Some free advice to rescue the Chicago Reader

Let’s not make this current dispute personal. The Reader is an important voice, especially for journalists of color and other often-marginalized groups.

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A Chicago Reader newsstand in the Loop on Aug. 13, 2018.

A Chicago Reader newsstand in the Loop on Aug. 13, 2018.

Ellicia Myles/Sun-Times

Like many other great Chicago institutions, the Reader isn’t what it used to be.

Half a century ago, the free weekly redefined the alternative press, becoming a cash cow for advertising and spawning countless imitators across the country. It had such an influence on Chicago’s apartment rentals that thieves used to sneak into the printing plant, grab a bunch of classified sections and sell them on the street for a buck apiece.

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The Chicago Reader changed the city in many lasting ways. It broke the story of Chicago Police Cmdr. Jon Burge and his police torture squad, a major achievement in the ongoing battle against police misconduct. The Reader also boosted the arts and deserves a share of the credit for Chicago’s place as a hotbed for theater.

A couple decades ago, the internet diminished the Reader’s value to advertisers, and the weekly was passed from owner to owner to owner to owner to owner to owner.

Now an attempt to position the Reader for the future is in danger. Co-publisher Tracy Baim spearheaded efforts to convert the Reader to nonprofit status so it could stand on its own without relying on more cash infusions from its current owners, Elzie Higginbottom and Len Goodman. And everything seemed on track to do that by now.

That is, until a dispute erupted over an essay that Goodman wrote in the Reader in November questioning COVID-19 vaccines for children.

For the good of Chicago

The essay upset some of the Reader’s supporters and staffers, and the Reader hired a fact-checker to review the piece post-publication. That appears to have raised fears in the pro-Goodman camp about possible “censorship.” At this time, the essay remains posted on the Reader website without changes. But the dispute has led to a push to force out Baim, and the real issue now is whether any nonprofit that emerges will be under Baim’s leadership or will be controlled by Goodman and his allies.

I know quite a bit about the Reader because the publication hired me last year to write an anniversary piece about its 50-year history. I managed to get the four key Reader founders to pose for a new photo even though one of them had sued the others twice. Those legal disputes were many years earlier, and the founders put aside their differences to honor the Reader’s history.

That peace gesture makes me think that it can be done again now with a new set of feuding Reader stakeholders.

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I don’t know much about Goodman, except that he’s a lawyer who has represented felonious former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and that he generously financed the Reader when it needed his money to survive.

I do know Baim. Even before I met her four years ago, I was a fan. I had watched her tireless efforts as a driving force in Chicago’s LGBTQ media, with Windy City Times and Outlines. I knew that keeping a start-up publication going was an arduous chore. And I liked her independence and regard for the facts. For example, she documented that Barack Obama, then the subject of overwhelmingly positive coverage in Chicago, had been disturbingly slow to embrace gay rights. She didn’t rip Obama. She just carefully reported the facts.

And in addition to helping save the Reader from the scrap heap, Baim has created the Chicago Independent Media Alliance, which supports small publications. Baim is a grown-up, and I’m sure she hates the personal turn that this dispute seems to have taken.

So let’s not make it personal. Let’s do what’s best for Chicago, which is a Reader led by Baim and supported by Goodman if he chooses. Surely Goodman can see that publications don’t run on money alone. They run on the talent and dedication of individuals. Like Baim.

The Reader isn’t what it used to be, as I said. But it’s an important voice, especially for journalists of color and other often-marginalized groups. It still matters. 

We need a peace pact. We need to get Baim and Goodman in the same group photo, for the good of both the Reader and Chicago.

Mark Jacob is former metro editor of the Chicago Tribune and former Sunday editor of the Chicago Sun-Times.

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