Introducing The Chicagoan: A bold new vision in print

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Chicago’s newest journalistic and literary enterprise combines a Jazz Age title and a nonprofit business model with a bold and ambitious 21st century media plan.

Next week marks the public launch of The Chicagoan, 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.”

Finding a copy of the limited-edition prototype won’t be easy. Initial distribution is planned for only about 50 retail locations in Chicago — mainly boutiques, salons and restaurants — with sales out of custom-designed 1920s-style pop-up newsstands. Don’t even bother looking for it in most bookstores or anywhere in the suburbs.

The premiere issue is divided into three sections: Tales from the City (“new journalism about Chicago”), A Literary Supplement (“short stories, essays, poems and interviews”), and Into the Great Wide Open: Dispatches from the Midwest (“a section dedicated to other underrepresented cities throughout the Midwest”).

Filling one-quarter of the magazine’s total space is a brilliant, 25,000-word account of the epic relationship between film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. Enemies, A Love Story: The oral history of Siskel and Ebert was written by Josh Schollmeyer, an executive editor at Playboy, who spent more than year conducting 36 interviews (including one with me), poring over tapes and transcripts, and unearthing new insights into the most intriguing and influential partnership Chicago has ever produced.

Although neither the late Siskel nor the speech-deprived Ebert spoke to Schollmeyer, their voices resonate throughout the piece in scores of illuminating footnotes and annotations. Even the main photograph is a stunner — a never-before published shot of Gene and Roger butting heads — by the great Victor Skrebneski. Schollmeyer’s masterpiece of reporting and writing is planned for publication later this year as an e-book.

“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,” said editor-in-chief and publisher J.C. Gabel. “Some of these things have been covered before, but they get a mention or a blurb — not a six-page feature.” (Or, in the case of Siskel and Ebert, a 47-page feature.)

Gabel, 36, was the wunderkind behind Stop Smiling, an arts and culture magazine he created when he was 19 and ran successfully for more than a decade. Now he’s taken what he learned and adapted it to new media by resurrecting The Chicagoan, the title of a spirited cultural magazine published from 1926 to 1935.

“What I was trying to do with Stop Smiling was more of a makeshift version of us trying to emulate the glory days of magazine publishing, like the '60s and '70s vintage Esquire, Playboy, Rolling Stone, the National Lampoon, and Interview when Andy Warhol ran it,” Gabel said. “With The Chicagoan, most of the stuff is going to be so well-edited and well-executed that we’re going to try to be up there with Paris Review, Texas Monthly and the Oxford American. I think the stories we'll be able to create in future issue will really be an amalgamation of the best of New York magazine, the New York Review of Books and The New Yorker rolled into one magazine. We want to capture the Midwest diaspora with The Chicagoan as the beacon.”

Lofty ambitions indeed.

Rather than seeking advertising support, Gabel has created a nonprofit organization to fund the venture through memberships, subscriptions and donations. Annual dues of $99 will entitle members to receive the magazine (targeted for publication twice a year), access to daily updates, weekly exclusives and monthly tablet-only content on the website (still under construction), download radio podcasts, and attend special events.

“We intend to cover vast swaths of the city and the greater Midwest from myriad angles and perspectives,” Gabel explained in his introductory statement. “As an editorial entity built on creative communities, not advertising dollars, we avoid the ubiquitous competition problem in publishing.”

Although sufficient funding to realize his full vision remains in question, Gabel says he’s convinced there’s “a huge void in the media” for the kind of long-form storytelling he champions: “We hope this will be a regional publication that has a national audience. I think people are willing to pay more for real stories rather than essentially veiled P.R. that’s just trying to sell you stuff you don’t need. By having no advertising, it’s all about the stories. If this thing doesn’t sell, then we didn’t do a good job.”


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