Ray Hanania
Ray Hanania Credit: Glenn Kaupert

On May 3 Ray Hanania got one of journalism’s high honors, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi award. Hanania earned his for a series of sympathetic columns about a grocer in Oak Lawn who believed that the village had harassed him and eventually shut him down because he was an Arab. The judges commented, “He did some real reporting and brought to light a situation that otherwise would have been ignored in his community. This is ‘Enterprise’ writing at its best!”

On May 7 Hanania was back in the news. Ben Lowe, a Democratic candidate for Congress in Illinois’ Sixth District, had issued a news release accusing Cicero police of pulling him over simply because they thought (mistakenly) he was Hispanic. “This very much sounds to me like an obscure candidate for public office, trying to give himself some publicity by attacking the Town of Cicero,” responded the Cicero town spokesman—who is Ray Hanania.

Wasn’t it just yesterday that the sort of double life lived by Hanania was all but unthinkable—and if thinkable, a disgrace? Among the things that no credible journalist could afford to do were one, drive a Bentley, and two, moonlight on the payroll of a local pol. Yet here’s Hanania, one day a columnist championing a little guy who accuses a town of ethnic prejudice, another day a flack defending a town accused of ethnic prejudice.

It’s pretty astonishing. But journalism has entered a new age and Hanania is one of its archetypes. When Cicero’s town president, Larry Dominick, hired him last November and the Tribune published his salary, $88,400, Hanania’s phone started ringing. These were people he knew “who were really desperate for jobs,” he tells me, and some were journalists, “and would I network their resumés?” He says, “It’s kind of sad when so many people ask for help. It’s kind of sad how many people out there don’t work. And that’s the irony. You have to make a good salary now to be able to afford to be a journalist.”

He muses, “I’ve been a journalist 35 years now. It’s like a narcotic. And the people who own the media are like drug dealers, aren’t they?” To be a journalist these days, he’s saying, you’ll do whatever it takes to do it.

A few days before the Sigma Delta Chi award came Hanania’s way, his columns on the Oak Lawn grocer earned him a Lisagor Award from the Chicago Headline Club, the local chapter of the SPJ. It was Hanania’s fourth Lisagor, and there have been other honors. Nowadays his two-fisted, award-winning journalism appears in the Southwest News-Herald, a weekly that covers southwest Chicago neighborhoods and the nearby suburbs. The News-Herald pays Hanania nothing.

The paper used to pay him a decent buck. In 2007, when it couldn’t afford to do that any longer, Hanania decided to go on writing the column anyway. “People actually read what I write for them,” he explains, “and it opens other opportunities.” One is the opportunity to enter himself in journalism competitions and win some of them, thereby maintaining our view of him (and his view of himself) as a journalist who matters even as he does what needs to be done to make a living.

Hanania has other irons in the fire. Since January he’s been writing a column once a week for the Jerusalem Post. The way that happened is that as a sideline—yet another sideline—Hanania promotes himself as the world’s funniest Palestinian comedian. As a Christian Arab who is married to a Jew, opposes violence, and preaches compromise, he figures he’s mainly good for laughs. He was performing his stand-up act in Jerusalem and the Post‘s publisher caught it. “They don’t pay,” he says, “but I really get a great response. The mayor of Jerusalem, the Palestinian prime minister. . . . It makes it worthwhile without any money.”

And twice a week his column also appears at palestinenote.com, a moderate Palestinian Web site based in Washington, D.C. From this site he actually gets $300 a month—”still not as good as unemployment,” says Hanania.

From the standpoint of journalistic orthodoxy, Hanania’s high-water mark would be the late 80s, when he covered Chicago’s City Hall for the Sun-Times. That assignment ended in 1991 with the paper asking for his resignation because he’d gotten himself into a conflict of interest by dating city treasurer Miriam Santos. (These days, instead of giving her advice on the side, which is what Santos’s enemies accused him of, maybe he’d have gone on her payroll.) Normalcy beckoned in the wake of 9/11, when the Daily Herald began paying him $30 a column for his moderately pro-Palestinian views and Rick Newcombe, CEO of Creators Syndicate in Los Angeles, spotted the column and picked it up for syndication to papers around the world. But in 2005 Newcombe dropped Hanania because he couldn’t sell the column. Only two newspapers had been willing to carry it regularly—one in Saudia Arabia and another in Japan. And in 2008 the Daily Herald dropped Hanania and all its other freelancers to save money.

But Hanania, as I have said, is the model of the modern journalist. When you have to work for nothing, the secret of success is to work twice as hard. Two Septembers ago, Hanania launched his own radio show. Five mornings a week, eight hours in all, Hanania broadcasts live from the west suburban studios of WJJG, 1530 AM. (I’ve been a guest on his Radio Chicagoland a couple times.) Hanania buys the airtime—last year it cost him about $35,000—sells advertising to sponsors, and pockets the difference. I asked him the other day how he’s done. “I made enough to buy a billboard on I-294,” he said. “It’ll be up there two weeks.”

Not missing a self-promotional trick, Hanania maintains, by his own count, seven Web sites—one to promote his radio show, another his column, a third his comedy act, and so on. And about a dozen blogs. Call his cell phone and his voice-mail greeting invites you to leave a message—”or you can also listen to my radio show Monday through Friday every morning at eight o’clock on 1530 AM radio.”

One of his Web sites promotes a book he came out with last summer, Secrets of New Media Networking (“Make your message more effective in a hostile environment of mainstream media bias and exclusion”), while on Facebook he’s touting his “new reality show” Star Chef Chicagoland. He says, “I find a celebrity chef who makes a recipe and I bring three celebrity judges together and we film it.” The show’s taped in a surf-and-turf restaurant in Orland Park and aired on public access TV.

To Hanania the comedian, his career, like his ethnicity, is material. “Jeez, when I think about it,” he says, “I’ve won four Lisagors. I was only making money on the first Lisagor, at the Sun-Times. The second was for the Daily Herald in 2004 at 30 bucks a column. Then I won two for the Southwest News-Herald where I make no money. So it’s been a steady slide straight down. I don’t want to win another Lisagor because it might cost me money.”

Journalism, he observes, is becoming as pristinely amateur as the Olympics of old, a competition open only to ladies and gentlemen of independent means. I called Rick Newcombe to get his thoughts and discovered Hanania has been recently on his mind. “I think the world of Ray,” Newcombe said. “He’s what we need now, some balance”—meaning the idea of a moderate Palestinian Christian columnist might appeal to more editors today than it did in the wake of 9/11. “I think it would make sense to relaunch him,” Newcombe said. “We could at least put him on our Web site, with a ‘Click here if you want to see him in your local paper.'”

The business has changed, Newcombe said. Thanks to Google Analytics and the Internet’s “click here” capacity, Creators Syndicate can now feature new writers on its Web site and let interested editors see for themselves what kind of an audience these writers might draw.

And if you put him on the Web site, I asked Newcombe, will you be able to pay him anything?

“Probably not,” he said.