CHICAGO — The Chicago Reader, the city’s popular alternative weekly, is set to become a nonprofit this month after sales were nearly derailed by a co-owner’s column opposing COVID-19 vaccine demands. 19 for children.
The publication was on the verge of being sold to the new nonprofit last year until the November printing of defense attorney Leonard Goodman’s column titled ‘Vaxxing our kids’ sparks allegations of disinformation and censorship.
Goodman agreed to step down in late April, allowing the sale to go through. Still, the standoff between officials at the alternative weekly has left staff members in limbo for months wondering whether the Reader will be shut down after surviving several previous sales and the coronavirus pandemic.
In the column, Goodman wrote that “feverish hype from government officials, mainstream media and Big Pharma” had him wondering if his 6-year-old daughter should be vaccinated.
Critics, including former and current Reader staff, were quick to lambast his views, saying Goodman relied on sources that were repeatedly vetted by media and infectious disease experts.
Editor Tracy Baim said the editors asked to hire an independent fact-checker to check the column. Baim said she and her co-editor then met with Goodman and discussed options, but “it was very clear he didn’t like any” of their proposals.
Goodman said the reader should have supported him once the article was published, regardless of his argument.
“It’s an opinion piece,” he said. “It’s not writing as a scientist.”
Hoping to keep the peace, Baim said she told the editors they would leave the column as written until the sale closed. But then two board members accused Baim and Reader staff of censorship and demanded several changes to the sales contract, which stalled the transition.
Sladjana Vuckovic, one of the members who supported Goodman, said she would not have objected to the Reader publishing another writer’s column in favor of childhood vaccinations, but thought the point of Goodman’s view “was of great interest” and did not require rewriting.
The Reader staff union led protests outside Goodman’s home last month, drawing renewed attention to their demand that Goodman and his supporters “free the Reader.” Many members of the city’s arts, music, and performing arts communities supported the push, sharing stories of the Reader’s influence on Chicago.
The alternative weekly was first published in 1971, with editions collected in some of its young founders’ apartments. In an issue celebrating the publication’s 50th anniversary, a founder recalled breaking even for the first time three years later.
In the 1980s, advertising revenue was in the millions and grew steadily to a peak of $22.6 million in 2002. But the Reader has struggled financially ever since, as advertising dollars have migrated online and publication was mixed between owners.
Goodman and Elzie Higginbottom, a developer, bought the alternative weekly for $1 in 2018 as part of an orchestrated bid to keep it alive. Baim, also founder of the LGBT newspaper Windy City Times, became editor of the Reader.
She felt that radical change was the only solution. In the summer of 2019, Baim presented its pitch to owners and the board: form a new nonprofit to buy the Reader.
The IRS approved the creation of the Reader Institute for Community Journalism in February 2020. And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Alternative weeklies, including the Reader, have struggled for decades alongside local newspapers. But they were particularly vulnerable to the pandemic which abruptly closed restaurants, performing arts and other advertisers.
“Any media that was free and entirely dependent on advertising had a very real and in some ways almost impossible challenge,” said Dan Kennedy, a journalism professor at Northeastern University who specializes in alternative business models.
Local non-profit newsrooms remain rare in the US media, but there has been increasing pressure to create them as the pressures of a declining business model force consolidation and increased ownership by hedge funds and private equity.
The Reader cut its 60,000 copies printed to twice a month, laid off staff, and tried to make money by selling branded goods and publishing a coloring book.
“We lost nearly 100% of advertising overnight,” Baim said. “We basically had to dance for dollars.”
Baim said she still believes the nonprofit strategy is the reader’s best chance — if the board members and Goodman allow her to move forward. But she and others balked at the insistence of board members for more seats on the new nonprofit’s board.
Goodman said he had been trying to work out a deal with his co-owner “for many months,” including a proposal to complete the sale and later resolve the dispute over board appointments. That idea was rejected, he said.
“And there was no other way to go at this point but to file a complaint, which would have destroyed the Reader,” Goodman said.
Goodman said the dispute has not shaken his confidence in the sources cited in the column. He called the suggestion that staff felt pressure to perform a co-owner’s play “complete nonsense” and said his opposition to the vaccine requirement was the reason for the backlash, not its sources.
Baim said, however, that the staff’s refusal was a journalistic response to the sources used by Goodman – not a reaction to his opinion.
“I’m horrified that the relationship has deteriorated on one column in 21 with which we tried to do the right thing in a journalistic way,” Baim said.
For Reader staff, the final sale expected to close this month brings optimism. But they fear the delay will cost the newspaper financially and make the process more difficult, said Philip Montoro, the music editor who has been on staff since 1996.
“We have no more owners, there is no more safety net, no more safety net,” Montoro said.
Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.