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New blood at an old-school newspaper

Chicago Reporter's new editor intends to carry the torch for long-form journalism while adapting to the digital age.

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"What's your editorial staff?" I asked Susan Richardson, who on September 18 takes over as editor-publisher of the venerable Chicago Reporter.

"Two full-time reporters, a part-time Web editor, and a blogger," she said. Plus herself. Plus an open editing position she needs to fill.

And with that army at her command, Richardson, hired after a national search that lasted months, will—if I may quote the news release—"lead the 40-year-old investigative news hub into a new digitally-focused era," the "iconic brand" having evolved from the magazine launched by the Community Renewal Society to examine issues of race and social justice in Chicago into a "multi-platform news operation encompassing a magazine, web site and its Chicago Muckrakers blog."

Let's assume the rebuilt website—underwritten by a grant from the Open Society Foundations—that the Reporter intends to roll out in a few weeks is a thing of beauty. A website is like an orca; it's insatiable. How can Richardson's tiny staff feed the beast and still find time for the long, probing pieces that earned it its iconic reputation? Richardson won't be the first editor to face this dilemma. It's such a familiar quandary that a couple of years ago I wrote a column about it. "This is the core struggle of my human existence right now," a San Diego editor told me.

If you're a reporter committed to long-form journalism, a blog's a nuisance. Worse, it's what the law calls an attractive nuisance, treacherous but irresistible—like the backyard trampoline that neighborhood kids keep sneaking in to jump on. Knowing that just a couple of hours' work will launch your next whimsical notion into the blogosphere—and who can predict which choicely worded whimsy will go viral!—makes your blog a hard temptation to resist; but give in to it too many times and that opus you're working on just missed its deadline.

Richardson's been there before. She used to be managing editor of the muckraking Texas Observer, commanding a small staff (and budget) but expected to chase the big stories while constantly freshening the website. "It wasn't easy," she said. In Texas she leaned on freelancers, and she expects freelancers and interns to be indispensable to keeping the Reporter's site fat and happy. She also intends to aggregate aggressively and link to revelatory databases. "I take myself as a good example of the classic Chicago Reporter audience person," she said. "I want to know what the top race stories are in the nation right now. I'd be thrilled if someone put together what I try to do with my Twitter account, which is basically my personal news service. I pick and choose things that bring me the information I consider central."

Inside the Community Renewal Society, the Reporter isn't the only institution in a state of change. CRS—which describes itself as a "faith based organization that works with people and communities to address racism and poverty"—is itself just completing a merger with the like-minded but more grassroots-oriented Protestants for the Common Good. (PCG was founded in 1996 as a response to the religious right by Don Benedict after Benedict resigned as CRS's executive director.) For the past seven months the Reverend Alexander Sharp of the PCG has been acting executive director of the reconstituted CRS, overseeing the merger.

Sharp's enthusiastic about Richardson: "She's an experienced urban journalist with a research background and a foundation background—she's got it all," he told me. But he had little role to play in hiring her; the search was run by the Reporter's acting editor-publisher, Laura Washington, whose history with the Reporter goes back to the 1980s. When editor-publisher Kimbriell Kelly left for the Washington Post last October, Washington stepped in as a labor of love, even while continuing to contribute to the Sun-Times and WLS-TV.

Washington told me in an e-mail that the Reporter distributes about 3,000 copies a month, down from around 5,000 a month when she was editor-publisher in the 90s. But Web traffic then was negligible, while as of this past June the Reporter's website was getting more than 33,000 unique visitors a month. "In recent years," Washington said, "we have shifted our marketing and promotion resources to our online presence, as many publications have."

Richardson says she noticed that articles the Texas Observer featured online and then published in the next issue reached "somewhat distinct audiences," and even though the print audience was much smaller it was precious. Here were the Observer's "bedrock" readers, the ones who'd been loyal for a long time and had written the checks that kept the Observer afloat. They needed to be catered to, and they wanted ink and paper.

Richardson, who's 55, read the Reporter closely while living in Chicago from 2004 to 2011 as an education editor at the Tribune and then a senior writer at the MacArthur Foundation. She understands that the Reporter has its own bedrock readership, and when she talks about the kind of journalism surely closest to its heart—and certainly to her own—the word she uses over and over is "authenticity."

The Reporter was founded to report in depth on racial matters the dailies covered superficially if at all. "Authenticity," to Richardson, is the opposite of the stories told by reporters who carry out their assignments as if they were "going on a safari or going to the zoo." "Authenticity" means communicating that the story's about people who, whatever their troubles, are leading "full and complete lives." If I might construct my own example of what she's getting at, a story that begins "By the age of 16 Sally Mae had two children and a boyfriend in prison" promises to observe Sally Mae as a specimen on a glass slide, not as a human being.

"Sometimes we parachute in," said Richardson, "and when we do we miss being able to see the person in their full complexity." But the reporter who hangs around Sally Mae's neighborhood long enough to actually know who she is doesn't have much time for blogging.

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