You may never have heard of The Chicago Reporter.
But Chicago—and the nation—have long felt its impact.
In 1972, John A. McDermott, who worked and marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1966 campaign for fair housing in Chicago, founded The Chicago Reporter as a watchdog to measure progress toward racial equity.
McDermott’s feisty newsletter soon became known as “the conscience of Chicago,” shining a bright light on institutional and systemic racism.
The Reporter has produced dispassionate, hard-hitting investigative reporting on issues of race and poverty over the past five decades. It’s long been lauded for punching above its weight. The Chicago Tribune once described it as the “Sugar Ray Robinson of investigative journalism,” landing “more punches on the local establishment than any other news shop in town.”
The Reporter speaks truth to the powers that be. Its independent investigative reporting has sparked changes in laws, policies, and practices in government, business, and civic institutions, benefiting communities of color in one of America’s most segregated cities. The Reporter has been recognized with more than 200 local and national awards for journalistic excellence and public service, which speak to the caliber of its work.
Yet now, as we engage in a national reckoning on race, spurred by police shootings of Black men and women and community protests, the Reporter faces an existential threat from the Community Renewal Society (CRS), the United Church of Christ–affiliated agency that publishes it. If the city’s civic leaders don’t start asking tough questions about recent managerial decisions, the Reporter could face extinction—just when its unique voice is most needed.
In September, the CRS executive director, the Rev. Waltrina N. Middleton, put the Reporter “on indefinite hiatus,” removed its editor and publisher, and announced that it would “restructure” the iconic publication.
At the time, the Reporter was stable and financially healthy. In 2019 and 2020, it received $1.7 million in grants from local and national foundations. For alumni and supporters, Middleton’s decision was mystifying.
More than 130 Reporter alumni signed on to a campaign to “Save the Chicago Reporter.” At stake are the Reporter’s editorial independence and its historic, and still badly needed, in-depth reporting and data analysis.
“The Reporter’s success depends on its independent editorial control,” the alumni wrote, “and its freedom to conduct its investigations and reporting without interference as it holds institutions and leaders accountable on issues of race, ethnicity, poverty and justice.” They demanded that CRS hire a new editor and publisher with total editorial control, a longtime hallmark of the publication.
Middleton dismissed their concerns as “manufactured hysteria.” She assured them that the Reporter was not in danger, but declined to share her plans for the paper, or explain why she halted publication.
More than 90 Chicago civic, community, and political leaders also weighed in, writing, “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.” In mid-December, thanks to intense pressure from the Reporter’s alumni, readers, and supporters, CRS hired an interim editor and publisher, Glenn Reedus, a veteran of African American and other daily newspapers in Chicago and the Midwest. But concerns about the Reporter’s independence remain.
Middleton has proposed a new structure that would include “an Advisory Table made up of key stakeholders who will help with newsroom staffing searches and hiring decisions.” The Reporter has always operated independently, which is critical to its journalistic credibility.
I am a proud “Chicago Reporter reporter.” My own path to journalism began on the streets of Chicago’s segregated South Side. I watched as my neighborhood, and dozens of others in Black Chicago, suffered from the burden of racism, segregation, and chronic disinvestment.
I became a journalist to help right those wrongs. The Reporter’s critical training on issues of racial, ethnic, and economic justice made me and many others better reporters, editors, and journalists.
Reporter alumni have moved on to win a Pulitzer Prize and excel at leading national news organizations, including The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Newsday, Mother Jones, American Public Media, ESPN, and the Center for Public Integrity, and in local newsrooms such as the Chicago Sun-Times, WBEZ, ProPublica Illinois, NBC and ABC Chicago, and more.
These days, there is much conversation about increasing diversity and inclusion in the news media and many other industries. Since its inception, the Reporter has walked that talk.
Here are just a few examples of what would be lost if The Chicago Reporter did not exist:
- In its early days, it forced the modernization of the Chicago Fire Department, won lifesaving equipment in ambulances for Black and Latino communities, prompted lawsuits forcing equal staffing and funding for parks in all neighborhoods, and pushed for fair and equal employment, housing, and education.
- In 2011, the Reporter revealed that mortgage lenders were steering African American and Latino borrowers into subprime, predatory loans at higher rates than white borrowers. The investigation spurred a $335 million settlement with the US Department of Justice.
- Since 2016, the Reporter has overseen an interactive database that details City of Chicago spending on legal settlements resulting from allegations of civil rights abuses by police officers. In just over a decade, such settlements cost the city more than half a billion dollars.
- Last September, the Reporter revealed that, despite its pledges to alleviate financial hardships caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the City of Chicago had quietly used a little-known state program to collect millions of dollars in unpaid tickets, court fees, ordinance violations, and other debt from residents—many of them Blacks and Latinos struggling to make ends meet.
The Reporter is “a coveted news organization, and it would be a major loss for Chicago’s African American communities if it doesn’t continue its investigative work,” the Rev. Robin Hood, an organizer for Redeemed Outreach Ministries in Chicago, wrote last November in the Chicago Tribune.
In 2015, Hood’s aunt was in danger of losing her home after falling victim to a reverse mortgage scam, he noted in a letter to the editor. Predatory reverse home mortgages “had robbed Black families on the city’s South and West sides of millions of dollars of intergenerational wealth,” he added.
A Reporter investigation “sparked a community campaign, legislative reform, the ability for dozens of people to stay in their homes and the conviction of an unscrupulous lender. In these turbulent times, news that’s innovative and investigative is needed more than ever.”
Media trends come and go, but the Reporter mission remains as vital as it was in 1972. In response to a query from The Nation, Middleton said: “We are positively moving forward with the leadership, gifts and vision of Mr. Reedus as our interim editor and publisher. Per our public statement shared widely and posted to [The Chicago Reporter’s] site, we will keep our community partners fully informed in next steps, including the Advisory Table as it becomes available.”
Like all Reporter alumni, I wish the interim editor and publisher well. But the publication hasn’t run any investigative stories since it was shut down. CRS remains silent about its plans for this iconic institution, raising fears that it will use the Reporter to advance its own agenda.
The campaign to save The Chicago Reporter will not relent until the Reporter’s independence and integrity are restored.
Justice movements depend on data and facts that illuminate illegal, unfair, and immoral acts of government and other institutions. As deep racial disparities in health care, education, and many other arenas persist, as police shootings of Black men and women continue, we need the Reporter’s credible and impactful investigative reporting now, more than ever.