Here's to 40 Years of Raising Hell (and Driving Journalists to Drink)

Sep 27, 2017 at 6:00 am
Here's to 40 Years of Raising Hell (and Driving Journalists to Drink)

When I first took on the task of editing the Riverfront Times, I was six months pregnant. This was mostly a problem because everything about the Riverfront Times is tailor-made to drive a person to drink: You have no idea just how badly you want a martini until you are stressed out and excited in equal parts, unable to stop thinking about your work even at 2 a.m. — and not only denied an Ambien, but also told you absolutely cannot have gin.

The one thing that's been true about the paper from 1977 to 2017, from its founding by Ray Hartmann to the crew of rag-tag bon vivants here today, is that there is always too much news that demands to be covered and too few people to do it justice. And so you work overtime, and you fret, and you fume, and you generally always have a little smoke coming out of your ears. It is a near-constant adrenaline rush that makes most other jobs seem boring as hell.

But it is perhaps not the best profession for those incubating a future youngster, and it didn't help when the RFT's office sprung a plumbing leak in June 2015, leaving us without working toilets for two weeks. As I waddled up and down Delmar to use the loo at Blueberry Hill, self-conscious in my massiveness, I was certain the situation was untenable, but had no idea where I'd erred. Was having the baby the mistake? Or was coming back to an alt-weekly in 2015 the real error?

The truth, it turns out, was neither — I just really needed a drink. After Cecilia was born, and I could suddenly take a deep breath without getting kicked by a tiny foot, I realized how great I had it. Being pregnant sucks, kind of like thinking about the future of journalism sucks: It's all anticipation of pain, no pleasure. But taking care of a baby? That's kind of like running an alt-weekly. And running an alt-weekly — or at least, running the Riverfront Times — is wonderful. Humbling, stressful and crazy, but wonderful. And definitely enough to drive you to drink.

In the 40 years that the RFT has existed, countless writers, editors, sales reps, publishers and support staff have powered this machine. In any given year, I'd posit, at least two-thirds of them are nuts. They are the kind of people who wake up with a hangover and push through the day on a cocktail of caffeine and QuikTrip calories, who live to do what they're doing and would never dream of keeping track of their hours. They might not last in a normal office — not all smell quite right, and some are seldom seen before 11 a.m. — but they are committed.

These are the people who are happy at the RFT.

Then there are the people who strive to achieve work-life balance, who turn off their notifications once they've left the office, who have hobbies other than clever quips and substance abuse. These people will do fine — in fact, they often do better than fine — but they don't last. Eventually, at some point, they will realize they've had enough, and wonder why they're working with a bunch of maniacs without the big fat paycheck that such onerous work ought to include, and either they start openly napping in the office in hopes of getting fired or they simply quit. It might take years (this place has never been great about enforcing even minimum performance standards), but they're almost always happier for it.

The maniacs keep going.

For this, the RFT's 40th anniversary issue, I asked some of the writers and editors who've made this paper what it is to weigh in on their experiences. I didn't tell them what to write, and so I was amused when they started filing and I realized just how many essays touched on the sheer volume of writing required to sustain a paper like this. Today it's the Internet; 30 years ago, it was a weekly print issue that routinely topped 100 pages, even though the staff had just a handful of journalists. The beast is always hungry for more — and writing back-to-back cover stories is an exclusive club no writer wants to join, but everyone knows is the true mark of arrival.

And it's not just longform. The demands of breaking news are all too real, even at what remains a weekly. Two weeks ago, when Judge Timothy Wilson released his "not guilty" verdict, staff writers Danny Wicentowski and Doyle Murphy simply canceled all their weekend plans and took to the streets, walking alongside as protesters raised hell and police officers moved in with tear gas. On Saturday, they were joined by the paper's art director, Kelly Glueck, who left her office behind to shoot scenes in the Loop as riot police moved in. No one had to ask any of them. This is what they are here to do.

There may not always be working toilets — though that problem has been solved, thank God — but there is always, always another thing that's broken. As I write this, for example, I'm surrounded by a mountain of Diet Coke cans. We moved to a new office a month ago, and no one can figure out how to get someone (the cleaning people? a recycling company?) to take care of our bin. It's now got three weeks of detritus in it, Diet Coke cans and pizza boxes and empty bottles of booze. There are boxes piling up around it full of even more empties, and a sign that begs someone to haul it all away.

In any normal office, someone would take care of this, or assign someone else to handle it. But everyone here is zipping all over the city selling ads for this issue or interviewing protesters or desperately trying to stay one step ahead of the tear gas — and anyway, it's probably my job and I'm on deadline. I'm always on deadline.

The RFT is, after all, kind of like having a six-month-old baby. The paper is always hungry, always messy, always impatient for more of your time, more of your lifeblood. Who needs sleep?

And these days, we feel luckier than ever just to have the chance to tell the city's stories. Alt-weeklies in Boston, Baltimore and San Francisco have folded. In Kansas City they've gone monthly. Even New York City — the freakin' Village Voice! — has gone digital-only. Yet we are still here. We'd be fools to squander the opportunity ... or sleep through the best job we'll ever have.

At some point, surely, someone will figure out the trash situation. Or maybe not. One day, maybe we'll be buried in it. And wouldn't that be one hell of a story?

Sarah Fenske has been the editor in chief of the Riverfront Times since April 2015.