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Political writer Mick Dumke will leave the Reader next week and start work at the Chicago News Cooperative. This was a wrenching decision for Dumke, and it's a jolt to this newspaper. He's an awfully good reporter.
Dumke joined the Reader's staff in the fall of 2007, and he'd been freelancing for this paper for two years prior to that. He expects to be doing for CNC pretty much what he's been doing for us—covering local government, FOIAing documents and working the numbers, and running the occupational risk that Mayor Daley will ram a bayonet up his keister.
He's a longtime friend of Dan Mihalopoulos, the former Tribune City Hall reporter who now covers that beat for CNC. "We talked periodically," says Dumke. Those talks led to a conversation with managing editor Jim Kirk, a former Tribune business editor. No job was offered, but Kirk's interest was clear. "I told Jim point-blank I liked what I was doing and wasn't shopping around for another job," Dumke says.
Reader editor Alison True, who hired Dumke, was fired on June 25, and after that, he says, "the conversations intensified. I don’t want to get into the back-and-forth that much. In so far as it's relevant, I want to make it clear this is not some sort of protest. I really want to work with these guys."
Working in journalism these days involves a certain amount of choosing your poison. True's dismissal added a note of uncertainty to a job Dumke had already begun to wonder if he'd been doing long enough. The future's no more certain at CNC, which nine months in doesn't have much to show for itself but the four pages a week it produces for the regional edition of the New York Times and a promise that sooner or later it will unveil "an innovative news site dedicated to building communities through quality journalism." But cofounder and editor Jim O'Shea, a former Tribune managing editor, has assembled an impressive staff, its core consisting of Tribune refugees whose age and experience strongly suggest an old-school regard for substance.
"I was a fan of the Reader long before I came to work here," says Dumke, who's 39. "I was a fan of the Reader long before I was a journalist. I started reading it avidly when I was an undergrad at Northwestern in the early 90s. It was a thrill to get the chance to write for the Reader. I think we did some pretty good work. There were some things I missed and some things I screwed up, but I feel pretty good about it on the whole."
"Mick has worked to keep all eyes on the Reader as it pertains to journalistic excellence in the reporting of local political matters," publisher Alison Draper wrote me. Draper tried and failed to change Dumke's mind. "When Mick looked me in the eyes to confirm his decision to move over to CNC," she said, "I quickly saw in him that passion that makes him an exceptional reporter and an all-around great guy."
Jim Kirk emailed me, "We're looking for high-impact reporters to help us win readers, and Mick's work at the Reader demonstrated that he is among the best in the city. He immediately raises our game, especially when it comes to local political coverage."
Kirk's gain is our loss. But there's a silver lining ...
When Creative Loafing Inc., which bought the Reader three years ago this month, came out of bankruptcy last August, it came out controlled by Atalaya, a hedge fund that needed to round up some people who knew something about running newspapers. One of them was O'Shea, who joined the board, came around the Reader and kicked the tires, and got us a new publisher, James Warren, a former Tribune editor.
What most of us at the Reader did not know then, but would soon find out, was that O'Shea was working on something a lot more important to him than the Reader and Creative Loafing. This was the Chicago News Cooperative. Warren was also deeply involved in CNC. He was, and remains, its featured columnist.
The question of priorities was never an issue with O'Shea because his were clear. Besides, he was rarely around. Warren's priorities weren't as clear, and he was at the Reader every day. The editorial staff regarded CNC as competition and hesitated to speak openly in front of him. But Warren left the Reader in March, to be replaced by Draper; and when Kirk hired Dumke, O'Shea immediately resigned from the Creative Loafing board.
"When I hired Jim Kirk, I told him to go out and hire the best," O'Shea e-mailed me. "He decided to go after Mick. To me, that was a direct conflict and I decided I had to resign."
O'Shea went on, "I actually think there's some potential for partnerships between the CNC and the Reader and want to continue to explore possible collaboration. But I felt the right thing to do was to step down, as much as I regret not being able to devote my energies to helping an admirable organization."
This wasn't the first time I'd heard O'Shea raise the idea of the Reader and CNC collaborating. It's unclear to me how that might work. But if there is a way, O'Shea's resignation clears the air.
In this age of want, media of all sizes are looking for ways to pool their strengths, and if there are synergies to be had between the Reader and CNC, I'm for having them. "I hope I'm in the middle of trying to make that happen," says Dumke. But he'll be working for O'Shea, who's working only for CNC, and clarity is healthy.