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True Colors: Chicago Reader Creatively Adapts to Save Community News

By Kevin Beerman / May 19, 2020

The Chicago Reader—a mainstay of the Chicago media scene that is renowned for their coverage of culture, politics, and the news behind the news—is fighting for survival in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis. And they’re doing it with coloring books and puzzles. 

For nearly 49 years, the Chicago Reader has been providing Chicagoans with important news and perspectives from key communities across the city, all free of charge. To keep the price of a copy of the weekly magazine so low (a whopping $0), they rely heavily on advertising revenue, which all but evaporated in the early stages of the Covid-19 crisis, plummeting 90 percent overnight in the early days of the stay-at-home order.

We reached out to Tracy Baim, the publisher of the Reader, to learn more about how they adapted to the do-or-die situation, what inspired them to turn to creative projects, and why community news matters now more than ever.  

Chicago Ideas (CI): What motivated the Chicago Reader to develop this selection of products?  

Tracy Baim (TB): While the financial crisis was by far the number one motivator, we also know we have to think of creative revenue generators for the longtime survival of the Reader. We also know we have an amazing talent pool on staff and among our freelancers and the greater Chicago creative community, and our projects have been one way to tap into that talent and share the fundraising.

CI: Why coloring books? How did they come together? 

TB: The first project we did was a coloring book. I worked on it because I had always wanted to do one, and with a four-day deadline, we were able to pull together an amazing array of local artistic talent, and the book was out in one week. 

We also did a second activities and coloring book to mark 420, Cannabis Day, and we created a puzzle from one of our quarantine edition covers of the Reader. We did masks that in part benefit a healthcare charity, and t-shirts are to come—both designed by famous local artist Merlot. 

We have several more books coming out soon, including a recipe book featuring Chicago chefs and bartenders, and best-of books from our Reader staff. The first of those is by our music writer Leor Galil, featuring the best of his past 10 years of music interviews. People can see these projects at www.chicagoreader.com/support.

CI: This pandemic has had a sweeping impact on media organizations and journalists in general, but local media in particular. Why is community news important, especially during times like these?  

TB: I have been working in community news in Chicago since 1984. To me, there is nothing more important in media than local news that represents communities. 

We have more than 100 outlets in Chicago that serve specific communities, racial groups, LGBTQ people, etc. The Reader launched the Chicago Independent Media Alliance (CIMA) last year to try to help lift the boats of independent, local media, and because of this crisis, and its impact on most of our members, we have launched a joint fundraising campaign for 43 of those media outlets. The website www.savechicagomedia.org allow  people to give to all 43 outlets at once, or to select individual outlets and donate. We have about $40,000 raised in matching funds from local foundations. The campaign ends June 5, and has so far raised more than $27,000 from individuals.

We need community-based media to make sure that both the good and difficult stories are told by those most impacted. Of course we also need the big media too, but community media play a vital role in getting the word out in whatever form they can, from print to online to social media and emails. I am an evangelist for community media in all its forms, and Chicago needs these outlets to survive if we want to thrive as a city.