Chicago Reader at 50
Credit: Amber Huff

W

hen I started at the Reader in October 2018, there were 16 people on staff, all of them white except graphic designer Sue Kwong, who sidled up next to me on my first day with a good-natured, “Hello, woman of color.” 

We laughed, and I appreciated that her welcome eased my familiar tension of being the new Black kid on the block. Growing up in the rapidly integrating south suburbs in the 90s, I was used to being the only Black face, or one of only a handful. My family’s welcome to Homewood then was a mixed bag, as was my entry at the newly independent Reader decades later. Most people were warm, if reserved; others made clear that I, as an outsider, didn’t belong. 

Tracy Baim, my friend and longtime mentor, had just been named as publisher of the Reader, and she advocated for my hiring above the objections of other leaders who had a serious case of what I call the Yeah, buts

Yeah, I have a master’s degree from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, but: those degrees don’t mean what they used to. Yeah, I worked for the Associated Press as a breaking news staffer and editor for more than six years, but: that doesn’t mean I’d been prepared for life at an alt-weekly. Yeah, I’d worked in community media at the Windy City Times and started my own publication Rebellious Magazine for Women against incredible odds, but: I didn’t know Chicago Manual of Style. Or how to use InDesign. Or or or . . .

Yeah, the list went on, but I still got hired, landing myself into a job with little definition working for people who made increasingly clear that I was to be tolerated, at best. 

Fast forward several months, and Sujay Kumar and I were named co-editors in chief, becoming the most diverse [read: nonwhite] leadership team in the Reader’s history. It’s been a wild ride, y’all. 

Why am I telling you all of this? Because I fear that if I don’t, my experience and the experiences of other Reader staffers who aren’t cis, straight, white men will go untold. If I don’t speak up, we run the risk of being invisible, a throwaway footnote in the Reader’s storied history: The Reader used to be great. Now it’s diverse.

Longtime staff have offered to connect me with Reader alums of color, and as much as I’d love to meet them, and to share their experiences with you, I’ve run out of time, and that will have to be a story for another day. I’ll confess that it was only after I read our first (kick-ass) 50th anniversary issue that I realized no one was speaking specifically about the Reader’s internal history on race, gender, class, and the handling of any number of other communities underrepresented in Chicago journalism.  

That history matters because if we are to evolve, to continue to diversify both our coverage and our list of contributors, if we are to truly be a publication for all of Chicago, I believe we have to face the past head-on. It isn’t about litigating the sins of the past, it’s about ensuring the future doesn’t continue them. 

We can’t create a safe, respectful, nourishing workplace for all kinds of people if we pretend that the Reader has always been this way. We can’t be clear on where we’re going if we don’t acknowledge where we came from. We can’t say we don’t tolerate bullying or bigotry if we wave away former contributors’ or staffers’ cruelty or biases by insisting how “good” they were at their jobs—and continue to work with them in silence.  

The Reader, while serving as a vital alternative to mainstream outlets, has not been immune to the larger industry’s shortcomings. The vast majority of American newsrooms are still owned and run by white people. When women do break into leadership ranks, we still hit glass ceilings that limit our ability to create real change. It’s safer to be out as some letters of LGBTQ+ in newsrooms than others. We, as an industry, do a dismal job of hiring and promoting writers with disabilities, people who didn’t grow up middle or upper class, and countless others.

The Reader was founded by four white men in 1971, and while the paper was known for covering communities of color, its staff and contributors have been persistently overwhelmingly white. Efforts were made over the years to diversify both the Reader and other alternative papers around the country, but I don’t think anyone would argue those efforts have been consistently successful. Just months before I was hired, the Reader ran a racist image on its cover for a story penned by a young Black writer. Women-identified folks have led the paper at various stages of its history, but men still held financial control; and I’ve watched as women across alternative media grapple with the sexism we continue to face. In our first anniversary issue, staff writer Adam M. Rhodes detailed the paper’s uneven history on LGBTQ+ issues

The Reader has had notable victories, of course, and I hope it goes without saying that we in particular and alt-media in general have been incredible places for all kinds of writers, editors, and creators to hone their craft, to grow into their voices, and go on to lead impactful careers. I don’t want to minimize those victories as I acknowledge the battles people had to fight to achieve them.

Since my first day three years ago, the Reader has grown to 35 full-time, part-time, and contract staff; 40 percent of us are people of color and 40 percent are LGBTQ+ identified. We are women, men, and nonbinary. Many of us from marginalized backgrounds are in leadership. We are diverse. And we are still great. 

We also know that we won’t hire our way out of our largely homogenous history. A more diverse staff is a step in the right direction, but it’s just that: a step. It isn’t the whole journey. What’s next for us is anti-racism training and planning for all staff, a new collaborative reporting project I hope will be transformative, and a continued willingness to have hard conversations with compassion, empathy, and open minds.  

And, of course, there’s CIMA, the Chicago Independent Media Alliance, a project of the Reader that’s brought together the community media strength of 69 publishers representing 85 outlets. CIMA members are all over the city, publish in six languages, and actively engage with diverse audiences that mainstream media outlets wish they could claim to reach. As the founder of this effort, the Reader recognizes that Chicago journalism is stronger when the people producing it look like the city.

As a teenager in the suburbs, my weirdo friends and I would sneak into the city to pick up copies of the Reader and daydream about the edgy urban life it represented that we’d—hopefully—someday get to live. By then, I knew I wanted to be a journalist, and that I wanted to work at an alt-weekly like the Reader, even though I knew both would be fraught. I love this industry and this paper, and I’m committed to improving them both from within.

I can’t speak for anyone except myself as a mouthy Black lesbian feminist over 40, and I’d never try to represent anyone else’s experience. I want you to know that we’re here. While not in great numbers at the Reader or alt-media, our CIMA colleagues remind us that we’ve always been here. And to my fellow journalists of color, who are LGBTQ+, who are from communities journalism has left behind, I want you to know that I see you, and I can’t wait to welcome you.