A young black Chicago philanthropist has purchased a dormant local news site. But because that philanthropist is Chance the Rapper, and because he made the announcement in “I Might Need Security” (the best of the four new songs he dropped last night), the good news comes with an asterisk. What good news doesn’t?
I’m sure many folks remember the well-circulated story about Chance’s team successfully pressuring higher-ups at MTV News to delete a lightly critical piece about him. (I wrote a piece about Chance myself for MTV News, but it was published before the news of this episode broke.) Shortly after Chance shared his Chicagoist surprise, not just in the song but also in an accompanying press release, I noticed plenty of critics, reporters, and journalism junkies mentioning the MTV situation on Twitter. (It may be an enervating hellscape awash with neo-Nazis, but Twitter is the best place to get news about late-night surprise releases.) As Outline culture editor and Chicago native Jeremy Gordon tweeted, “Sometimes I think I could forget about Chance the Rapper successfully pressuring an outlet to kill a negative review but then he BUYS a PUBLICATION what kind of RIVERDALE shit is THAT.”
I love Riverdale and appreciate Gordon’s reference, but I don’t think it quite fits—and I’ll try to explain why, without getting into the weeds of this bonkers show or spoiling anything about it. Let’s look at what Chance has bought. Chicagoist hasn’t published a story since November 2, 2017, of course. That was the day billionaire and owner Joe Ricketts shut it down, along with every Gothamist and DNAinfo site (DNAinfo, which Ricketts founded in 2009, purchased Gothamist in March 2017). By that point Chicagoist had two editors and a handful of part-timers, and it had started paying its writers, but it was still a lean operation, often stretched thin. Scroll through the site’s backlog of Chance stories and you can still read a June 2017 post about the MTV News snafu, the same kind of hasty, recycled report you could find on countless other news sites. That says a lot about the state of Chicagoist in its final months.
Chicagoist had once provided vital local stories and cultural coverage, and some its bright contributors and editors had moved on and up in the world of journalism, including Marcus Gilmer, Kim Bellware, and Lisa White. But before its acquisition by DNAinfo, I recall some DNA reporters grousing about Chicagoist sourcing posts solely from original DNA reporting. In Chicago’s fragile media ecosystem, we need every news outlet we can get. But at the end, Chicagoist seemed like a shadow of its former self.
I’m cautiously optimistic, but I’m also concerned about a politically active celebrity buying a media outlet—and I would be whether the MTV incident had happened or not. Imagine the challenge of writing about the city’s music scene when the person who pays you is a towering figure in that scene. We don’t know what Chance will be like as a media owner, and I prefer not to speculate. We just know that he is the owner, and so does whoever will work for him.
Last night, when I first heard “I Might Need Security,” I cheered Chance’s vilification of Chicago media’s missteps. I’m still here for him lambasting outlets that insist on covering his every move and then do a lousy job at it. It’s one of many issues I’ve had with the way local (and national) news organizations cover the city’s hip-hop scene, and I point out these problems in hopes it’ll help all of us produce better work.
“I donate to the schools next, they call me a deadbeat daddy,” Chance raps—an obvious reference to Mary Mitchell’s awful and widely panned Sun-Times report about his child-support case, which I criticized in December. But I’m not Chance. I’ve never been on the wrong end of a major daily newspaper, and I’ve never had a massive public platform or the ability to use a hyped-up song to announce that I’d bought a local news site. Chance’s entry into the world of journalism is going to be a complicated process, with his role developing as he learns what needs to be done to reboot Chicagoist successfully, and I won’t pretend I can decode his intentions from one savage verse.
Since WNYC acquired Gothamist and its sister sites in February (through a deal mostly funded by anonymous donors), some of those sites have returned to publishing. Click over to Gothamist, DCist, or LAist and you can read the latest news. But who knows when Chicagoist will be back. We don’t know how long ago Chance finalized the deal with WNYC to buy the site, and we don’t know the timetable he’s developed to get it up and running. We don’t know who he’ll hire, or if he’s hired anyone yet. We just know he owns it.
Chance has shown us he’s a powerful artist who cares deeply about his city. I love that one of his new songs is named after public-access dance program Wala Cam, and that it features Chicago rapper Supa Bwe. Chance has also shown us he’s a concerned civic leader—he’s advocated for Chicago Public Schools and the students they serve. I hope he can show us he’s a great media owner too.