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Christopher Piatt on the future of journalism

Christopher Piatt

Christopher Piatt

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Updated: February 11, 2013 8:34PM

The future of journalism is the opposite of tax and taxes; there seems to be no certainty to it whatsoever. For a Gen Xer like myself, there’s little promise on which to hang one’s hopes for a traditional career in journalism. Which is why when I envisioned a career for myself in the magazine game, I tried to imagine a kind of journalism that didn’t depend solely on the printed word.

This is why I started my free weekly “live magazine” show, The Paper Machete.

Though it’s newfangled, the project has great historical precedence. (As the former theater critic of Time Out Chicago, I’m a sucker for theatrical anecdotes.) In the late 1930s, the Works Progress Administration operated a vast, national professional theater company. The Federal Theater employed thousands of Depression-era, out-of-work stage professionals — for the fate of live theater was then a big concern — staging plays free of charge to audiences around the United States. It’s estimated that one in four Americans saw a Federal Theater play during its heyday.

One of the most popular productions of the Federal Theater was a series of “Living Newspapers,” which were, in a pre-televised news era, sort of information pageants patched together from newspaper stories around the globe. The Living Newspapers employed scores of underemployed actors, and out-of-work journalists were brought onto the projects to act as documentary playwrights. As someone who loves theater and journalism in equal measure, the idea of the Living Newspaper was very appealing to me.

We started Paper Machete, a nonprofit, in the back corner of a friendly Lincoln Square tavern called Ricochets and eventually grew to fill the Green Mill, Uptown’s storied Green Mill Cocktail Lounge. Every Saturday, the city’s top stand-up comedians, sketch performers, improvisers, playwrights, spoken-word artists and musicians of every stripe take to the Machete’s microphone, performing variety bits about current events and pop culture. We call it “a salon in a saloon.” Oh, and we also have a very popular talking bird named Chad.

At the beginning of every week, we have no show — just talented writers and comics booked on the roster. We all gather, and everybody chooses which current event or pop culture item he or she wants to take on for that week’s show, which they then rip and riff straight from the headlines.

There’s no “I” in Paper Machete (which is really just a grammatical coincidence, but a convenient teachable moment at that). Unlike the ever-abundant Chicago storytelling showcases in which performers talk about their own lives, we ask most of our contributors to stay away from first-person prose. It’s ironic, then, that I’m doing just the opposite with this column. But as the foundation of journalism continues to shift underneath us, it’s my hope that the Machete can be a place where journalistic commentary can flourish — and where the news can laugh at itself.

Christopher Piatt donated his fee for writing this column to Paper Machete.

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