Chicago Reader co-owner gives up scrap over column, agrees to nonprofit transfer

Co-owner Leonard Goodman had accused the publication of trying to censor a piece he wrote about COVID-19 vaccinations.

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A Chicago Reader vending box in the 1800 block of South Calumet Avenue in the Prairie District neighborhood, on April 26, 2022.

Chicago Reader co-owner Leonard Goodman said Tuesday he will approve the publication’s transfer to nonprofit status and give up any control over it.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Ending an impasse that has threatened the future of the Chicago Reader, co-owner Leonard Goodman said Tuesday he will approve the publication’s transfer to nonprofit status and give up any control over it.

Goodman, a Chicago attorney and member of the billionaire Crown family, co-owned the Reader with real estate developer Elzie Higginbottom. Angry about the Reader’s handling of a column he wrote for it last November, Goodman had demanded more representation on a nonprofit board set up to take over the alternative publication.

The demand was likely to kill plans for the nonprofit’s takeover of the money-losing Reader. The fight threatened the jobs of about 35 employees, including 18 writers and editors who belong to the Chicago News Guild labor union.

In a statement that reiterated his grievance about the column, Goodman said, “We are now at the end of the road. We cannot continue the fight without destroying the Reader. I am stepping aside. I will sign off on the sale so that the Reader can transition immediately to [not-for-profit] status. I wish it every success. It was an honor to be part of the Chicago Reader.”

His statement was accompanied by the announced resignations from the nonprofit board of three people aligned with Goodman: newspaper publisher Dorothy Leavell, attorney Sladjana Vuckovic and real estate executive Carol Bell.

Goodman’s column dealt with the ethics of having his 6-year-old daughter vaccinated against COVID-19. After it was published, questions were raised about factual assertions in it. Goodman portrayed the fact-checking as censorship of an unorthodox view, while Reader Co-Publisher and President Tracy Baim said it was a legitimate editorial review, common when questions are raised about a published piece.

The column remains in its original form on the Reader website.

Tracy Baim, co-founder of Windy City Times and co-publisher of Chicago Reader, poses for a picture outside her home in the Portage Park neighborhood, Friday morning, April 9, 2021.

Tracy Baim, co-publisher of the Chicago Reader.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

Baim said Tuesday Goodman’s decision apparently frees the Reader to complete the conversion to nonprofit status and to seek grants. “This dispute puts us 4 ½ months behind in our financial plans. We have a lot of work ahead of us,” Baim said. She added that she’s grateful for the support the Reader has received from Goodman and Higginbottom.

Baim and the Reader staff had Higginbottom’s support in the fight with Goodman. The two owners had been trying to negotiate terms of the publication’s transfer to the new Reader Institute for Community Journalism.

The unionized staff at the Reader focused public pressure on Goodman, saying his demand was threatening people’s jobs and a source of journalism and commentary. The free Reader has been a Chicago fixture since the 1970s.

The Reader’s staff on Thursday held a rally outside Goodman’s Lake View East home, portraying him as a rich man threatening people’s jobs out of spite. Goodman is known to many for defending former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, convicted of official corruption.

The staff rally and a subsequent spat on Twitter drew attention to the situation and Goodman’s role in it. The Reader’s union said more than 400 people signed an online petition calling on Goodman to drop his fight.

The publication was running short of cash, although Higginbottom had pledged to temporarily cover payroll until the impasse could be settled. He named Robert Reiter Jr., president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, to the new nonprofit board and had him try to broker an agreement with Goodman.

Reiter said there had been progress but that he was surprised by Goodman’s capitulation. “I personally am very grateful for everything Len has done to support the Reader as an authentic voice in Chicago,” Reiter said.

He said the closing of the nominal $1 sale to the nonprofit should occur “very quickly.”

Higginbottom said the dispute has been resolved and the Reader as a nonprofit should continue “for years to come.” He said, “I think Len’s a nice person and I just couldn’t see him holding up that paper from going nonprofit. I was perplexed that he did that, knowing how strongly he feels about the Reader.”

In his statement, Goodman noted his devotion to the Reader, saying he and Higginbottom teamed to buy it from the Chicago Sun-Times in 2018 for $1 to save it from dissolution. “I made the investment to save people’s jobs and to preserve the Reader’s great tradition providing a space for alternative viewpoints,” Goodman said. Both men formerly had interests in the Sun-Times.

Goodman insisted his column inspired retaliation from a “mob” that led to editors considering a rewrite or taking it down. Baim has said Goodman would not agree to a revision, an editor’s note being attached to the column, or pairing it with a contrasting opinion piece.

The Reader’s unionized workers tweeted their thanks Tuesday to Goodman “for doing the right thing. We’re looking forward to our future.”

Goodman’s allies in governance of the Reader were critical of the publication in announcing their resignations from its nonprofit board.

Bell, formerly an employee of Higginbottom’s at East Lake Management, said Goodman supported “true community journalism” while others were interested only in power. “The unofficial commandment that journalists deem as their sacrificial right, their First Amendment right to ‘freedom of speech or to press,’ is the very issue that threatens to become the demise of this literary institution. This process revealed to me an undeniable truth: The Reader is not what it says it is,” she said.

Eileen Rhodes, chair of the new nonprofit board, said that with the Reader’s owners now united behind the sale, the transfer can be completed and funding can be sought from foundations. Rhodes is president at Higginbottom’s real estate firm.

She said that while she didn’t agree with the Goodman-aligned board members’ criticism of the Reader, she respected that they resigned on principle.

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