Update (March 1, 2022): Leonard Goodman emailed after publication to dispute that his column contains any factual errors. An external fact-checker hired by the Chicago Reader to review the column found 15 inaccuracies or misleading statements.
An attempt to fact-check a column that raised skepticism about vaccinating children against COVID-19 has sparked a conflict that threatens the future of the alt-weekly Chicago Reader.
The 50-year-old Reader was set to be sold to nonprofit ownership on Dec. 31. But controversy over a November column by current co-owner Leonard Goodman, a criminal defense attorney, has delayed the sale. Management and staff at the Reader now worry that the paper’s future is in jeopardy since the nonprofit organization that was expected to take over the Reader can no longer actively fundraise.
The dispute started after Goodman’s column received backlash from readers and staff due to inaccuracies and misleading statements within the piece. Goodman had a regular column in the Reader, and the vaccine column had undergone a round of editing and fact-checking before publication.
After the backlash, the Reader hired an external fact-checker to review the column, setting off a back-and-forth between Goodman and co-publisher Tracy Baim over how to address the fact-checker’s findings.
Worried that the sale — which had been two years in the making — would be jeopardized by their disagreement, Baim eventually told Goodman that the Reader would leave his column up in its original form.
But the Reader’s board members caught wind of the conflict. Upset that Baim was trying to “censor” Goodman, one of his board appointees, Sladjana Vuckovic, introduced a resolution delaying the sale. A subsequent resolution from January demanded, among other things, that the current board be allowed to appoint three additional seats to the nonprofit board, a review of the fact-checking process of the column, a financial audit and Baim’s resignation as president and co-treasurer of the nonprofit.
The heart of the issue, according to Goodman and the board members supporting the resolution, is “censorship.”
“There’s so few spaces for dissent or nonconforming opinions in the press. That’s one of the reasons why I invested in the Reader because it’s always had a place where you could say things that were unpopular and say things that would make people in power uncomfortable,” said Goodman. “We want to make sure that the not-for-profit will respect that tradition.”
Philip Montoro, the Reader’s music editor and the unit chair of its union, rejected the idea that correcting the column — or even retracting it — would amount to censorship. Instead, it’s a matter of editorial process. As an independent newspaper, the Reader is allowed to decide what it publishes.
“The fact of the matter is there are all kinds of voices that are represented in the Reader, and there are all kinds of voices that aren’t. And somebody makes every one of those choices,” Montoro said. “But none of that is censorship. All it means is there isn’t room for every opinion in the universe in our newspaper at all times.”
The delay in the sale has left the Reader’s future uncertain, said Baim. In 2019, the Reader’s co-owners and its board approved of a deal to sell the paper to the nonprofit for a dollar. The deal was delayed after the Reader received Paycheck Protection Program loans during the pandemic. An intercompany agreement between the nonprofit and the Reader allowed the nonprofit to raise funds for the paper in the interim. Thanks to the nonprofit’s efforts, the Reader went from being over 90% dependent on advertising in 2020 to just 55% in 2021.
Once the nonprofit realized that the transition wouldn’t happen on Jan. 1 as planned, it had to stop a lot of its active fundraising and inform major donors of the situation. The intercompany agreement expired at the end of January, and as of Feb. 1, the Reader was no longer able to receive funds from the nonprofit.
“This particular set of circumstances really can’t last more than a few weeks because at some point the nonprofit will move to shut down if there’s no clear path for the Reader to be sold to it,” Baim said.
While Baim previously told the Chicago Sun-Times that the Reader has enough cash to last through March, Vuckovic estimated the paper would be viable for the next six months. Goodman and board member Dorothy Leavell said they were unsure how long the Reader could sustain itself financially and pointed to the board resolution demanding a financial audit.
The demand for additional seats on the nonprofit board has also become a major point of contention. Allowing the Reader’s current owners or board to appoint more seats would compromise the nonprofit’s independence and its standing with the IRS, Baim said. (Vuckovic and Leavell dispute this.)
“For journalism itself, it’s very important for there not to be a donor or an owner who has undue influence on the editorial work of the paper,” Baim said. “And to do that, you need a board that is not affected by those donors or owners.”
The dispute over the vaccine column has highlighted the importance of maintaining editorial independence, Baim said. It was the power imbalance between Goodman and the Reader’s editors that allowed him to circumvent the paper’s normal post-publication corrections process.
The uncertainty has caused the staff a lot of stress and hurt morale, Montoro said. There is fear among staff, many of whom are young and do not have a lot of savings, that they might suddenly be out of work.
“To be frank, it has been very difficult sometimes to do the investigative work that I do while also having this in the back of my mind,” said Reader social justice reporter and union board delegate Adam Rhodes. “It’s something that is an existential threat to the Reader, and it’s hard to concentrate on a job that in the worst possible scenario might not be around in the near future.”
Goodman said he doesn’t believe there is any reason to be concerned since everyone has the same end goal of making the Reader a nonprofit. The other co-owner, real estate investor Elzie Higginbottom, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. He previously told the Chicago Sun-Times that he supports Baim and would be willing to provide additional funds to the Reader if necessary.
Because the board is currently deadlocked, Baim, Vuckovic and Leavell said the fate of the Reader rests in the hands of the co-owners, who are currently negotiating. Goodman questioned this, saying he is not sure he has the power to ignore the board and approve the deal. Asked if he supports the board resolutions, he said he supports an “ombudsman review” of the events surrounding the column and wants to ensure the nonprofit board has “fair representation.”
“I believe the new (not-for-profit) board should have at least a fair balance of managers who believe in protecting free speech and unpopular speech and in challenging authority,” he told Poynter.
Goodman said his goal is to reach an agreement with Higginbottom that the board will be able to sign off on. He declined to provide further details on the state of the discussions but said his impression was that they are “very close” to resolving the issues at hand.
Meanwhile, all the staff can do is wait.
At stake is the Reader’s future, Montoro said. The paper’s staff has never been more diverse, and it is serving more of the city of Chicago than ever before. The staff just wants to be able to do their jobs without worrying about their financial futures, he said.
“It’s frankly terrifying to know that your fate rests in the hands of people who don’t know what you do, don’t know how your business operates,” Montoro said. “This is hurting talented journalists, a lot of them — people who care a lot about Chicago and care a lot about their work and don’t deserve this.”