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Chicago Readers staff will protest co-owner’s home to try to save paper as nonprofit deal stalls

CITYWIDE – The staff of the Chicago Reader is taking its fight for the publication’s independence – and its survival – to the doorstep of one of its owners in an effort to save Chicago’s leading alternative newspaper.

The Reader, founded in 1971, faces extinction as an attempt to transfer the paper to a non-profit organization is blocked by the newspaper’s board of directors and co-owner Leonard C. Goodman. Staff expect to run out of money in the coming weeks, the newspaper’s editorial union said.

“It’s hard to overstate how exhausting, demoralizing and painful this situation has been,” said Philip Montoro, Reader’s music editor and union president.

Goodman, a defense attorney, did not respond to requests for comment.

The protest is scheduled for 11 a.m. Thursday on Wellington Avenue and Lake Shore Drive near Goodman’s home.

The standoff began in November, when Goodman wrote a column about his reservations about vaccinating his 6-year-old daughter against COVID-19. The column sparked controversy and caused a backlash on Twitter. In response, Reader co-editor Tracy Baim hired an independent fact-checker to review the article. The fact checker found 15 inaccurate or misleading statements in the column, according to Poynter, but Goodman disputed that the column contained factual errors.

The fact-checker’s findings sparked a tense discussion between Goodman and Baim. Baim suggested revising the column and attaching an editor’s note, but Goodman declined, according to documents obtained by Block Club. He said that would amount to “censorship”.

Since then, Goodman and two Reader board members have blocked plans to turn the Reader into a nonprofit, which Baim and other executives have been pursuing for years in an effort to keep the publication alive. flood, according to the union.

Members of the readers’ union published an op-ed last week in the Tribune, calling on Goodman to honor his word and release the reader.

The Reader doesn’t have enough money to last much longer if it stays for-profit, union members said – but if it’s allowed to switch to a non-profit, it can access the donations and grants it needs to stay.

“Deeply scary place”

Goodman and developer Elzie Higginbottom bought the Chicago Reader from the Sun-Times in 2018. They own it 50-50 and have invested nearly $2 million, investigative journalist Jamie Kalven wrote in a Tribune op-ed.

Like alternative weeklies across the United States, many of which have closed in recent years, the Reader has struggled to stay afloat. The Reader’s co-owners and board unanimously asked Baim to establish a nonprofit in 2019, agreeing that the board would sell the publication to the nonprofit at a later date. Baim started the nonprofit, the Reader Institute for Community Journalism, and applied for 501(c)(3) status, but the transition was delayed when the reader received funding through the Privacy Protection Program. paychecks, according to documents.

In December, after Goodman’s column, two Reader board members, Sladjana Vuckovic – one of Goodman’s appointees – and Dorothy Levell, passed a resolution to delay the Reader’s transition to the association at non-profit. The transition will be delayed until the nonprofit allows Goodman to appoint an equal number of appointees to the nonprofit’s board of directors and adopts a freedom-related mission statement. of expression and by-laws drawn up by the council, according to the resolution.

In January, the board passed another resolution calling for Baim’s resignation and a review by Baim’s independent fact-checker before the sale can go ahead.

Baim, who runs the nonprofit Reader Institute for Community Journalism with Eileen Rhodes, agreed to changes to the mission statement and bylaws but raised concerns about giving Goodman several appointments to the association’s board of directors, according to documents obtained by Block Club. Lawyers for the nonprofit have argued that stacking the board with multiple appointments related to for-profit owners of the Reader could jeopardize its tax-exempt status.

Rhodes previously served on the Reader’s for-profit board, but resigned in January amid controversy.

The parties remain at an impasse, although Goodman last week published an op-ed criticizing the Reader’s independent fact-checker, saying he is “fighting to save the newspaper from dark forces of censorship and to preserve its tradition of 50 years of embracing dissenting opinions”. Kalven’s op-ed on the situation raised questions about the role of social media in censorship.

In their op-ed, Reader staffers said that “Tackling lies isn’t censorship – it’s accountability.”

Goodman also responded to tweets from Reader staffers over the weekend, saying the issues could have been resolved “months ago” if executives had accepted the board’s resolutions.

Readers’ union members said they were anxious about what the future holds. Higginbottom, who supports the sale of the publication to the nonprofit, assured staff members they would not go unpaid, union officials said. But they don’t know how long this support will last.

“If suddenly Elzie can’t pay from May 15, I can’t pay the rent in June,” said Katie Prout, editor. “It’s an incredibly demoralizing and deeply frightening place.”

Most of Reader’s 35 employees earn $45,000 a year, according to the union.

Credit: Leni Manaa-Hoppenworth
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The reader recently launched its Racial Justice Reporting Hub & Writers Room, which focuses on telling stories about neglected black and brown communities, with funding the reader was able to secure due to its nonprofit status at to come.

But now funding of nearly $300,000 is on the line because it cannot be transferred until the reader achieves nonprofit status.

That worries journalist Kelly Garcia, who started at Reader six months ago.

“I can’t even think of possible opportunities for us to write new things about racial justice, about communities of color in Chicago. I can’t think about it because I still have to figure out if I’m going to get a job,” Garcia said. “The things we’re trying to do here at Reader, we can’t do if Len continues to hold us hostage.”

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