L ast Thursday, the Chicago Reader's then-executive editor, Mark Konkol, published a cover that depicted gubernatorial candidate J.B Pritzker sitting on a black lawn jockey. He published it without the knowledge of Edwin Eisendrath, CEO of Sun-Times Media, which owns the Reader. The image was meant to call out the sneak racism of white progressives who call themselves friends to the African-American community, but many in that same community interpreted it as a reduction of black Democrats to a racist trope. The same image was used inside the paper to illustrate a column I wrote about Pritzker's coded language in a 2008 conversation with then-governor Rod Blagojevich about filling the Senate seat Barack Obama vacated when he became president.
On Saturday Eisendrath fired Konkol.
On Monday night, Eisendrath agreed to chat with me on the phone about Konkol's tenure, the cover, and the Reader's future as a print publication and brand. We also talked about lack of diversity at the Reader, which is a bigger issue than just one rogue editor. This is a condensed version of that conversation.
How well does the Reader's content reflect the city it serves?
I would say the Reader is changing. For years and years and years it was a white baby boomers' paper, mostly on the north side. It's gotten interested in, comfortable with, and eager to cover more and more and more of Chicago, and to cover more and more and more of Chicago in partnership with people who live in neighborhoods in Chicago. When I say partnership, I'm thinking about the stuff the Reader does with the TRiiBE, for example.
What about the current staff? Are there any black or brown folks there?
The Reader staff is not diverse. The people at the Reader fully understand how problematic that is, and they raised this question: Can we be more diverse? One of the enormous problems, of course, is the Reader is also financially challenged, so it isn't doing much hiring. It gets its diversity through partnerships and through freelancing, and until there are vacancies when people leave. But no, the Reader staff is not diverse.
When did you know about the lawn jockey cover?
I saw it when it was published. I hadn't seen it before.
This is something that's been floating around the Internet—that there was a cover with J.B. Pritzker in blackface that was vetoed by you. Is that true?
Why did you veto that cover?
It goes back to the question of diversity. I think through great literature, through a lifetime of challenging but honest conversations among friends, we can learn a lot about each other's experience. But your experience isn't my experience, and it's not for me—there's just some things that are not for me to say and some things that are not for you to say about each other's lived experience or the lived experience of other groups. A nondiverse Reader should never be trying to find a way to use those images. It can't be trusted. Even if you think it's making good points. It's just not the right crowd to do that. That's one reason. The other is I just plain thought it was repelling.
Why hire Konkol?
When I talk to people at the Reader and make my own judgments, it's clear the Reader does have to go through some change. It was very high quality but a little bit stuck, and that reflected itself in operational ways, in financial ways, so I was eager to find somebody who could sort of combine a business vision, a new vision, as well as an editorial one that made sense. I'm still eager to find that person. We've posted the [executive editor] job, and one of the reasons why I'm eager to do this interview is I'm hoping that really interesting people and people from all over will apply.
There's nobody who's perfect for a role, but he had a vision—and I thought that with some help from the rest of us it would work out. Every once in a while things don't work out. In fairness, I put him in a position that he wasn't ready to succeed at.
But did you make any efforts to make a diverse hire?
The company's process for hiring—we're not perfect in that round, in part because there were some sensitivities because there was also a editor in place at the time. I think the shortcomings of that process were clear, and that's one of the reasons now why the job is posted and we're casting a wide net now.
So last time you didn't really post it?
We actually met with a lot of people, but it was a confidential search, not a public search.
Does the decision now to terminate Konkol come with a decision to hire more people of color, women, or LGBTQ voices?
So there are two different conversations. I don't think they're in any way linked. Mark and the Reader have parted company, and that's one. Two: everyone at the Reader has said they would like to be in a place where there's more diversity, not just in some roles, but in important decision-making roles. They've all made that clear, and I couldn't agree more. They are, however, a struggling weekly newspaper, and they're not doing a lot of hiring. That does make it hard to do diversity quickly.
What have you learned from all of this?
I was reminded that we always have to expect the unexpected. I was reminded of the cardinal virtue of treating people well.
What's the financial situation at the Reader these days? When people ask me, "What's your financial situation," they're basically asking me, "Are you broke or not?"
Right, and you can imagine that's not something I'm ready to talk about tonight. I will tell you the Reader has been struggling, and that's not a secret.
Do you see the Reader as a viable print journalism business in this day and age?
All of us are talking about how to make the Reader a viable business. And all options for us are on the table in thinking about how to save it.
Where do you see the Reader in two years?
I don't have a crystal ball. I hope the Reader continues to reinvent itself to be the important, relevant, interesting voice it has been most of my adult life.
Do you plan on continuing to print the Reader?
Right now, we're stabilizing. We've been through a bit of a trauma, we're doing some stabilizing, it's not the time to discuss options about whether we print or not. It's not for now. v