Tracy Baim got her start in community journalism building up Chicago’s gay and lesbian publications. From the Windy City Times to Outlines, her mission has been to “make sure the breadcrumbs of our history can be found for future generations.”
More recently as the publisher of the Chicago Reader, she successfully oversaw the paper’s rocky transition to nonprofit status. She also shepherded the Reader through two years of a pandemic while doubling the alt-weekly’s staff. The media trailblazer joined Reset today to talk about why she’s stepping down from her post at the end of the year, and what she’s learned from her decades in Chicago journalism
[The following has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full conversation, click the red ‘LISTEN’ button above.]
Sasha-Ann Simons: Why did you get into — and stay in — journalism for all these years?
Tracy Baim: I come from a journalism family, but they were also very honest with me — that if I was openly gay, I probably would have a tough road ahead, in 1984, when I graduated from Drake University. So when I returned to Chicago, I was really lucky that my mother heard that there was a gay newspaper, which when I left for college I didn’t even know that existed. So I got a job at Gay Life newspaper because I knew how to run the typesetting equipment. And within a year, I was managing editor. Because of the conflicts of interest of the owner of the publication, a lot of people in the community thought that there was a need for a new media entity. So a group of people from Gay Life started Windy City Times in September 1985.
Simons: You don’t seem like a risk-averse person, at least not in your professional life. How do you overcome doubt or apprehension to be able to take these big risks?
Baim: Taking on the Reader in 2018 — still today, I have a little bit of imposter syndrome. I pinch myself that I was even asked, and that we were successful in accomplishing what we wanted to over these past four years despite the obstacles. So I still often face that. I think the best way I overcome it is that I have an incredible network of friends, colleagues and acquaintances that I have met over the years that have been super supportive of me even in the most difficult times. And certainly, during that first year of COVID, when I was literally tap dancing to raise money … So it gets me through the doubt when I see the support of myself individually or the projects I work on.
Simons: Here’s one of the first things I learned about you in my introduction to Chicago a year and nine months ago: You’ve worked to live out intersectional values and bring out diverse voices. At the Reader, you’ve increased the number of staff, which we’ve heard from staffers here on Reset was a turning point for morale — making it feel like more of a thriving publication. How did you do that? And why was that important for you to do?
Baim: The Reader had a stereotype as being a white, male, North Side publication for years, even though it did tremendous coverage of all communities and, at one point, did have a female publisher in the ’90s — and it did try, right? But in terms of the racial diversity, it was really appalling. A lot of times that is just inertia, the force that keeps going that you don’t reach out and figure out a different way.
One of the first people I reached out to when I was offered the job was Karen Hawkins — she had worked for me at Windy City Times in the early 2000s — and I wanted to bring her on board to help me in that mission. She just left a couple months ago to go to The 19th, but she and I were very much partners in that. We went from one person of color out of 17 people to 38% now. And absolutely that’s not the stopping point, and we need more in leadership and we’re really trying hard to have that across diversities, because I think journalism is done better when it’s by and for different communities. I learned that in the LGBT community, I’ve seen and watched that in the Black press, the Latino press, the Asian press. Those voices are critical to not only getting stories right but getting more stories, like getting stories that might not be found by someone who might live in Wilmette and be an editor of a daily newspaper
Simons: You’ve announced that you will be handing over leadership to fresh voices. That’s a form of innovation, too — not holding on to power and recognizing when other people can benefit from a project. How are you thinking about this?
Baim: Well, there’s going to be a search. The board is going to announce to the company this week. There already is a great management team in place. I don’t think I would even be considering this without feeling like there’s a soft landing for the next person. And we have people from within that have been promoted. Salem Collo-Julin is managing editor. We have different folks that are on track to support this person. I do feel like I will be there as needed as an adviser. I’m not jumping out of Chicago or anything.
Simons: But you’re not hovering older shoulders either?
Baim: I’m not hovering over shoulders. And I really also feel like my temperament after four years of this crisis is different to be able to sustain. And so, I wanted to do this before I was at the point I had to leave the next.
Simons: So what are you setting your sights on next?
Baim: Well, I turn 60 in January so it’s a pretty big demarcation for me. I want to get back to writing books and I want to be an advocate for the overall increase in journalism funding for community media in Chicago. So whatever role that is, as a board member or whatever it could be … We’ve been pushing for a pooled fund for journalism in Chicago since I took over at the Reader. It’s escalated over the last year, and I really feel it’s a possibility it’ll happen next year.
GUEST: Tracy Baim, publisher and president of the Chicago Reader