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Chicago Reader Staff To Protest At Co-Owner’s Home To Try And Save Paper As Nonprofit Deal Stalls

The impasse began when Reader co-owner Leonard C. Goodman wrote a column about having reservations about vaccinating his 6-year-old against COVID-19. Reader staff say the debate is about misinformation and accountability. Goodman says it's about censorship and free speech.

Reader Editorial Union members Kelly Garcia, Jim Daley and Katie Prout
The Chicago Reader
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CITYWIDE — Staff at the Chicago Reader are taking their fight for the publication’s independence — and survival — to the doorsteps of one of its owners in an effort to save Chicago’s lead alternative newspaper.

The Reader, founded in 1971, is facing extinction as an attempt to transfer the paper to a nonprofit is being stalled by the paper’s board and co-owner Leonard C. Goodman. The staff expects to run out of money in coming weeks, the paper’s editorial union said.

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

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

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

The impasse began in November, when Goodman wrote a column about having reservations over vaccinating his 6-year-old daughter against COVID-19. The column generated controversy and led to a backlash on Twitter. In response, Reader co-publisher Tracy Baim hired an independent fact-checker to review the piece. The fact-checker found 15 inaccurate or misleading statements in the column, according to Poynter, but Goodman disputed the column contains factual errors.

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

Since then, Goodman and two members of the Reader’s board have stalled plans to turn the Reader into a nonprofit, which Baim and other leaders have pursued for years in a bid to keep the publication afloat, according to the union.

Members of the Reader’s union published an editorial last week in the Tribune, calling on Goodman to honor his word and free the Reader.

The Reader doesn’t have enough money to last much longer if it stays as a for-profit, union members said — but if it’s allowed to transition into a non-profit, it can access the donations and grants it needs to stick around.

‘Deeply Frightening Place’

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

Like alternative weeklies across the U.S., many of which have closed in recent years, the Reader struggled to stay afloat. The Reader’s co-owners and board unanimously directed Baim to establish a nonprofit in 2019, agreeing the board would sell the publication to the nonprofit at a later date. Baim created the nonprofit, the Reader Institute for Community Journalism, and sought 501(c)(3) status, but the transition was delayed when the Reader received funds through the Paycheck Protection Program, documents show.

In December, after Goodman’s column, two members of the Reader’s board, Sladjana Vuckovic — one of Goodman’s appointees — and Dorothy Levell, passed a resolution to delay the transition of the Reader to the nonprofit. The transition will be delayed until the nonprofit allows Goodman to appoint an equal number of appointees to the nonprofit’s board and adopts a mission statement related to free speech and bylaws written by the board, according to the resolution.

In January, the board passed another resolution calling for Baim to resign and a review of Baim’s independent fact-checker before the sale can move forward.

Baim, who is leading the Reader Institute for Community Journalism nonprofit with Eileen Rhodes, has agreed to the changes in the mission statement and bylaws, but raised concerns over granting Goodman multiple appointments on the nonprofit’s board, according to documents obtained by Block Club. Attorneys for the nonprofit have argued stacking the board with multiple appointments tied to the Reader’s for-profit owners could jeopardize its tax-exempt status.

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

The sides remain at an impasse, though Goodman published an editorial last week criticizing the Reader’s independent fact-checker, saying he’s “fighting to rescue the paper from the dark forces of censorship and to preserve its 50-year tradition of embracing dissenting views.” Kalven’s op-ed on the situation raised questions about social media’s role in censorship.

In their op-ed, Reader staffers said “addressing … falsehoods 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 the leaders accepted the board’s resolutions.

Members of the Reader’s union said they are anxious not knowing what the future holds. Higginbottom, who supports the publication’s sale to the nonprofit, has assured staffers they won’t go unpaid, union officials said. But they are unsure how long that support will last.

“If suddenly Elzie can’t pay starting May 15, I will not be able to pay rent in June,” said staff writer Katie Prout. “It’s an incredibly demoralizing and deeply frightening place to be at.”

Most of the Reader’s 35 staffers make $45,000 per year, according to the union.

Credit: Leni Manaa-Hoppenworth
Someone grabs a free copy of the Chicago Reader.

The Reader recently launched its Racial Justice Reporting Hub & Writers Room, which focuses on telling stories about overlooked Black and Brown communities, with funding the Reader was able to attain because of its upcoming nonprofit status.

But now the nearly $300,000 in funding is at stake because it can’t be transferred until the Reader reaches nonprofit status.

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

“I can’t even think about what are some possible opportunities for us to write new stuff about racial justice, about communities of color in Chicago. I can’t think about that, because I’m still having to figure out if I’m going to have a job,” Garcia said. “The things that we’re trying to do over here at the Reader, we can’t do that if Len just keeps holding us hostage.”

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