News & Politics » Media

Money Changes Everything; News Bite

With funds dwindling, the Chicago Reporter has taken some drastic measures.



Money Changes Everything

The Chicago Reporter just bowed to reality and switched to bimonthly publication. In the best of times the monthly schedule was hard to keep and often wasn't--the young investigative reporters sometimes missed their deadlines by weeks. But these are more like the worst of times at the Reporter: foundation support has dwindled, the staff's not sure that anyone's still reading it, and about half the staff recently disappeared. The old schedule looked both impossible and pointless.

The Community Renewal Society launched the Reporter 33 years ago to examine poverty and racial injustice. A sign of the idealism of the gifted young reporters the paper has attracted is their chronic ambivalence about CRS itself. "It's an unholy alliance to bring together a news publication with an advocacy group, which CRS is," explains former editor Laura Washington. But she appreciates what some staffers don't--that without CRS's underwriting the Reporter would never have survived.

At some point in the last few years the camaraderie among the staff began to fray. In recent months it's been in tatters. On April 5 editor-publisher Alysia Tate e-mailed her staff: "We all agree that a number of things must change, and I believe we all agree that the environment here has become so difficult that none of us will be able to continue working under the current conditions in a productive way. . . . Movement is required from all of us."

Two days later Tate fired contributing editor Mick Dumke. Dumke says he offered to resign if he could stay long enough to wrap up the project he was on. But Tate wanted him gone immediately. The following Monday she fired associate editor Brian Rogal when he came in to work, having called his mother to try to track him down beforehand. Reporter Rupa Shenoy soon quit. Reporter Sarah Karp went on maternity leave.

Trying to understand why things soured, I was encouraged to take several factors into account. For starters, race and poverty stopped being topical, and the major media lost interest in the Reporter's findings. "I wrote a story during last year's elections about people being disenfranchised in Cook County," Shenoy told me. "It didn't get any pickup--none whatsoever. Then I wrote a story about how the Chicago police were violating state law. There was no pickup."

A longtime benefactor, the McCormick Tribune Foundation, concluded in 2000 that the Reporter wasn't reaching the right people, and for the next four years it gave the magazine $100,000 annually to spend on marketing and circulation. The lack of results dismayed the staff, and it didn't thrill the foundation either. "We thought you were planning to do a steady drumbeat of mailings, using different lists, to expose people to the magazine and ask them to subscribe but we don't see much evidence of that last quarter," said a memo the foundation sent Tate and her manager of circulation and marketing last October. "As you know, this grant was conceived of as a one-time thing. We've now renewed it, despite lower-than-expected activity during the first grant. But in renewing it, we expected to see a real, aggressive push. We hope that's coming." The grant has since expired. Vivian Vahlberg, McCormick's director of journalism programs, told me, "They made progress. They didn't get as far as we wanted."

The stock market hammered the CRS endowment, and CRS tried to find other funders to cover the Reporter's operational expenses. That's how the Reporter's sister magazine, Catalyst, is supported, but race and poverty turned out to be a tougher sell than education. The December 2003 issue of the Reporter thanked the funds and foundations that had contributed $609,000 during the previous year. Last December's list was shorter, and the total contribution only $538,200.

Such bequests are a mixed blessing anyway. "There are far more strings attached to grants than even when I started the job," says Tate, who's held it three and a half years. "There's much more emphasis on reports, benchmarks, measurable outcomes. More and more we have to rethink what we do and how we prioritize what we do and how we talk to funders about what we do." A magazine so beholden to its advertisers would humiliate everyone who worked there.

A few weeks after 9/11 transformed the nation's economy and priorities, Tate took over the Reporter. She was 29, the same age as the magazine, and she'd been a reporter there for three years. But Tate's talents and ambition exceeded her managerial experience, and she found herself in the difficult position of supervising friends and colleagues. Yet Shenoy, an intern at the time, remembers, "That first year, it was the best place to work. It was like a living embodiment of the ideals it was supposed to espouse--a totally integrated place where everyone was equal, down to the interns. But very gradually a breach began to form between the management and the staff." It widened in 2003, when CRS executive director Calvin Morris ordered cutbacks throughout his organization and Tate laid off two reporters.

Every fall the Reporter staff had gone on a retreat, but not last fall. In October the staff took Tate out to lunch, and the conversation focused on the McCormick grant, which they believed was being squandered. It wasn't a pleasant meal. Communications between Tate and her staff continued to deteriorate, and in March her number two, senior editor Alden Loury, announced that she'd decided to do something about it. Charles Whitaker, a Medill professor who cochairs the Reporter's advisory board, was coming to conduct a meeting. Everyone was expected to show up and say what was on his or her mind. Tate would not attend.

The March 22 bitch session went on for hours, and afterward Whitaker handed Tate a seven-page memo. "A few days later she called a meeting to talk to us," says Shenoy. "She starts out crying and apologizing. 'I'm sorry I haven't recognized your contributions.' We thought, 'Oh, this is cheesy but good. She's trying.' She asked for individual meetings to talk about our concerns."

Shenoy was first to sit down with Tate. "It quickly became clear I was on the defense, she was on offense," Shenoy says. "She was seeking to defeat our concerns rather than deal with them. I told her my principal concern was we have no pickup: 'You have no idea how difficult this is. You pour your life into these freakin' stories and no one hears of them. It's maddening.' She said, 'You can't expect pickup--other media see us as competition.' She said we never got much pickup ever--'I don't know why you'd expect some now.' Her whole thing is 'We're having impact. You don't run in the circles I run in.' She sees city leaders, and they compliment us. Yeah, if she runs in those circles and we're in freakin' Englewood and Austin, she's going to hear more of it."

Tate's relationship with Dumke was particularly touchy. They'd worked together for years, and he was the managing editor when she took over. But she appointed Loury senior editor above him. Though Dumke quit as managing editor early last year to teach at Columbia College, as a "part-time" contributing editor he was still giving the Reporter 30 hours a week. After their meeting Tate e-mailed him. She said she "remained concerned . . . about your acknowledgement that it is difficult for you to envision your role here under existing leadership and in the offices of Community Renewal Society....I will be sharing my recommendations and goals after meeting with each staff member, and then will sit down with each person again."

Dumke was alarmed. He wrote back, "I spoke to you Wednesday as frankly as I could with the understanding that the discussion would be open and honest. I did not understand it to be part of a formal process of evaluation of my performance."

Tate replied, "I apologize if I have not been clear. All of our discussions here about your perspectives and opinions about the Reporter, and your role in particular, should be viewed as part of my current goal to reassess and evaluate every aspect of the magazine. . . . You are correct in assuming that our upcoming conversation, when it is scheduled, will focus largely on your role and future at the magazine."

Dumke then told her, "My assumptions about the informal nature of our conversation were not derived out of the blue. For the six years you and I have worked together, regardless of the titles we have held, we have always had an open dialogue. . . . We have spoken honestly about our work, our lives and our hopes. I understand now that this level of openness may no longer be useful or appropriate."

Between the first and second rounds of one-on-ones, the staff received the e-mail in which Tate conceded that the working environment had become intolerable. In it she promised movement from management--but she also demanded it from them. "We must agree to operate as a team that is not a collective or a family," she wrote. "We must move in the direction of eliminating gossip. . . . We must commit to testing the ideas and decisions communicated by the leadership by putting them into good practice, rather than undermining them." Furthermore, "It will also be increasingly important to our work to have good working relationships with the rest of the CRS staff."

Team versus family? Brian Rogal says Tate had been making that distinction for months, and no one understood it. But the tone of her memo was clear. It was, well, corporate. "Whitaker told us Alysia wanted a more corporate structure," says Rogal. "He said he thought it was wrong. We thought it was wrong."

The second time they met, Tate fired Dumke. Rogal went in next and, like Dumke, objected to the memo. "I felt it was written by someone who knows the words and not the music," he says. "She gave me a cold, cold stare. 'So you think it's all my fault.'" Rogal walked out pretty certain he was history.

"Brian and Mick were two of the best reporters the Reporter had," says Sarah Karp, who's now on maternity leave. "They went into the conversations wanting to be fair and honest. I don't think they went in trying to bash her or take down the Reporter, anything like that. We thought we were having honest and open discussions about the Reporter. I don't think any of us expected the result would be half the staff would be fired."

Tate told me she wouldn't discuss personnel matters, but she was friendly and suggested lunch. Then she e-mailed CRS executive director Morris and the members of the advisory board. "In the next week or two," she wrote, "you may see some media about recent staffing changes at the Reporter. I wanted to make sure that all of you knew that these stories were promoted by former employees here--not current staff--and that the tenor of those stories will likely be largely reflective of people's upsets, not the truth about what is happening here."

I felt obliged to e-mail the same board members. I wanted them to know that none of the former Reporter employees I'd spoken to had come to me with the story. I didn't even know that Dumke and Rogal had been fired until two months later--when someone outside the magazine told me.

News Bite

8 The way a magazine shops for new blood says a lot about how it idealizes itself. Crain's Chicago Business just promoted managing editor Joseph Cahill to editor, and now it's looking to fill his old job. It wants applicants to know its stories "are known for sophisticated analysis, strong point of view, sharp writing and a forward spin that tells readers what to expect, not just what happened yesterday." The next managing editor should "know how to balance hard-hitting news coverage with the occasional offspeed pitch. . . . A competitive nature wrapped in a congenial personality seals the deal."

Add a comment