The Chicago Reader, which began as an alt-weekly newspaper in 1971, has always told surprising stories that mainstream publications ignored. That coverage has included overlooked injustices, perhaps most notably in John Conroy’s House of Screams, a 17-year, 23-article series about a police commander’s predilection for torture that ran from 1990 to 2007.
But Karen Hawkins, co-publisher and co-editor-in-chief, saw room for improvement for the paper, which changed its print publishing cycle to every other week during the pandemic.
“As much as I love and appreciate the reporting that the Reader does on racial justice and social justice, I felt like it was missing a why,” Hawkins said.
She said she wanted the paper to make clear that these stories were not just “trauma porn” but part of a broader racial justice framework that prioritizes equity and liberation. “These are issues we’re covering because they are meaningful to us,” she said. “We feel like we have an obligation to try to move the needle on them through our reporting.”
That desire led to the development of the Racial Justice Reporting Hub & Writers Room, which will focus on telling stories about overlooked Black and brown communities in the city, particularly in the south and west sides of Chicago.
Hawkins and co-publisher Tracy Baim estimate the hub will cost about $200,000 per year. In Fall 2021, the lab received $100,000 in funding, enough to begin publishing. They hired its first reporter, Kelly Garcia, whose bilingual reporting has already covered issues like the lack of newspaper boxes in Latinx neighborhoods, water quality at a correctional facility and the retirement of a controversial domestic violence court judge.
Hawkins said the hub’s funding will allow Garcia to follow up on stories over many years, like Conroy was able to do in an earlier era. The hub will also include collaborations such as editorial partnerships and reprinting rights with other publications.
While the initial funding has allowed the lab to start producing work, Hawkins and Baim are still fundraising. But Hawkins says she’s careful not to get too specific about her aims, having learned her lesson after The Reader started the process to become a nonprofit in 2019.
“That first year was promising people the moon, and I learned a lot from having to implement these plans that I drew up,” she explained. “So I am very hesitant to put any numbers on anything. I want to be cautious.”
The Reader is also bringing in anti-racism training for its staff, and working with audience engagement company Hearken to involve the community in development of the diversity lab.
Meanwhile, the Writers Room will invite writers, illustrators and other creatives to help develop project ideas and suggest new areas or angles for coverage — and be paid for their time. Hawkins says she hopes the lab will enable The Reader to bring more diversity into the newsroom, and allow people from various communities to tell their own stories.
The Chicago Reader is one of 20 publishers in the LMA Lab for Journalism Funding, which helps local newsrooms fund and sustain essential journalism through philanthropic support. The Lab is made possible with sustained support from the Google News Initiative.