The Chicago Reporter abruptly put ‘on hiatus,’ sparking vigorous protests, calls for re-opening

The year 2020 — one of massive Black Lives Matter rallies, high fatality rates in black and brown communities from Covid-19 and greater attention to income inequality as many Americans lost lives or livelihoods during the pandemic — seems an odd moment to close The Chicago Reporter, a non-profit covering issues of race and poverty since 1972.

Yet that’s exactly what the executive director of the Community Renewal Society, the Reporter’s parent organization, did. The Rev. Dr. Waltrina N. Middleton, who started her job on Aug. 5, 2019, dismissed Fernando Diaz, editor and publisher of the Reporter since November 2018, on Sept. 17 and put the online journal “on hiatus.” The Reporter’s last piece was posted Sept. 15.

“The Chicago Reporter is restructuring,” according to an Oct. 4 statement from the Community Renewal Society, “which will entail a new Editor and Publisher” and an “Advisory Table.”

A passionate effort to restore the Reporter was started by two former editors, Laura Washington, a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and political analyst for ABC-7 Chicago, and Alden K. Loury, senior editor of the race, class and communities desk at Chicago’s public radio station, WBEZ. This grassroots movement, fueled by many other Reporter alumni, now has a name (@SaveTCR) and a much broader constituency, worried about the loss of the Reporter’s investigative reporting in these fraught times. Washington was Editor of the Reporter from 1990 to 1995, then had the additional title and responsibility of Publisher from 1995-2002. She also served as Interim Editor in 2012-2013.

On Oct. 5, Washington appeared on WTTW, the public television station in Chicago, with Angela Caputo, who worked at the Reporter from 2010 to 2014. Caputo is an investigative reporter for American Public Media Reports. Middleton released another statement before their live appearance. It said the future of the Reporter is “not in jeopardy” and claimed the rancor over her abrupt decision was the result of “manic hysteria” by “non-credible sources.” Her proposed “Advisory Table of key stakeholders” would participate in hiring decisions, among other duties, she wrote.

(Photo by Camilla Forte for GJR)

That plan breaches the long practice of reputable journalism organizations establishing clear separation between what they call “church and state,” meaning business (in this case, the Community Renewal Society) and the newsroom (The Chicago Reporter).

For decades, the Reporter has attracted talented but inexperienced young journalists who want to make a difference through their reporting. Thanks in part to the mentoring and training they receive, many individuals and teams have won awards for their Reporter work and go on to bigger organizations with fatter paychecks. Several continue to collaborate with the Reporter. For example, early in the pandemic, theReporter worked with WBEZ,  revealing that many low-income Chicago residents were without water in their homes while everyone is advised to  wash their hands frequently. The byline included Diaz, Loury and another bilingual alumna of the Reporter, María Inés Zamudio. Water rates tripled over the last decade, they reported.

Caputo alerted everyone she can via social media of ways to keep abreast of developments in this fluid story from her Twitter account. Her handle is @AngelaTRCR. “I never changed my Twitter handle b/c I love the place that much, LOL”

On Oct. 22, @Save TCR issued a statement including an open letter to the Rev. Dr. Middleton, signed by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, State’s Attorney Kimm Fox and many other civic, activist, religious and academic leaders, “demanding an immediate restart of The Chicago Reporter. It cited major accomplishments, among them:

  • Two days before the Reporter was shut down, it revealed that during the COVID-19 pandemic, the city of Chicago intercepted more than $20 million in 2020 state income tax returns, mostly from low-income communities of color.
  • In 2015, the Reporter was the only media organization in the city to acquire a video of a police officer shooting into a car of unarmed African-American teenagers, one of many cases of police-involved shootings leading up the release of a video showing the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald.

In addition to gathering political “clout,” a famous word in Chicago, there has been one small promising step toward resolution.  On Oct. 16, @SaveTCR’s founders had a meeting with Middleton, which all parties agreed would be off-the-record.

Other former editors and publishers of the Reporter include Kimbriell Kelly, a two-time Pulitzer winner, the first Black woman to be named Washington Bureau Chief of the Los Angeles Times, and Susan Smith Richardson, since April 2019, CEO of the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C., the first African-American woman in that  role. The announcement of Kelly’s promotion noted that her Reporter investigation “into Countrywide Financial’s subprime mortgage lending led to the nation’s largest fair-lending settlement.

Diaz was managing editor for digital at the San Francisco Chronicle before taking the Reporter job. Diaz declined to comment.

Diaz is a well-known figure in Chicago journalism. A graduate of Columbia College Chicago, he was a Reporter intern and later worked for Chicago Tribune’s Hoy, Chicago Now and the Daily Herald in Arlington Heights, Illinois.  He returned to the city from the West Coast with his young family in 2018 to lead the Reporter. It seemed an excellent fit. In just his short tenure he continued, and some say, exceeded, his predecessor’s prodigious fundraising. He had big ideas for the Reporter. He hired Olivia Obineme to be its first product development director, a term unfamiliar to earlier generations of journalists. Using a broad range of technologies and approaches, this specialty produces greater efficiency and often audience, revenue and/or readership growth, Obinimene said. She completed stints at KQED in San Francisco and the Reporter as part of earning her master’s degree in Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship from Northwestern. She said that mindset “spoke to Fernando’s career path, too — digital forward.”

“I was the last person on The Chicago Reporter team to find out” he was terminated, effective immediately, she said. Middleton told Diaz first, then the three (remaining) staffers,” who had been working remotely since March.

Several people contacted for this piece noted that it was unusual to have a journalism entity organized as a non-profit in 1972. This century, as the fast-tanking economic model of advertising and subscriptions starves newspapers and magazines,causing many to close or be taken over by predatory hedge funds,  it seems prescient.

The Reporter was founded by John McDermott, who moved to Chicago from Philadelphia to be director of the Catholic Interracial Council. As its first editor and publisher from 1972 to 1985, he immediately set its path, promising it “would go far beyond ‘mere muckraking.” He vowed it would be “dispassionate, accurate and constructive in its approach to the ‘make or break’ issue of race.’”

During much of its history, the incumbent editor selected the successor, ratified by the board. When there was no obvious internal candidate, search committees were formed. Washington served on the searches who chose Richardson in 2013 and Diaz in 2018.

Sources said the Community Renewal Society leader and board respected the “church-state” boundaries in the past, content to bask in the Reporter’s achievements, recognition and independent fundraising,  and did not previously interfere with its internal operations.. That said, there are no journalists on the board who could explain the different, and only occasionally overlapping, roles and cultures of journalists and faith-centered entities. Although CRS provided support to the Reporter, including a newsroom in shared quarters, the Reporter’s editor and publisher was charged with raising money — cultivating individual donors as well as foundation officers — in addition to  training reporters, editing and promoting their work.

“It’s a difficult job,” said Charles Whitaker, Dean of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, and Integrated Marketing Communications.

The Reporter has been awarded highly competitive grants from prestigious foundations such as McCormick and MacArthur. Among the other concerns of Reporter advocates is whether that funding might be withdrawn or suspended during the indefinite “hiatus.”

Alysia Tate served as editor and publisher of theReporter and subsequently was chief operating officer. Now an independent consultant who is director of strategy and organizational development for Cabrini Green Legal Aid, she told GJR that “now that everyone is responding to the disparities–structural racism, income inequality– is not the time to silence this important investigative voice.”

Tate is a former student of Whitaker, who earned two degrees from Northwestern, then worked at several magazines and newspapers, including as Senior Editor of Ebony. He also taught for years at his alma mater, where, in May 2019 he was named Dean. During Washington’s tenure, Whitaker served on the Reporter’s editorial advisory board, created by McDermott and later disbanded.

Johnathon Briggs was hired as the Robert R. McCormick Fellow to work at the Reporter soon after his 1996 graduation from Stanford University, and has been a subscriber and monthly donor since. Now Communications Lead for the Energy Storage unit of Argonne National Laboratory, he said the Reporter “attracts a certain kind of talent and helps them develop this model of advocacy journalism,” bolstered by rigorous fact-finding and checking. They not only learn investigative techniques and hone their writing skills, he said, “they take the skills and the ethos to future endeavors: “It really “becomes part of their DNA.”

Its absence leaves a big hole in the media ecosystem, he emphasized.  Acknowledging the rise of other, better-funded non-profits, includingPro Publica, which has a robust Chicago operation and is expanding, he said the Reporter is  “unique…in a league of its own in terms of the journalism it does…unafraid to admit that it is carrying out a very lofty ambition, to investigate race and poverty issues with a social justice lens and an advocacy journalism bent.”

“Especially now, during twin pandemics of racism and the corona virus,” he continued, not publishing means “not speaking truth to power when we need more data-driven, fair, clear, explanatory journalism to make us aware of the challenges we face and also offer solutions.”

In addition to laying out the problems, the Reporter also offered solutions, whether it was pending legislation or similar models of success from other cities or states. “When everything seems so daunting,” he said, “systemic racism, corruption in government…the Reporter gives us a clear path toward the better.”

Whitaker said the Community Renewal Society’s relationship with the Reporter“was always uneasy, but they made it work…unsettled around funding and oversight.”

Middleton was appointed June 30, 2019, and dispatched to Nairobi, Kenya, to represent the Society at the Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race. She replaced another pastor who served as interim ED for two years.

Briggs said the statements issued by Middleton in October puzzled and dismayed him. Missing was a “publicly expressed appreciation of what the Reporter truly is.”

“It felt very heavy-handed,” he said, where in previous years, “there always seemed to be a wall, a respect, a sphere of independence” for the Reporter.

It might be time for the Reporter to pursue an independent course, he mused:

“Break away completely and be its own nonprofit, incubated at a university or other entity so it can do what it does best and not be encumbered by the politics of CRS.”

Echoing many others, and acknowledging that “none of us has all the facts,” Briggs wonders, what does restructuring mean? Middleton has provided no details. She did not respond to requests for an interview, but on Sunday night, the Society’s spokeswoman e-mailed a statement from Middleton supporting the Reporter. In it, she said, “Conversations around restructuring at the Chicago Reporter have been underway for months and that knowledge has been internally communicated.”

She also vowed, “ Once a new Editor and Publisher is in place, that person will have editorial independence in keeping with the journalistic norms the Community Renewal Society has upheld for the entire life of the Chicago Reporter.” (The spokeswoman later wrote that statement was issued Oct. 8 and that more are planned.)

“I believe The Chicago Reporter is far better known than CRS,” Briggs said. “If it could find another home, removed from interference, maybe a good thing could come out of this.”

A veteran journalist and professor, Nancy Day’s first Big City newspaper job was at the Chicago Sun-Times. She was assigned a desk next to “Parson Larson” the religion reporter.  Long after Day moved to California to work for AP, Roy Larson became McDermott’s hand-picked successor as editor of The Chicago Reporter. Day was a consultant to the Reporter for four months in 2017-18, after taking a buyout from Columbia College Chicago. She now lives in Massachusetts.

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