Tracy Baim (Photo by Glitterguts)

561. Diversity a big part of the Chicago Reader’s formula for success

At the start of her career in the 1980s, Baim was told there would be few opportunities for her, as an out gay woman, in journalism. Under her leadership, the Chicago Reader now has a management team consisting of 57 percent people of color, 57 percent people who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community, 15 with disabilities and 86 percent who are female, nonbinary or trans. Nearly half the staff, 47 percent, are people of color; and 33 percent of staffers are in the LGBTQ+ community. 

All this occurred while Baim took the paper from a for-profit publication published weekly to a nonprofit that distributes 60,000 copies every other week across Chicago, has a million readers online each month and continues to be a leading alternative publication.

“I thought I was going to have a career in typesetting,” says Baim, who turned over the reins of the Reader to Solomon Lieberman in February. “I didn’t know there was a gay press. I knew there was Ms. Magazine. That was kind of my holy grail.” 

After decades in weekly community journalism, Baim was asked if she’d consider taking over the Reader when it was about to be dissolved in 2018, the paper’s 48th anniversary.

Baim initially said no because she didn’t have the money to keep it going, but she was approached by the paper’s union to work with funders who wanted to keep it afloat. A few weeks later, the Reader was moved into new offices and Baim set about work to find a way to find new sources of funding. 

“The Reader was always known for terrific longform journalism, feature profiles, covering all aspects of Chicago the mainstream media didn’t have time or ability to cover as the Reader did as an alt weekly paper,” Baim says. “When I took over, it was kind of decimated but still doing great work.”

All of this was at the beginning of the pandemic, but Baim quickly banded together with other independent publications to form the Windy City Media Group. This collective to help secure and raise $160,000 in funding to keep the community news organizations running. 

“That collaborative work is what I have enjoyed doing at the Reader and even nationally, we’ve been able to talk with other cities about how that work happened,” Baim says. “The clout is to push foundations to do more, both for nonprofit and for-profit community media. I think both models are important to keep going. Non-profit was good for the Reader but it won’t be the solution. It’s one tool in the toolkit and all revenue models should be supported.” 

Baim also turned to the Readers’ devoted, well, readers for help early on. 

“I knew there was a tremendous loyalty and love of the Reader,” she said. “We did an initial campaign two months after I started, asking people to be a founding member of the Reader for $48, because it was 48 years old. We raised $100,000 in a couple months. We started to see that loyalty. I started to see this trend where others were thinking of going nonprofit. With the loyalty and membership model — I know there’s been this string of for-profit attempts at the Reader since it was first sold more than a decade ago. You can’t keep going to rich people to try and save it. The nonprofit mode made sense for the Reader based on where we were, the loyalty factor and the kind of journalism we do.” 

As for the content of the paper itself, and its online edition, the Reader is “very freelancer heavy” when it comes to writers, but that helps ensure the paper is doing a better job of covering all aspects of Chicago. 

“They’re going to hear about different stories in different neighborhoods of Chicago,” Baim says. “We did extensive coverage last summer — a reporter funded through a racial justice reporting grant was able to do a deep dive into a Riot Fest (concert) added in the Park District and the neighbors didn’t like that. As a result of that series by Kelly Garcia, the Park District changed their policy. That was in part because our reporter was on the ground in that area. Better stories, more stories come to the surface when you have more people out there with their tentacles into different communities.” 

For readers who see a rainbow of faces on the Reader’s cover, Baim asks them to look at the coverage as a whole. “If you look across a whole year, you’re going to see yourself. Sometimes equity doesn’t look good to people who are used to being the only ones at the table. We’re covering and representing the whole city of Chicago now.” 

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