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On Thursday of last week employees of the Chicago Reader, the city’s fifty year old alt-weekly, rallied outside of the home of one of its co-owners, billionaire Len Goodman. At issue was Goodman and his allies on the paper's board holding up the process of the Reader transferring to non-profit status, which had been a couple of years in the making. It’s a move that the staff say is necessary for the paper’s continued existence in a media landscape where alt-weeklies, long reliant on ad revenue, have struggled to stay afloat.
There was just one last weird thing to deal with. In November of last year, Goodman had published a column in the paper explaining his reasoning for not getting his children vaccinated. Much of the staff took umbrage with what they saw as an irresponsible piece in the midst of a public health crisis.
Poytner has a good rundown here, but in short, Goodman took offense to attempts by staff to fact check the piece, calling it “censorship” and whining in the ways that the rich do when they don’t get their way. An outside fact checker hired by the Reader found fifteen pieces of misinformation or misleading claims in the piece. As a result of the back and forth between Goodman and co-publisher Tracy Baim about how to handle the issue, a wrench was thrown into the gears of the impending move to becoming a non-profit, with Goodman seemingly operating from a place of spite.
There all along was Leor Galil, a longtime staff writer at the Reader and veteran a music journalist. I caught up with Galil to talk me through the admittedly confusing imbroglio. And then just as we finished there was some good news.
Great for the Reader! Less so for the timeliness of my interview here, but I thought it would be worth looking back at how they got to this point in the first place and how the whims of the rich and powerful can fuck up a publication and its employees' ability to do their jobs anyway. Also you probably had no idea any of this was going on.
Plus we talked a lot about alt-weeklies in general, which is one of my favorite things to wax poetic about.
After the news broke about thirty seconds after Galil and I got off the phone I called him back for his reaction.
“Even with this going through it’s been a real fucking challenge,” he said. “Our experience of all this is still true.”
“I am so happy and hopeful,” he said. “I’ll be fully relieved once we get word that the papers have been signed, but having Len on the record saying he’s going to back off is incredible. I’m so proud of the team here and my coworkers in the unit and out. We couldn’t have done it unless we worked together. And I’m thankful that Len chose to do the right thing, because he could have kept this going. He said he wanted to talk to us in good faith, and now we can. I’m happy to sit down with him whenever he wants.”
Here was our talk below.
We’ve all heard stories about alt-weeklies being fucked over in numerous ways over the past couple decades. But this one feels a little more confusing to me and kind of unique. It also feels like it touches on most of the main media topics of the past couple years: Vaccine skepticism, so-called censorship, the rich trying to frame themselves as put-upon victims. Can you lay out the broad strokes of the conflict here?
I’ll have to do a little background if you don’t mind. In the fall of 2018, Len Goodman, who is part of the Crown billionaire family, one of the wealthiest families in Illinois, I believe, and Elzie Higginbottom, who is a landlord for lack of better terms, bought the Chicago Reader from the Chicago Sun-Times, which had owned the paper since around 2011. They bought the paper for $1, basically to get it out of disrepair. To save it. And they did save us. They invested $2 million in total equally to get the paper back on its feet. We were days away from being closed by the Sun-Times in 2018. It shouldn’t have survived. We were not treated equitably with our Sun-Times colleagues who we shared an office with for three years.
Right before Len and Elzie purchased the paper away, under the leadership of Tracy Baim, the publisher at the time and co-publisher now, we didn’t even have a salesperson working for us. And we were dependent on ads. Zero ads meant we were fucked. So, yeah, they helped get us out of a horrific situation, and ensured that we could survive. With Tracy, and her vision, she figured out a way forward for us, which included creating the Reader Institute for Community Journalism non-profit, which she established I believe in 2019, in order to purchase the Chicago Reader away from the co-owners under terms they had agreed to two years ago now. So they didn’t have to continue to dump money into it. We would be reliant on a whole range of funding sources that aren’t ad-driven.
The idea behind becoming a non-profit is what, you can get grants and take donations and such?
Yeah. We’re like an LC3 (Low-Profit Limited Liability Company) now, so we have been able to take small donations. I can’t pretend I know the ins and outs of those different models, but the not-for-profit would open up pathways that a hybrid model just didn’t allow us to channel into.
And Covid decimated the ad industry for you?
We lost 90% of our ad revenue overnight because we’re so reliant on ads for events. Miraculously, in part because of the support of Len and Elzie, we were able to make it through that period without any layoffs in editorial. We did have to do a brief period of cuts in the fall of 2020 through early 2021. I went on furlough one week a month for four months. Some of my coworkers took pay cuts. But we worked through it. None of my coworkers got laid off. Tracy and Karen Hawkins, the other co-publisher and editor in chief, they figured out a plan to grow the paper. This past fall we hired like five new editorial employees. We’ve been growing.
The fact that you even exist anymore! I think you know this but I come from alt-weeklies in Boston, with the Dig and Boston Phoenix. The Dig sadly just had to cease print operations for the time being.
Oh no. That breaks my heart. But yeah, I got my start at the Phoenix. I went to Brandeis and I stuck around Boston for a year before moving to Chicago. I was heartbroken when the Phoenix closed, and I loved the Dig. That’s part of who I am. In college the Phoenix and the Dig… I kept stacks of them under my bed. I loved those papers. To hear the Dig is not doing print anymore… My wife and I were just out in Boston to visit my sister who lives in Roxbury. One of the first things I did was pick up a Dig.
I’m getting the sense that Goodman isn’t a black and white villain here, and it’s just kind of a weird move he’s doing?
He’s said he wants the non-profit to go forward but it’s clear he wants to have some power over the direction of the paper. Given the column that he wrote for us, and given his response to a post-publication fact check, which was necessary… We haven’t been to change his column at all because he threw such a tremendous tantrum. Poynter, and Eric Zorn who’s a former Tribune columnist who runs his own newsletter, both independently reported that the fact check found fifteen pieces of misinformation or misleading information about vaccines and Covid.
So Goodman published an editorial in the Reader about why he didn’t want to get his child vaccinated.
Yes. Which is, you know…
His opinion is fine. My coworkers aren’t troubled by his opinion. We’re troubled by the fact that he used all this misinformation during a public health crisis. That’s bad for journalism and bad for public health and reflects poorly on us.
And as a result he got pissy about the steps that were being taken to move to the non-profit model and slowed things down?
In response to the fact check and the attempt to essentially remove all the inaccurate information online, he had one of his board members who obviously agrees with him, pass some resolutions on the for-profit board that halted the sale until these things were checked off. I think they passed four items. The last thing that has yet to come to pass is Goodman supplying the not-for-profit board with four board members, which would give him more of a say in the editorial direction of the paper. It also would, as far as what I have been told and believe, violate the paperwork with the IRS and could make the non-profit lose its 501c3 license.
So is he just trying to sabotage things, in your opinion?
I think he wants legitimate control. This is personal, evidently. I can’t think of a single time a columnist or editor has this much control over a paper because of what amounts to an editorial fight over a single column. It seems like he has a vendetta against us for us doing this. He’s been sharing this bullshit message that if the non-profit board exists as it currently does and the paper is run by them there will be no dissenting voices in the paper. It’s bullshit. He thinks he’s the only one that can ensure there will be dissenting voices. He doesn’t have a monopoly on that. A person with access to billions of dollars is not a dissenting voice in this country.
Are there parallels to Musk and Twitter?
My grasp of the Musk and Twitter thing is weak. I’m still learning about it so I can’t reasonably draw those claims. Musk’s interest in free speech and Len’s distortion of free speech have some parallels but that’s the most I can figure out.
If you’re not going to shoot from the hip about something you don’t have all the information on are you really even a Twitter user?
Broadly speaking, powerful rich guys talking about being censored is obviously bullshit on its face. This isn’t about providing a voice to people who don’t have one. It’s making sure no one stands in your way whenever you say whatever you want.
Exactly. Our voices are dissenting with Len’s, and he’s made our work far more difficult and challenging. Because of this stalemate we haven’t been able to access grant money. We got $300,000 to create a racial justice hub and reading room. We hired one reporter for that in the fall, Kelly Garcia, who’s done tremendous work, but we were supposed to be able to hire other people too. This is something we can point to on how this crisis has affected our ability to report on marginalized voices in the city and their experiences.
You put out a paper this week. How much runway do you have left?
That’s the big question. The last payroll that we can account for landed in our direct deposit on Friday. Elzie has said he’ll fund us a little bit more. For how much longer, who knows? We still get money from ads, but it’s not enough to sustain us.
There’s about 35 employees. Union right?
The editorial staff is unionized, so about half that number are.
Has that stiffened your backbone on pushing back on this?
Yes. We’re protected. And we’re talking about working conditions, all of which is legally protected. It totally gives us more leeway.
I read you average around $45,000 in salary.
Some of my coworkers make less than that. I recently got to $45,000 in the fall after asking for a raise. I got a bump of $2,000. Alt-weeklies don’t pay well obviously but we’re not doing it for the money. We’re doing it because we love this shit.
I love the idea that the woke media have all this power making under $45,000 a year while they’re going against the billionaires. That’s one of the most insidious tricks they’ve managed to get people to believe.
I don’t want to over-romanticize alt-weeklies here, there’s been plenty to criticize about them over the decades over who had a voice and who didn’t, but the idea was to be a pain in the ass of the local guy like Goodman. People in Boston don’t really know who he is but people in Chicago do and vice versa with our powerful guys. Every city has their local rich guys who should have some local pain in the ass poking through their shit. The more alt-weeklies die, the more dailies die, the more the powerful operate without anyone as a thorn in their side. That seems like it’s only going to keep getting worse.
Exactly. And if Len is really invested in having journalists do that work he’s not showing it.
I joked about this the other day on Twitter. I said something like it would be better if we had more alcoholic townies in media and fewer striving Ivy League nerds. I wouldn’t have gotten my start if it weren’t for the Dig. It sounds like the Reader has provided a home for lots of people, particularly marginalized voices of late, that wouldn’t have gotten their start otherwise.
Precisely. I don’t want to put Brandeis down, but I went to the Jewish university that was created because there were quotas on Jewish students at Ivies. My ambitions as a journalist are different from mainstream journalists' ambitions. I love the work that alt-weeklies produce. I love that they’re not trying to do what mainstream publications are. That they shine a light on seemingly small stories about people in this community that would never get the attention of the dailies or the big news websites that are focused on the coasts. To me there’s something very midwestern about alt-weeklies. They’re for workers. And this paper has done a great job of helping people from marginalized communities write for it, and shine a light on their voices even when they’re not writing for it.
Ok before you go. You’re an emo guy like me. What are you listening to lately? And is fifth wave actually a thing?
Oh, fifth wave is totally a thing. I’m going to be pretty mid in my response to this, but I’ve been running to the new Soul Glo. That album is so fucking good. My listening habits are confined to my job, so unless I’m writing about it I don’t have a lot of time to go back. But I’ve made a lot of time for the new Soul Glo. The new Prince Daddy is great too.
Yeah I dig both those. Have you heard Burial Waves?
It’s Kyle out of Pianos Become the Teeth and guys from a couple other bands.
That sounds awesome. You had me at Kyle.