The Chicagoan reimagined

By Trevor Ballanger

Buried under years of history, a beacon of Chicago’s promising early industrialism lay hidden. Decades later, it would be uncovered and resurrected as a luxury for the 21st century.

That is until Neil Harris, author of “Chicagoan: A Lost Magazine of the Jazz Age,” stumbled upon it. Harris, a professor at the University of Chicago, said he was browsing through stacks of published works at the library when he came across issues of a magazine he didn’t recognize. They turned out to be almost an entire collection of The Chicagoan. Only one complete set of the magazine exists in the world, and is housed in the New York Public Library.

As he began researching the topic, Harris discovered that no archival record of The Chicagoan existed. Even the Encyclopedia of Chicago History had no mention of it. Upon further investigation, he sought assistance through The New Yorker because of its larger archives, but was unsuccessful finding information there as well.

“I thought that the act of forgetting was so complete as to be worth investigating further,” Harris said. “I didn’t even see a piece of stationery until very late in my research. It was almost as if there had been a conspiracy to end all memories of this journal.”

In 2010, J.C. Gabel, editor-in-chief of The Chicagoan, and Josh Schollmeyer, executive editor, took it upon themselves to relaunch the monthly magazine. Gabel took an interest in reestablishing the magazine after reading Harris’ book and writing an article about it for Stop Smiling magazine, which he created. He said he wants to make The Chicagoan accessible to a technology-driven society by incorporating several innovations. Schollmeyer said it was necessary to publish the magazine because the media hasn’t portrayed Chicago as a cultural and political epicenter.

“What really interested me, overall, was trying to chronicle Chicago’s moment,” Schollmeyer said. “The Chicagoan is this venerable—although forgotten—brand in terms of how to tell the city’s story in an elegant, sophisticated way that makes high-end journalism and beautiful aesthetics.”

The Chicagoan will be produced as a nonprofit literary magazine without an advertising model. Gabel said he wanted to avoid a model that falls into a service industry cycle driven by public relations in order to publish the long-form journalism he envisions in the magazine.

According to Gabel, the advertising model is outdated because it no longer appeals to an audience, and magazines like The New Yorker and Harper’s Bazaar still follow it because they are institutions. If they were to start today, however, they probably wouldn’t experience the same success, he said.

Initial funding came from the pockets of founder, Nathan Kirkland, a private donor, and Gabel. While they don’t have official offices now, Gabel said the Chicago Loop Alliance is working to move them into a temporary building by April 1, and into permanent housing later in the fall.

The first issue came out Feb. 12, when Gabel and his team began to promote the publication on the streets. Gabel said he wanted to help drive business to “mom and pop” retailers by setting up news stands outside locally owned book retailors and specialty markets. At $19.95 per issue, the magazine was producing $400 an hour.

Most articles will be posted on the official website,, and two biannual compilations of the magazine are to be printed each year in book form. Currently only the first issue of the updated magazine has been printed to encourage reader response since subscriptions are not yet offered due to lack of finances.

“This first issue, I’ll admit, has ‘first-issue syndrome’ written all over it because we didn’t have a budget and we had just enough money to print it,” Gabel said. “No one was paid, but the idea that we could produce something like this proves there are a lot of disaffected people who would love to [contribute].”

As a traditional nonprofit company, fundraising for The Chicagoan has been limited because it hasn’t yet been approved by the IRS as a 501(c) (3) charity organization. Gabel said according to his lawyers, the government has 27 months to respond to the application. For now, the publication has been turning to private donors and using sales from the first issue to help produce the second edition and expand digital platforms.

In response to the growing popularity of online journalism, all articles and spreads will be posted on the official website to maintain accessibility. Schollmeyer said the magazine should be accessible on phones and tablets by next fall to keep up with social media trends.

“The online presence is a very important part of what [Gabel] plans to do,” Harris said.  “Obviously, the presence of the web version makes it possible to react more quickly. I think he’s thinking of this in more broad regional terms, that it will not be simply a Chicago journal, but a midwestern journal.”

Schollmeyer said magazines like The New Yorker are successful because they don’t resonate only in one area, but take local stories and incite a response from a national attitude toward literature.

Each issue will have three sections: a literary supplement for short stories, poems and interviews; a section for Chicago based journalism, and outsourced pieces from authors across the Midwest. Schollmeyer said Chicago has produced some of the nation’s most important people and content, including the president, famous chefs and well-known art. Gabel continued by saying The Chicagoan will aid many states in the Midwest that aren’t getting the cultural coverage they need.

“Our goal is to use this as a Midwestern prism,” Schollmeyer said. “There’s no reason New York, LA and the coasts shouldn’t be paying attention to what’s going on between the shores.”