The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A fight over a vaccine column could kill one of the oldest alt-weeklies

The owner of the Chicago Reader objected when the staff raised concerns about the claims in his column. Now the paper faces financial ruin.

Philip Montoro, music editor of the Chicago Reader, speaks at a rally Thursday outside the home of the paper's co-owner Leonard Goodman, who objected when the staff fact-checked his column critical of coronavirus vaccines. (Kim Bellware/The Washington Post)
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CHICAGO — The scene outside the multimillion-dollar home of Chicago Reader co-owner Leonard Goodman on Thursday could have been lifted from one of the alt-weekly’s vivid cover stories. Sandwiched between two huge inflatable rats and a collection of picket signs, a colorful crowd of artists, politicians, union leaders and loyal readers rallied for what may be the 51-year-old paper’s last stand.

“The Reader is not just independent journalism, it’s a voice for the voiceless,” said Jesse Sharkey, the outgoing president of the city’s powerful teachers union. “It’s a voice that lifts up the most marginalized communities.”

The future of one of the nation’s longest-running alternative weeklies, which was in the process of transitioning to a nonprofit, is now in jeopardy because Goodman believes the paper is trying to silence another voice: His own.

UPDATE 4/26: Chicago Reader, legendary alt-weekly, averts closure over vaccine column

The dispute started in November, when Goodman — who had previously written columns on the “fiasco” of the Iowa caucuses and the government’s failure to stop sex-trafficking financier Jeffrey Epstein — decided to take on the topic of coronavirus vaccines for children. Specifically, why he was skeptical about the need for them.

“We have been kept in the dark about vaccine safety and efficacy by our government and its partners in Big Pharma," he wrote. “As a parent, I will demand more answers before simply taking their word.”

After the column published, Reader staff raised concerns about the scientific accuracy of some of his claims and the publisher hired a fact-checker to investigate them. Goodman pushed back — and sympathetic members of the Reader’s board began raising concerns about free speech and governance at the struggling paper.

The bitter, public fight that has ensued is pitting the paper’s journalists and publisher against its ownership. Now, its future hangs in the balance as its transition into a nonprofit is stalled and the Reader stands on the brink of financial collapse.

It’s a “hostage situation,” said longtime Reader editor Philip Montoro.

Alt-weeklies — the scrappy, irreverent and sometimes profane alternatives to buttoned-up daily local newspapers — exploded in popularity during the 1970s, becoming a venue for long-form investigative stories as well as local politics and arts coverage. They also came to rely heavily on print advertising, which has been declining for decades. Many once-thriving alt-weeklies, including Washington City Paper, have gone all-digital; others have shuttered.

“The Reader is kind of like an artery in Chicago,” its publisher, Tracy Baim, said. “It’s part of the last 50 years of the heart of the city.”

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In 2018, it was purchased by Goodman, a prominent attorney, and developer Elzie Higginbottom for a token $1. In his monthly column, Goodman enjoyed free rein to write on topics of his choosing — until his vaccine column raised red flags for Baim.

Baim said the external fact-checker she hired (“a normal process of fixing something after it was up,” she said) deemed more than a dozen of Goodman’s assertions to be false or misleading, including some that relied on debunked or non-peer-reviewed studies. But Goodman resisted Baim’s suggestions to rewrite the column or run the fact-checker’s report, which he called tantamount to censorship.

Ultimately, the column remained online unaltered. But his allies on the board nonetheless decided to pause the paper’s long-planned transition into a nonprofit by insisting on new protections for free speech and that Baim resign her anticipated role as its president.

“If they think it’s journalistic par-for-the-course to rewrite and edit an article because it’s unpopular, they should go back and review the First Amendment,” Reader board member Sladjana Vucovic told The Washington Post.

Goodman spilled his frustrations in an opinion piece published by another site, blasting the “fact-checking industry” as Orwellian “business consultants” keeping media “on the right side of government officials and corporate sponsors.” He characterized his feud with the staff as a fight "to rescue the paper from the dark forces of censorship and to preserve its fifty-year tradition of embracing dissenting views.”

The dispute echoes other contentious debates over free speech that have played out in the pages of major newspapers, college lecture halls and libraries across the United States. Within journalism, arguments have raged over the line between encouraging a healthy discussion of disparate viewpoints and promoting outright misinformation that could undermine democracy or public health.

Goodman declined to be interviewed for this story but in an email said he supports transitioning the Reader to a nonprofit contingent on having some say over who will sit on its new board. This week he published a letter in the Chicago Tribune saying that the anger against him is “misplaced."

Reader employees bristle over Goodman’s claim that they opposed him for expressing an unpopular opinion. This was about bad information, they say — arguing their dedication to free-speech values is unmatched.

The Reader "has a history of fighting for press freedoms and access to information. It stood up to the Cook County sheriff when he barred me from the jail, successfully arguing in court that he was violating our First Amendment protections,” former Reader staffer Tori Marlan said in a statement read during Thursday’s rally.

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Baim said the staff has accepted most of the board’s requests — including that she step down as president of the nonprofit. Yet they are still resisting a measure that would allow the for-profit entity currently in charge of the Reader to appoint some board members to the new nonprofit, which Vucovic said would help guarantee oversight by people “that are just as concerned about freedom of the press.”

Lawyers advising the nonprofit group say that granting such control over board seats would endanger its nonprofit status, Baim said. But there is no clear legal consensus that that would be the case, according to Richard Fox, a nonprofit and philanthropic lawyer not involved in the situation but who helped create the Lenfest Institute, a media nonprofit.

Goodman’s fellow owner, Higginbottom, has sided with the journalists, saying he doesn’t believe they need to dictate the makeup of the board, which he trusts will uphold free speech. If the newspaper shutters over this, “then what we’ve done is defeated our own purpose," he said. "Our purpose originally was to save the Reader.”

The two owners will meet Saturday to discuss the paper’s fate.

At the rally, staff and supporters lamented the rising acrimony. Some expressed gratitude to Goodman for rescuing the paper four years ago but warned that he has left it at risk.

"The damage he’s doing to our careers, to our mental health, potentially to a 50-year-old independent journalistic institution, is way out of proportion to the fact that basically we fact-checked one of his columns,” Montoro said.

The last fully-covered payroll was Friday, Baim said. Without a resolution of the dispute or a sudden infusion of cash, some staffers may not be able to cover their rent next month.

Also hanging in the balance is the role the paper has played in the community, providing potent reporting on the queer community and arts scene and breaking stories that have transformed Chicago, such as bombshell revelations that police for decades tortured Black residents.

“We speak to what it means to live in this city with a depth and nuance and care that a daily [paper] doesn’t have space for,” said senior staff writer Leor Galil, the last remaining reporter in the city dedicated to covering the local music scene.

These stories, “are meaningful to the people of this community who continue to live here and continue the legacy,” he said, "and meaningful to the people who live here now and never heard these stories.”