Board fight imperils Chicago Reader’s future
Chicago’s leading alternative newspaper for decades faces extinction as its board members split over the leadership of the Reader’s co-publisher and president, Tracy Baim.
The Chicago Reader, the city’s leading alternative newspaper since the 1970s, is being rocked by a dispute among its board members that staffers fear could force the publication to shut down in a few weeks.
The board controversy is preventing the Reader’s transition to nonprofit ownership —a critical financial lifeline. The Reader’s two owners — criminal defense attorney Leonard Goodman and real estate investor Elzie Higginbottom —and their board members are split over the leadership of the Reader’s co-publisher and president, Tracy Baim, after Goodman wrote a column in November for the Reader about his concerns over having his 6-year-old daughter vaccinated against COVID-19.
Higginbottom said he supports Baim, who co-founded Windy City Times and has won several journalism and public service awards, and that the other side wants to fire her. The board members tied to Goodman deny that but said they have concerns about how she handled the column.
“I am being targeted, and it didn’t start until after the dispute over that column,” Baim said in an interview. “I feel the future of the Reader is at stake.” She said with its ad revenue and donor support, the Reader probably has enough cash to last through March.
Baim said a further delay in going nonprofit threatens the livelihoods of about 35 employees, including 18 writers and editors who are members of the Chicago News Guild labor union.
When staff raised concerns post-publication about whether statements in the column were accurate, Baim said she wanted it fact-checked, with a revision or editor’s note attached to it online, but Goodman objected. The column has been unchanged and is still posted on the Reader’s website.
Baim said the board has raised no issues about her performance or financial management since she took over the Reader in late 2018. She said she has helped the Reader secure donations that include about 1,000 people who provide monthly contributions.
A resolution from the Goodman appointees reviewed by the Sun-Times accuses Baim of censorship in trying to get the column revised or deleted, contrary to Reader traditions of free expression. A proposed agenda also includes an item asking for an accounting of all Reader expenditures.
Goodman said he is not seeking Baim’s ouster nor are his board members requesting that. A board resolution dated Jan. 27 includes a condition that she resign from the corporate titles of president and co-treasurer, or that the new nonprofit board “terminate any officer position held by Baim.” Baim said those titles are volunteer positions the nonprofit board previously approved for her.
“I care deeply about the Reader,” Goodman said. “I have invested heavily in keeping it alive. The main reason for that is its tradition of hard-hitting reporting that isn’t being done elsewhere.”
Goodman said his monthly column always has been subject to edits and fact-checking, with changes approved by him, and the handling of the vaccine column departed from that practice. Asked if he is having his board members retaliate because of the column, Goodman said, “Absolutely not. This episode has been unnerving to me.”
As for keeping the Reader alive, Goodman, perhaps best known as the attorney who represented former Gov. Rod Blagojevich during the appeals and clemency process, said, “That’s our hope, that we’ll settle it.”
Baim and her supporters criticized a proposal from Goodman’s board members to add three appointees to the new nonprofit board that would take over the Reader. They said the plan, which would increase the nonprofit board’s roster from eight to 11, would threaten the publication’s independence. Sladjana Vuckovic, a Goodman appointee to the Reader board and a criminal defense lawyer, said the proposal would diversify the nonprofit’s board.
Higginbottom said he fully supports Baim. “She’s done a great job with the Reader. Print media has its challenges. She’s worked night and day to try to save this thing,” he said.
He said he hopes to reach agreement with Goodman about the transfer to nonprofit ownership. If the Reader needs additional funds in the interim, Higginbottom said he would help. “I would do that, yes, but I can’t believe Len would let [a closing] happen,” he said.
The Reader’s editorial staff called on the owners to resolve their differences.
“The delay resulting from these dangerous demands jeopardizes the Reader’s ability to continue operations. The time has come for the board and the owners to free the Reader. Let us begin our next chapter,” the statement said. It came from Philip Montoro and Adam Rhodes, leaders of the News Guild’s bargaining unit at the paper.
With no compromise at hand, the Reader’s governing body cannot approve the conversion to nonprofit status. It has not scheduled a meeting.
Goodman’s appointees to the Reader board are Vuckovic and Dorothy Leavell, editor and publisher of the Chicago Crusader and the Gary Crusader. Higginbottom’s appointees are himself and Robert Reiter Jr., president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, named to a vacant seat last month.
Leavell and Vuckovic said they do not wish to fire Baim as Reader publisher but have concerns about her judgment. Vuckovic called warnings the Reader will close a “sky-is-falling scenario.”