Journalists and Friends Rally to Save the Chicago Reader

Current and former staff of the Chicago Reader, alongside friends and fans of the 51 year-old independent Chicago alt-weekly, members of organized labor, and others rallied in front of Reader co-owner Len Goodman’s mansion in Lakeview on Thursday, imploring him to allow the publication to complete its transformation into a nonprofit. 

Goodman, a criminal defense attorney, and real estate developer Elzie Higginbottom, purchased The Reader from the Sun-Times in 2018 for $1 and assumed its debt and operating expenses. The same year, Tracy Baim, who took over as publisher, created a plan to transition the publication to a nonprofit. That process has since stalled due to the fallout over a column written by Goodman titled “Why I’m not rushing to get my six-year-old the COVID-19 vaccine.”

Goodman’s column reads something like what can be found on any number of garden variety outlets that push dubious claims about COVID and vaccinations. According to Poynter, management at The Reader hired an external fact-checker that found 15 inaccuracies or misleading statements in his column. Goodman however, disputes the fact-checkers' findings. According to documents obtained by Block Club Chicago, Baim suggested revisions and an editor’s note, which Goodman not only rejected, but likened to “censorship.” Goodman and one of his board appointees delayed the sale and made additional demands, including three extra seats on the nonprofit board and Baim’s resignation. 

Photo by Aaron Cynic

Goodman told Poynter:

“There’s so few spaces for dissent or nonconforming opinions in the press. That’s one of the reasons why I invested in the Reader because it’s always had a place where you could say things that were unpopular and say things that would make people in power uncomfortable. We want to make sure that the not-for-profit will respect that tradition.”

Goodman’s column remains up in its original form, and many opinions similar to those expressed within can be found on the largest cable news channel in America and the number one podcast on Spotify, not to mention being shared regularly by plenty of politicians on levels both national and local. 

The Reader’s editorial union says without the ability to transition to a nonprofit, the paper could be out of money in weeks. 

Outside Goodman’s mansion, the crowd of about 100 chanted “free The Reader” and “Len Goodman has got to go.”

Photo by Aaron Cynic

“This legacy should not be sacrificed at the hands of someone who does not understand the difference between censorship and journalistic integrity,” said Yasmin Zacaria Mikhaiel, Audience Engagement Manager at The Reader. “We implore Len Goodman to free The Reader in order to save The Reader. Save this legacy and save the jobs of 35 brilliant staff who are responsible for its continued rigor and grit.”

Reader reporter Kelly Garcia, currently the sole reporter for the grant-funded racial justice reporting hub and writers room for the Reader, called the delay “a Len Goodman-made crisis.”

“The racial justice reporting hub can’t stand on the shoulders of one person. I was promised an editor and more writers, but we have not been able to do that because we’re dealing with a man-made crisis, a Len Goodman-made crisis,” Garcia told the crowd. “If we don’t transition into a non-profit, our grant-funded racial justice reporting hub and writers room will not happen, and I could possibly lose my job.” 

"Len, you are preventing us from welcoming a new generation of writers who are eager to offer fresh new perspectives, which contradicts your claims about censorship,” Garcia added. “You’re only worried about your entitled and dangerous views that have long been the standard in journalism.”

Chicagoans, including members of the journalism community, politicians, and union organizers, also spoke in support of the staff, and recalled their experiences and interactions with the publication over its more than half-century existence. 

“The Reader takes a chance on diverse writers and reporters who often don’t get a chance in other places. I’m one of those reporters,” said Tiffany Walden, editor-in-chief of the Triibe. “When I moved back to Chicago, despite years of experience covering breaking news and going to Medill and spending all that money, I couldn’t get any job at an outlet in Chicago, I couldn’t get a break when I moved back to Chicago. I pitched a story to Phillip and he let me do it. That was the first time I was able to pitch a story in Chicago and get paid for it… Without The Reader, Chicago would be a much harder place for diverse voices to get their shot in media.”

"What makes Chicago a great city is not how tall the skyscrapers are built by insurance companies," said Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey. "What makes it a great city are the people who've had to fight and organize to preserve their dignity."

Chicago Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa said that The Reader helped him both find his community as a young queer man, and that the publication’s former section called “Clout City” helped shape his policies regarding TIFs in Chicago. “I can tell you that I don’t think that I would be standing here today as an alderman, leading some of the fights against TIF if it were not for that column in the Chicago Reader,” said Ramirez-Rosa. 

"I'm sure every single person here has a story or stories of how the Chicago Reader has impacted their life,” he added. “Made them richer, made them better."

Photo by Aaron Cynic

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Aaron Cynic