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Chicago Reporter on ‘hiatus’ following publisher’s removal, ex-staffers say

The Chicago Reporter, an investigative news source that has probed issues of race and poverty for nearly five decades, halted publication last month, according to former staffers.

Former employees and contributors to the Chicago Reporter are sounding the alarm after the periodical’s publication was “halted.”
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Publication of the Chicago Reporter, an investigative news source that has probed issues of race and poverty for nearly five decades, was halted without explanation after its editor and publisher was fired last month, according to a letter sent Friday to the outlet’s owner.

The letter, obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times, states that former employees and contributors were “distressed” to learn the Reporter’s former publisher and sole editor Fernando Diaz had been terminated Sept. 17 as the periodical was placed on “hiatus.” The latest story on the Reporter’s website was published a day earlier.

The Reporter is owned by the Community Renewal Society, a 136-year-old faith-based organization that’s headquartered in the Loop. The group that penned the letter asked the Community Renewal Society’s executive director, Rev. Dr. Waltrina Middleton, and the organization’s board of directors for an explanation while insisting that the Reporter’s editor and publisher should retain “independent editorial control.”

Laura Washington, a Sun-Times columnist who previously climbed the Reporter’s ranks and served as publisher and editor, said Middleton and other board members haven’t formally responded to Friday’s appeal or a similar letter she sent last Tuesday alongside Alden Loury, another former publisher, and John A. McDermott Jr., the son of the Reporter’s founder.

“That’s what’s so troubling about this: It’s been radio silence from the time that Fernando was terminated,” Washington told the Sun-Times. “He was basically terminated with no explanation, and at the time he was told that the Reporter was going to be put on hiatus.

“We’re subsequently hearing from board members and other people involved that there’s conversation about reimagining the publication,” added Washington, who confirmed the outlet’s reporting has been brought to “a standstill.”

Diaz declined to comment on the letter or the underlying situation. Middleton didn’t immediately respond to questions about the decision to remove Diaz and halt publication.

A trailblazing nonprofit newsroom, the Reporter’s website provides a list of nine prestigious backers, including the MacArthur and Ford foundations. As a result, Washington believes there’s still “hundreds of thousands of dollars available to the Reporter in grants that are basically, again, at a standstill.”

“The Reporter’s not in any kind of financial trouble,” she added.

However, Washington said those benefactors could potentially claw back funding if the specific terms of the grants aren’t met.

‘Movements depend on the facts dug up and revealed by journalists’

Founded in 1972, the Reporter has remained committed to using data to investigate issues of race, poverty and income inequality.

An investigation in 1982 showed that Chicago cops failed to appear in court after making disorderly conduct arrests, leading to a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union that prompted a federal judge to rule the arrests were unconstitutional.

And in 2007, a study of racially disparate mortgage lending pushed Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to file a lawsuit that led to an $8.7 billion settlement with Countrywide Financial, the country’s largest mortgage lender at the time.

Amid the nationwide uprisings prompted by recent police killings, the letter states there’s “never been a more important time for the Chicago Reporter to be actively engaged in the work it does.”

“Movements depend on the facts dug up and revealed by journalists about illegal, unfair and immoral acts of government and other institutions, and succeed in forcing change through the spotlight of publications such as the Reporter,” the letter states.

Washington went a step further, characterizing a threat to the Reporter’s work as a “painful insult” that could be “devastating.”

“The Reporter survived for 48 years for a reason — because its reporting is so important and so seminal. And, as we’ve learned in the last year or so, its cause is more vital than ever.”

In addition to asking for an explanation for Diaz’s removal and the periodical’s “hiatus,” those who penned the letter urged Middleton and the board to “create a transparent process for the future of the Reporter.”

They also repeatedly invoked the legacy of McDermott, a confidante of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who led the Catholic Interracial Council during the civil rights movement and founded the Reporter in its wake. His son, Matt McDermott, raised similar concerns about publication being halted amid the country’s latest race-related upheaval.

“With the important reckoning going on around the country on racial issues, issues of racial justice this year, we need an institution like the Chicago Reporter to survive and thrive to help make real data and real change possible,” Matt McDermott said.