful and pristine."
ran in The National on June 19, 2012