Help us win the fight for the Reader: its bold writing must be saved

By Ben Joravsky on behalf of the Chicago News Guild bargaining unit

As much as I may not like to admit it, I’m the old guy on the Reader staff. And so I’m writing on behalf of all the employees in our guild bargaining unit.

My first Reader story — a freelanced restaurant review — ran in 1977, before many of my current colleagues were even born.

I started covering politics for the paper in 1984. I’ve been a staff writer since 1990.

That’s long enough for me to have learned a thing or two about what makes this paper so great. Yes, the Reader runs provocative theater, music, film, and food criticism, but just as important, its editors give writers the freedom to tell it like it is, even if we irritate the hell out of the powers that be.

This tradition of hell-raising and muckraking stretches from John Conroy’s fearless reporting on police brutality in the 1980s to Aimee Levitt and Christopher Piatt’s recent exposé of harassment and abuse at Profiles Theatre. Every editor — from Bob Roth, Mike Lenehan, and Alison True in the early days to the current one, Jake Malooley — has kept this going.

In terms of editorial freedom, I got off to a strong start with Wrapports, the consortium of business executives that now owns the Reader as well as the Sun-Times.

A few days after Wrapports bought the paper in 2012, Reader employees were called to the Sun-Times offices to meet Michael Ferro, then the publisher.

My brief conversation with Ferro went a little like this:

Me: So, what are you going to do when the mayor calls to complain about something I wrote?

Ferro: I’ll tell him to get a new press agent.

Despite that much-appreciated editorial independence, the Reader is at a crossroads under the Wrapports regime — our very existence is threatened. The Reader’s story during the Wrapports years has two recurring themes: editorial achievement and a baffling pullback of business operations. We need investment so the Reader doesn’t die of malnourishment.

Wrapports bought the Reader from a hedge fund, which had in turn taken control of the paper after the previous owners went bankrupt.

As you can see, the newspaper business is a tough one.

Ben Joravsky

Frustrated by cuts and pay freezes and an uncertain future, the editorial staff unanimously voted to form a collective bargaining unit in January 2015 — we joined the News Guild.

We’ve been negotiating with management for a contract since not long afterward.

While Wrapports allows us to maintain our editorial independence, we have suffered on the financial end.

Most of the staff hasn’t gotten a raise in nearly a decade. Many of our editorial employees work more than 40 hours per week for less than $40,000. Most staffers are male, but the lowest-paid workers are predominantly female.

The biggest salary goes to some old goat who makes $55,000 to write about politics. Obviously, no one got in this racket to make it rich.

But we do need stability. We’re getting just the opposite. There’s been a steady stream of cuts since Wrapports took control. When they bought the paper in 2012, we had 47 full- and part-time employees. We now have 31.

Most of the cuts have been on the business end. We’ve lost ad reps and marketing strategists — the very staffers who bring in the money we need to function.

In 2012, each issue of the Reader ran from 72 to 80 pages. Now, it’s generally 44 to 48 pages.

You can’t build a paper by starving it. Neglect is not a sustainable business strategy.

If you like the Reader — if you appreciate its voice of independence in politics and the arts — help us out.

Please put pressure on Wrapports. Let them know they should invest the money to build the paper and pay its workers a fair wage.

To continue down this path means a great Chicago newspaper will slowly die.

The Reader — a timeline of excellence and turmoil

May 2012 — Wrapports LLC, a private group of investors, purchases the Reader from Atalaya Capital Management for slightly less than $3 million. Wrapports is the brainchild of Michael Ferro Jr., chairman and CEO of private equity firm Merrick Ventures. Serving on its board are John Canning Jr., chairman of the Chicago News Cooperative, and Bruce Sagan, publisher of the Hyde Park Herald. Other wealthy business leaders funding Wrapports include Joe Mansueto, Michael Sacks, Rocky Wirtz, and Bruce Rauner.

Wrapports has purchased Sun-Times Media — which includes the Chicago Sun-Times and 38 suburban newspapers — and named Jim Kirk, formerly of the Chicago News Cooperative and Crain’s Chicago Business, as editor in chief.

As a condition of employment, Wrapports mandates that Reader staffers declare themselves to be at-will employees. The company offers no severance or matching benefits for retirement. At time of purchase, the Reader has 47 full- and part-time employees, and issues run 72 to 80 pages.

June 2012—At the annual Altweekly Awards, the Reader is honored for arts criticism (J.R. Jones), feature story (Steve Bogira), food writing (Mike Sula), investigative reporting (Ben Joravsky, Mick Dumke), and special section (the staff-written 40th anniversary issue).

August 2012—The Reader vacates its longtime office space at 11 E. Illinois, which included ten editorial offices, and moves into the Sun-Times Media suite at 350 N. Orleans, where it has five editorial offices and an open-seating plan for the remaining employees. As part of the move, three employees involved in operations leave the Reader.

October 2012—Mary Jo Madden, general manager of the Reader and a 35-year veteran, leaves the paper, and her position is eliminated. Her employees in advertising and operations will now report to three different Sun-Times executives, and the Reader’s printing and distribution will be overseen by the Sun-Times. The Reader’s marketing director leaves, and her position is eliminated. A marketing and sales assistant assumes her duties.

Steve Bogira’s “Divergent Paths to College” traces the high school careers of two young women from opposite sides of the tracks: Hayley Himmelman of New Trier High and Jasmeen Wellere of Hirsch Metropolitan High.

January 2013—The Reader publishes its first 56-page issue. Excluding “special” issues (Best of Chicago, Fall Arts, et cetera), page counts in the coming year will range from 56 to 96, averaging 77 pages.

March 2013—The Chicago Headline Club honors the Reader in its annual Lisagor Awards with nominations for feature writing, in-depth reporting, nondeadline reporting, blog post, and news column or commentary.

April 2013—Two longtime classified-ad and display-ad representatives leave, and their positions are eliminated. Media outlets report that Bruce Rauner, who is running for governor, has sold his 10 percent stake in Wrapports to Michael Ferro Jr.

May 2013—Senior writer Mike Sula wins a James Beard award for his 2012 Reader story “Chicken of the Trees.”

The Reader hires a business development specialist.

The Sun-Times replaces its old Weekend section with the new Agenda insert, combining its own arts coverage with copy reprinted from the Reader. Senior writer Michael Miner reports that the new owners “have let us know that the Reader is a rare paper of theirs that turns a profit.” Subsequently the Sun-Times will repaint its street boxes with the Reader’s familiar black-and-gold color scheme.

June 2013—A planning strategist for the Reader’s “Real Deal” promotion leaves the paper, and her position is eliminated.

July 2013—At the annual Altweekly Awards, the Reader is honored for beat reporting (Steve Bogira), illustration (Johnny Sampson), and staff-written blog (the Bleader).

The Reader’s marketing manager leaves and is replaced.

September 2013—A sales representative leaves, and her position is eliminated.

October 2013—An ad account executive leaves, to be replaced ten weeks later.

November 2013—Darryl Holliday and E.N. Rodriguez’s graphic feature “How to Survive a Shooting” tells the story of a mother trying to cope after her 19-year-old daughter is gunned down at the corner of King Drive and 72nd Street.

December 2013—Mick Dumke’s “Heroin, LLC” breaks down the economics of the west-side drug trade.

January 2014—The Reader hits a new low in page counts with its first 48-page issue. Excluding special issues, page counts in the coming year will range from 48 to 80, averaging 68 pages.

March 2014—The Chicago Headline Club honors the Reader in its annual Lisagor Awards with nominations for in-depth reporting, feature story, education reporting, arts criticism, and news website.

July 2014—At the annual Altweekly Awards, the Reader is honored for arts criticism (Tony Adler), food writing (Mike Sula), political column (Ben Joravsky), long-form news story (Mick Dumke), cover design (Paul John Higgins, Mike McQuade), illustration (Jason Wyatt Frederick), innovation (Darryl Holliday, E.N. Rodriguez), and multimedia (the People Issue 2013).

August 2014—Steve Bogira’s “The Toll of Violence on Children” reveals the long-lasting impact of street killings on the city’s youngest.

October 2014—The Reader loses its veteran senior design coordinator.

Wrapports launches the Sun-Times Network, described by one journalist as “a templatized, national/local, ready-to-go network of 70 news sites and apps that aim to make use of all the au courant digital news business knowledge of the day.” This experiment will later be abandoned.

Wrapports sells six daily and 32 weekly suburban newspapers to Chicago Tribune Media Group for an undisclosed sum. Crain’s Chicago Business reports the Chicago Sun-Times’ average weekly and Sunday print circulation as 140,000 (the Reader’s weekly circulation is 90,000) and its digital circulation as 65,500.

January 2015—The Reader editorial staff votes 19–0 to join the Chicago News Guild.

Mara Shalhoup resigns after four years as editor of the Reader to become editor of LA Weekly. “I recognize that the timing of this announcement is coming on the heels of your decision to unionize,” she writes in a memo to staff. “I had accepted this job prior to last week’s vote but didn’t want to tell you sooner — because I didn’t want my decision to persuade you one way or the other.”

February 2015—A classified advertising representative leaves, and her position is eliminated.

March 2015—The Chicago Headline Club honors the Reader in its annual Lisagor Awards with nominations for feature story, education reporting, arts criticism, investigative/public service reporting, and photography.

In “Chicago Police Are Spying on Citizens,” Mick Dumke and Ben Joravsky share the results of their FOIA request for information on “First Amendment-related investigations . . . prompted by or based upon a person’s speech or other expression.”

The Reader loses its advertising director, whose position is eliminated.

April 2015—An advertising account executive leaves, and his position is eliminated.

May 2015—Film editor J.R. Jones publishes The Lives of Robert Ryan (Wesleyan University Press), which originated as a 2009 Reader story.

June 2015—At the first bargaining session between the company and the Reader unit of the Chicago News Guild, the guild submits a set of contract proposals dealing with noneconomic matters, but the company refuses to agree to anything without first seeing the economic package.

July 2015—Following six months as acting editor, Jake Malooley is named editor of the Reader. His previous position, managing editor, is eliminated. He and creative director Paul Higgins announce a redesign of the paper that will eliminate the “B Side” arrangement of the music section (it ran upside-down behind a music-themed back cover) and consolidate the paper’s film, theater, and other arts listings into a single three-page spread.

At the annual Altweekly Awards, the Reader is honored for food writing (Mike Sula), arts feature (Max Blau), political column (Ben Joravsky), long-form news story (Steve Bogira), special section (Bar Issue 2014), and multimedia (People Issue 2014).

Two advertising account executives depart, and their positions are eliminated.

August 2015—An advertising production manager leaves and is not replaced. An editorial assistant also leaves, and his work compiling the Reader’s event listings is redistributed to existing staff and to freelancers.

The company notifies the guild that it is contemplating laying off one full-time and one part-time employee covered by the Reader unit. At subsequent meetings, the company declines to specify which employees it wants to dismiss. The guild responds with a letter requesting financial documents that will prove the need to eliminate these unnamed employees. The company never responds, and the layoffs are not carried out.

September 2015—Senior writer Mick Dumke leaves the Reader, and his position is eliminated. Robin Amer joins the Reader as deputy editor for news; the company will contend that, unlike Dumke, she is ineligible for union membership.

The Reader eliminates another position when its senior marketing manager leaves.

October 2015—An associate editor leaves and is not replaced. Her social media duties are assigned to a new staffer four months later.

A senior account executive leaves and is not replaced.

Wrapports CEO Tim McKnight resigns, and his position is eliminated. The command structure now consists of Jim Kirk; Paul Pham, senior vice president for business operations; and Tim Landon, CEO of the Sun-Times Network.

The Reader publishes its first 40-page issue. Excluding special issues, page counts for 2015 will range from 40 to 64, averaging 52 pages.

December 2015—Photo editor Andrea Bauer leaves the Reader, and her position is eliminated. Many of her duties will be assumed by Danielle A. Scruggs, who joins the Reader as director of photography in March 2016; the company will contend that, unlike Bauer, she is ineligible for union membership.

Adrienne Hurst’s “Black, Autistic, and Killed by Police” investigates the police killing of an autistic man inside his Calumet City home.

January 2016—The Reader unit of the Chicago News Guild submits the economic component of its contract proposal (salary, retirement, jurisdiction, et cetera).

For two years running, the Reader has dropped its last issue of the year. Now it drops an additional issue, billing the subsequent January 21 edition as a “double issue.” Excluding special issues, page counts for 2016 will range from 40 to 52, averaging 46 pages.

Beginning with the year’s first issue, the Reader eliminates its glossy cover, switching to a cheaper paper with a matte finish.

February 2016—Michael Ferro, chairman of Wrapports, buys 5.2 million shares of Tribune Publishing stock for $44.4 million. To avoid potential antitrust problems, he soon donates his shares in Wrapports to a California charitable foundation. Following Ferro’s departure, John Canning Jr. becomes chairman of Wrapports and Bruce Sagan is named chairman of Sun-Times Holdings, which now consists of the Sun-Times, the Reader, the society weekly Splash, and the Sun-Times Network.

March 2016—Yana Kunichoff and Sam Stecklow are honored by the Sidney Hillman Foundation for their story “How Chicago’s ‘Fraternal Order of Propaganda” Shapes the Story of Fatal Police Shootings.”

The Reader’s business manager leaves; her position is eliminated, and the company hires a vice president of new media.

April 2016—The Chicago Headline Club honors the Reader in its annual Lisagor Awards with nominations for in-depth reporting, news column, political reporting, and general excellence in print journalism.

After three months, the company responds to the Reader unit’s economic proposal with two counterproposals: no salary increase and a severance package to consist of one day’s pay for every year worked.

Wrapports sells its society paper, Splash, to Tribune Publishing. Wrapports spokesman Glenn Harston says the board “decided it would rather focus on its core newspaper asset, the Chicago Sun-Times, and digital properties.”

Unionized editorial staffers at the Reader, working with the Chicago News Guild, launch the “Save the Reader” online campaign. Within a week, more than 3,000 readers sign the campaign’s petition to Bruce Sagan of Wrapports LLC.

June 2016—Aimee Levitt and Christopher Piatt’s “At Profiles Theatre the Drama — and Abuse — Is Real” exposes allegations of mistreatment at a local cutting-edge theater company. Six days later, Profiles Theatre closes.

July 2016—At the annual Altweekly Awards, the Reader is honored for arts criticism (J.R. Jones), political column (Ben Joravsky), race reporting (Steve Bogira, Mick Dumke), and special section (the Food Issue 2015).

August 2016—The Reader hires a vice president of business development.

September 2016Alison Flowers and Sarah Macaraeg are honored by the Sidney Hillman Foundation for their story “I Thought to Be Charged With Murder You Had to Kill Somebody,” examining three cases in which people were charged with murder for deaths caused by police who were pursuing them.

Contributing writer Derrick Clifton is honored by the National Association of Black Journalists for three Reader columns about the police shooting of Laquan McDonald.

Senior writer Steve Bogira, a four-decade veteran responsible for some of the paper’s best in-depth social justice reporting, leaves the Reader.

Four years after Wrapports’ purchase of the Reader, staff has diminished from 47 full- or part-time employees (23 editorial, 24 advertising/operations) to 31 (21 editorial, 10 advertising/operations).

Here’s how to help “Save the Chicago Reader”