By Ben Joravsky
on behalf of the Chicago News Guild bargaining unit
As much as I may not like to admit it, I’m the old guy on the Reader staff. And so I’m writing on behalf of all the employees in our guild bargaining unit.
My first Reader story—a freelanced restaurant review—ran in 1977, before many of my current colleagues were even born.
I started covering politics for the paper in 1984. I’ve been a staff writer since 1990.
That’s long enough for me to have learned a thing or two about what makes this paper so great. Yes, the Reader runs provocative theater, music, film, and food criticism, but just as important, its editors give writers the freedom to tell it like it is, even if we irritate the hell out of the powers that be.
This tradition of hell-raising and muckraking stretches from John Conroy’s fearless reporting on police brutality in the 1980s to Aimee Levitt and Christopher Piatt’s recent exposé of harassment and abuse at Profiles Theatre. Every editor—from Bob Roth, Mike Lenehan, and Alison True in the early days to the current one, Jake Malooley—has kept this going.
In terms of editorial freedom, I got off to a strong start with Wrapports, the consortium of business executives that now owns the Reader as well as the Sun-Times.
A few days after Wrapports bought the paper in 2012, Reader employees were called to the Sun-Times offices to meet Michael Ferro, then the publisher.
My brief conversation with Ferro went a little like this:
Me: So, what are you going to do when the mayor calls to complain about something I wrote?
Ferro: I’ll tell him to get a new press agent.
Despite that much-appreciated editorial independence, the Reader is at a crossroads under the Wrapports regime—our very existence is threatened. The Reader’s story during the Wrapports years has two recurring themes: editorial achievement and a baffling pullback of business operations. We need investment so the Reader doesn’t die of malnourishment.
Wrapports bought the Reader from a hedge fund, which had in turn taken control of the paper after the previous owners went bankrupt.
As you can see, the newspaper business is a tough one.
Frustrated by cuts and pay freezes and an uncertain future, the editorial staff unanimously voted to form a collective bargaining unit in January 2015—we joined the News Guild.
We’ve been negotiating with management for a contract since not long afterward.
While Wrapports allows us to maintain our editorial independence, we have suffered on the financial end.
Most of the staff hasn’t gotten a raise in nearly a decade. Many of our editorial employees work more than 40 hours per week for less than $40,000. Most staffers are male, but the lowest-paid workers are predominantly female.
The biggest salary goes to some old goat who makes $55,000 to write about politics. Obviously, no one got in this racket to make it rich.
But we do need stability. We’re getting just the opposite. There’s been a steady stream of cuts since Wrapports took control. When they bought the paper in 2012, we had 47 full- and part-time employees. We now have 31.
Most of the cuts have been on the business end. We’ve lost ad reps and marketing strategists—the very staffers who bring in the money we need to function.
In 2012, each issue of the Reader ran from 72 to 80 pages. Now, it’s generally 44 to 48 pages.
You can’t build a paper by starving it. Neglect is not a sustainable business strategy.
If you like the Reader—if you appreciate its voice of independence in politics and the arts—help us out.
Please put pressure on Wrapports. Let them know they should invest the money to build the paper and pay its workers a fair wage.
To continue down this path means a great Chicago newspaper will slowly die.