The venerable paper has gone dark at a time when its reporting has never been needed more as the country grapples with a national reckoning on race.
By Michael Bennett, Niketa Brar and Sylvia Puente
One of the long-lasting legacies of the racial justice crusade in Chicago led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is at risk.
The Chicago Reporter—founded by civil rights activist John A. McDermott, who worked and marched with Dr. King—has been shining a bright light on institutional racism and discrimination in metropolitan Chicago for nearly five decades.
This small, feisty news organization has long been a leader in data-based factual reporting on issues of race, ethnicity and poverty. The Chicago Reporter’s investigations and projects have had a significant and positive impact on the policies of government, business and civic institutions and on the public discourse in Chicago, still one of America’s most segregated cities.
In recent years, the Reporter compiled the first comprehensive database of the city’s settlement payments to victims of police brutality. In April 2020, early in the pandemic, the Reporter created an Illinois COVID-19 tracker that has assisted multiple news organizations, including the New York Times, in documenting the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus on communities of color.
In its early days, the Reporter forced the modernization of the Chicago Fire Department–winning life-saving equipment in ambulances serving Black and Latino communities. It prompted a Consent Decree requiring the Chicago Park District to equalize programs and staffing across all neighborhoods. Over its history, it has exposed many other injustices in employment, housing, policing and education.
But now The Chicago Reporter has gone dark at a time when its reporting has never been needed more as the country grapples with a national reckoning on race, spurred by police shootings of Black men and women and protests by citizens and activists.
Six weeks ago, the Community Renewal Society (CRS), a United Church of Christ affiliated agency that hosts the online news organization, put the Chicago Reporter on an indefinite hiatus, removed the editor and publisher and announced it would “restructure” the publication.
In an Oct. 7 statement, Rev. Waltrina N. Middleton, CRS’s executive director, said an advisory committee of stakeholders will “help with newsroom staffing searches and hiring decisions,” but offered no timetable for hiring a new editor and publisher.
That raised a red flag for The Chicago Reporter’s alumni, many of whom now work at leading national news organizations such as the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, Mother Jones, American Public Media, ESPN and the Center for Public Integrity–in addition to local newsrooms such as the Chicago Sun-Times, WBEZ, ProPublica Illinois, NBC Chicago and more.More than 100 alumni signed a letter to the Community Renewal Society expressing concern. At stake is the editorial independence of The Chicago Reporter, they said.
The Community Renewal Society has honored that editorial independence since McDermott brought the organization the idea for the Reporter in the early 1970s.
The alumni asked Dr. Middleton and the CRS board to explain why they halted publication, requested that they be transparent about plans for the Reporter’s future, and demanded that an editor and publisher have independent editorial control.
Dr. Middleton dismissed their concern as “manufactured hysteria and speculation that began in the hands of non-credible sources,” but she has yet to reveal her specific plans for the Reporter or explained why she halted publication.
Chicago Reporter alumni do not stand alone in their concerns. More than 85 civic and community leaders joined us in signing an Oct. 21 letter to Dr. Middleton. “The loss of the Reporter as a professional, independent news organization would leave the metropolitan area without crucial reporting and data that we rely upon in our efforts for equity and justice,” we wrote.
What would our city, communities and suburbs lose if the Reporter did not exist?
Consider the story it published on Sept. 15, two days before Dr. Middleton pulled the plug: Despite its pledges to alleviate financial hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Reporter revealed, the City of Chicago quietly used a little-known state program to collect millions of dollars in unpaid tickets, court fees, ordinance violations and other debt from residents–primarily Black and Latino Chicagoans struggling to make ends meet.
That kind of deep digging to hold the city accountable for its actions makes the Chicago Reporter a resource we cannot afford to lose.
Michael Bennett is an Associate Professor at DePaul University and Board Treasurer of the African American Leadership and Policy Institute.
Niketa Brar is Co-founder and Executive Director of Chicago United for Equity.
Sylvia Puente is President & CEO of the Latino Policy Forum