The Reporter’s Future

The first issue of the Chicago Reporter carried a statement of purpose. Founding editors John McDermott and Lillian Calhoun explained in 1972 that the Reporter’s goal would be “racial justice,” its technique “investigative,” and its focus “the terrain where black and white intersect.”

They intersect in the life of the woman about to succeed editor Laura Washington. “My mother’s family were Kansas dairy farmers and Republicans,” says Alysia Tate. “My father grew up in Virginia in the jim crow south. He grew up not being able to swim in certain swimming pools or attend certain universities.”

Tate believes readers of the Reporter should know who she is. She is, to begin with, biracial. When they met, Tate’s father was running a mental health center in Denver, and her mother was working there for United Way. The marriage ended when Tate, who’s now 29, was in first grade. Her father moved away, and she grew up in Denver with her mother. “They were great, and they were warm and loved me,” Tate says, speaking of her mother’s family, “but I always felt a little different. I was browner than them. That’s a hard thing to explain to a little one.”

She wasn’t that much browner: “I won’t repeat some of the jokes and comments people make around me because they assume I won’t be offended,” she says. But she felt apart. “Like any black person would tell you, that is a key part of their identity–this is obviously a key part of my identity. More than getting the message that I’m inferior or stupid or violent–some of the messages that dark-skinned people get–is this sense that I’m different, this feeling that I’m an outsider, that I’m in a special category.

“People have treated me like that my whole life and said and done some pretty insensitive things and made me pick sides. I would say that’s a form of racism. I don’t think it’s the same as what Laura [who’s black] experienced–someone visibly responding to her skin color and maybe following her into a store or whatever. But it’s still a pretty destructive form of racism to isolate people.”

Though the “special category” Tate belonged to wasn’t black, the feeling of being part of one is. When she enrolled at Northwestern University, whose student body, she says, was only 7 percent black, “it was a very conscious decision to try to be part of that community. I made it a choice to work on black publications and go to different black functions. I was surprised at how welcome I was. I felt nervous I wouldn’t be accepted. People were great. A few said to me on different occasions, ‘As long as you’re OK with who you are, we’re OK too.'”

In their statement 29 years ago introducing the Reporter, McDermott and Calhoun asserted that “the special problem of the 70’s is racial inequality, the deep disparities in the condition and quality of life which separate the races and which are the legacy of generations of injustice.”

Chicago in 1972 was widely held to be America’s most segregated northern city; the west-side riot was only four years behind it. But though racial disparities could be as easy to spot as the CHA high-rises that lined the Dan Ryan, the Reporter dug deeper. Its first issue examined black underrepresentation on the boards of major Chicago corporations and in the upper echelons of local government; it also identified major construction projects where minority workers had been hired in serious numbers.

The Community Renewal Society founded the Reporter after concluding that the nation’s racial problems would have to be solved locally and could not be solved without analysis and hard data. The dispassionate, meticulous reporting of the Reporter altered the tone of racial debate in Chicago. But today it isn’t obvious that the Reporter still matters as much, and Tate must argue that it does. “We’re not in the middle of civil rights,” she says. “Harold Washington isn’t running for mayor. In some ways it’s more important to have the Reporter because racism is more institutionalized and less overt. It’s much easier to sweep under the rug, but there are still glaring disparities based on race. There are lots of subtleties around race that don’t get fully explored in the mainstream media.”

After three years covering suburban government and politics for the Daily Herald, Tate joined the Reporter in 1998. The magazine has always been known for producing top-notch investigative reporters, and Tate became another. She’s won two Lisagor awards there, the first of them for a piece that infuriated residents of Evanston and Oak Park by subjecting the self-proclaimed racial diversity of those suburbs to a tract-by-tract analysis.

Tate could see that Washington, who’d been editor of the Reporter since 1990 and publisher since 1994, was beginning to think of moving on, and she decided she wanted to take over. “But I don’t think I said it out loud,” Tate remembers. She didn’t have to. By last spring, when they finally had the conversation, Washington had long since concluded that she was mentoring her successor. “She’s very ambitious and very confident,” says Washington.

Washington looks back on her era. “I’m a reporter,” she begins. “It was very important to me to keep the editorial product high. And to raise money. I’ve grown the budget from around $400,000 to something like $700,000. I’m pretty optimistic about future funding because we’ve had so much success with foundations. We’ve been growing steadily. The staff is bigger than it’s ever been.”

There’s a “but” in this. “One thing I didn’t succeed at,” says Washington, “is getting the circulation up beyond four or five thousand. There are important people out there who should be reading this who aren’t reading this. We went down the traditional road of doing cover wraps, buying lists, marketing the way you would market a consumer-oriented magazine. It didn’t work. I wasn’t getting to enough community leaders in the trenches who have a vested interest in seeing our stories. It’s not that these community groups don’t value the Reporter. They just don’t have the money to pay for it.”

The Reporter has always given away more copies than it sells, distributing them to policy makers, politicians, and journalists. But now it’s actively looking for ways to raise both its low profile and its revenues. A recent grant from the McCormick Tribune Foundation pays for a new marketing director. Another grant, from the MacArthur Foundation, will allow the Reporter to hire consultants who’ll study circulation. “We need to come out with a business plan,” says Tate. “We’ve never really surveyed our readers to see who reads us, and if the people who get us free would pay for us.”

Questions about readership lead to questions about content. “A lot of people tell me the stories are dense and hard to get through,” Tate says. “It’s important for us to keep our investigative focus and edge. Nobody else is doing the reporting we are, but we want to look for ways to mix it up a little more, including some shorter stories, some news feature stories that don’t necessarily rely on several months of investigative reporting work.”

The new Web site,, is something else Tate has to figure out. “There must be a way to break stuff on it, do features and profiles,” says Tate. “Unlike ten years ago or even really five years ago, we’ve never in our history had this tool as a way to get these issues out to people so quickly and cheaply.”

She’d like the Reporter to look beyond the city limits more often than it has. “The demographics of the suburbs have changed. You can’t look at them as monolithic anymore. It’s obvious from examples like Harvey, with the mayor saying publicly they have too many CHA families moving in and they can’t support all these people. It’s a great example of how the problems are reinventing themselves in new communities. There are also some interesting successes out there–ways in which communities have changed dramatically racially over the last couple of decades. The one I point to the most is from my time at the Daily Herald covering Rolling Meadows. It’s a very blue-collar, post-World War II community with a growing Latino community. An entire apartment complex is Latino, and there were lots of problems there. The city figured out how to build a police center in that community, and it totally changed.”

She observes Chicago becoming “a much more difficult city for anyone to live in who doesn’t have a middle-class income. I’m thinking of friends of mine who aren’t poor, who have decent jobs, but we have conversations about how much rent costs now, or about getting married for financial reasons to get onto somone’s health insurance. And everything’s turning condo. That’s on everybody’s radar screen.”

Could the Reporter turn into a middle-class bitch sheet?

“All joking aside,” Tate responds, “we do have to tell those stories.”

Washington’s restlessness became public knowledge early this year when she turned up on the shortlist of finalists to become the next dean of the Medill School of Journalism. “I want to be a national player as a journalist,” she says. “I need to expand my identity and the work I do to beyond Chicago.”

Washington, who’s 46, has star power. In 1997 Newsweek put her on its list of the 100 people to watch in the next century–a tribute we’re reminded of in the press release announcing Tate’s appointment. Washington already writes a weekly column for the Sun-Times, and she’d like to syndicate it. She has books in mind and an idea for a public-affairs TV show. “I think Chicago is the best place to do journalism from, especially journalism looking at the issues I’m interested in–race, poverty, urban affairs. I see myself as a Chicago-based ambassador on helping Chicago have more of a national voice and role on these issues.”

In 1990, when she began editing the Reporter, Washington said that what she really wanted to do one day was run a daily newspaper that seriously covered black Chicago. “I had a dream that it would be great to work for the Defender if it had resources,” she says. “That would still be something I’d love to do, but it doesn’t seem possible. It’s been in limbo so long.”

Washington is friends with Myiti Sengstacke, who’s been struggling to keep the Defender in the family ever since her grandfather, John Sengstacke, died in 1997 after running the paper for 57 years. The last time I looked, John Sengstacke’s nephew Tom Picou, an experienced newspaper executive, was bidding $10 million to take over Sengstacke Enterprises. But Washington doesn’t think it’ll happen. “My impression is that if he had the wherewithal he’d have bought it already. There are plenty of black people in this town and this country with the money to turn that paper around, but they don’t seem interested. I know that everybody I talk to over at the Defender would love to see some deep-pockets backer come in so they can kick ass.”

Out to Get the Guild?

Contract negotiations are never pleasant, but they turned more bitter than usual at the Sun-Times last Monday when top editors Michael Cooke and John Cruickshank announced that they were laying off five members of the Newspaper Guild–three artists and two library assistants. One of the artists is Cliff Wirth, 74, who’s worked for the Sun-Times 22 years and who graces the paper each day with a deft little cartoon drawn off the news.

“The Sun-Times has endured a protracted period of economic downturn that began in the middle of last year,” explained the editors in a statement to their staff. “There are no credible signs pointing to a near-term recovery of the scope required to bring us back to business as usual. We are not alone.” Cooke and Cruickshank noted that papers across the country have been cutting back.

By the guild’s count, the number of guild employees at the Sun-Times has dropped from 255 in 1994–the year Conrad Black bought the paper–to 192 today, while the number of exempt employees slipped only from 36 to 34. What these numbers signify in the newsroom isn’t so much shrewd economizing or a lean, mean operation as exploitation, second-rate standards, and an antipathy to unions that begins with Black and seems to pervade Hollinger, his company. The guild has gone so far as to propose writing into its next contract a staffing floor of 235 guild workers.

“We’re eager to learn if the company has laid off any exempts or people in departments outside the newsroom,” said reporter Curtis Lawrence, the guild’s in-house spokesman during negotiations. “If the answer is no, obviously this is a heavy-handed ploy meant to intimidate the guild.”

I asked Cruickshank if any exempts were being laid off. “No,” he said.

That’ll make the guild mad, I said.

“I know,” he replied. He added, “There have been layoffs in other departments in this building already, and I don’t think anybody can guarantee that there won’t be more.”

The Tribune Company announced this month that it was cutting executive salaries by 5 percent. I asked if the Sun-Times planned anything similar.

Executive salaries were frozen, Cruickshank said. “It happened at the beginning of the year. It hasn’t been announced, I don’t think.” He conceded that his paper was understaffed even before the latest cuts. “I can’t tell you how crummy we all feel about it. We’re protecting the business, doing what we think is the right thing to do.”

News Bites

The Sun-Times ran the following refer on its front page last Sunday: “LEAVING KUNDUZ: More than 1,000 foreign fighters give up, switch sides. PAGES 2-3A.” If true, this was extraordinary news–the foreign fighters we’ve been reading about are all acolytes of Osama bin Laden ready to fight to the death.

But it wasn’t true. According to the story on page two, more than 1,000 Taliban fighters had abandoned Kunduz, some 600 of them foreigners, while other foreigners loyal to bin Laden remained in the besieged city. More important, nothing in the article suggested that any of the Taliban soldiers who switched sides were foreigners.

Conrad Black recently renounced his Canadian citizenship in order to enter Britain’s House of Lords. We should now address the owner of the Sun-Times as Lord Black of Crossharbour.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.