Karen Hawkins on how alt-weeklies are navigating the pandemic
9 min read

Karen Hawkins on how alt-weeklies are navigating the pandemic

The Chicago Reader co-editor-in-chief explains how she's kept the publication afloat in the midst of Covid-19.
Karen Hawkins on how alt-weeklies are navigating the pandemic

A song to read by: “A plea for tenderness,” by The Modern Lovers

What I’m reading: “The Underground Railroad,” by Colson Whitehead

Karen Hawkins, alongside Sujay Kumar, is the co-editor-in-chief of The Chicago Reader, the Windy City’s preeminent alt-weekly publication and purportedly the nation’s first free weekly newspaper.

When I first struck upon the idea of introducing a Q&A into Medialyte, Karen was one of the first people I thought to speak with. I have a special place in my heart for alt-weeklies, having begun my freelancing career writing for The San Antonio Current and The Austin Chronicle back in Texas. Publications like The Reader, Current and Chronicle historically feature more Arts & Entertainment coverage than traditional newspapers, which makes them a valuable resource for getting plugged into local food, music and arts scenes.

However, because they are typically free, advertising-supported and reliant on print distribution, alt-weeklies across the country were disproportionately affected by Covid-19. As we’ve discussed, as digital advertising has gone the way of the MoviePass, media organizations that counted on advertising dollars to keep the lights on have shuttered across the country.

Add to that their distribution strategy, which depends largely on foot traffic to bars, restaurants, music venues and other cultural outposts — basically all of which have been shut down by Covid — and you have a recipe for disaster.

In fact, just a month or so into Covid, alt-weeklies across the country began cutting costs, furloughing employees or shutting down outright. Here are just a few headlines as evidence: “Coronavirus Could Be the End of Alt-Weeklies,” by Mother Jones; “Total annihilation”: Coronavirus may just be the end for many alt-weeklies,” by Nieman Lab; and “Alt-weeklies thought they’d been through the worst economically. Then came coronavirus,” by The Los Angeles Times.

In Chicago, though, there was no such bloodletting. Yes, two weeks ago The Reader did make the difficult decision to reduce its print frequency, from weekly to biweekly, but that has been the extent of the damage.

How has The Reader largely avoided the fallout suffered by the rest of the industry? Karen elaborates at length below, but in a nutshell: through foresight and creativity. The Reader’s publisher, Tracy Baim, is one of the more innovative in the country, and began reducing The Reader’s reliance on advertising revenue 20 months ago.

On top of Tracy’s prescience, Karen and Sujay quickly introduced a variety of novel new sources of revenue when corona came calling, releasing a Chicago Reader cookbook, coloring book and subscription product, in addition to selling masks, essay compendia and a number of other measures.

Instead of shrinking into paralysis in the face of an unprecedented financial crisis, The Reader’s staff thought fast, got creative and have kept the publication afloat. If that’s not media innovation, I don’t know what is.

On top of her work as co-editor-in-chief, Karen is also the founder of Rebellious Magazine, a feminist publication. She has a long, pedigreed list of media organizations on her resume, and is herself a Northwestern University alumna. I thoroughly enjoyed picking her brain on everything from media objectivity to HGTV, and I hope you check out our conversation below.

The interview

Who: Karen Hawkins, co-editor-in-chief of The Chicago Reader

Twitter: https://twitter.com/ChiefRebelle

The Chicago Reader: https://twitter.com/Chicago_Reader

Rebellious Magazine: https://twitter.com/RebelliousMag

First things first: The Reader recently announced it was reducing its print publications to twice-monthly instead of weekly. How does the change affect what the printed product will look like — is it going to be two issues stuffed into one, or just the same product but less frequently?

The latter. This is the first week since I’ve worked at The Reader that we’re not putting out an issue, so we’re still deciding what these off-weeks look like, but it should be pretty similar.

What’re you doing with the extra time?

[Laughs] Well this phone call is one of the things! Ordinarily, we’d be racing to the deadline at 4:30 on a Tuesday and I’d be cursing at everyone on Slack, so I think we’re all easing into having this week where we’re not putting out an issue.

All of the editors are just stunned at how nice it is to be able to plan and to breathe and not feel like we’re on a treadmill.

You’ve been co-editor-in-chief for almost exactly a year, and what a year it’s been! What have you learned in the last 12 months?

People talk a lot about The Reader in the past sense, and even when they talk about the things that we’re doing now, they don’t necessarily attribute those things to [co-editor-in-chief Sujay Kumar] and I’s leadership.

We feel a little-slash-a-lot invisible in the process, which is partially an amazing thing, because a good editor should be invisible, but also partly, “If we were flashy white guys, would be we be getting more of the ‘Oh you saved The Reader.’” I can’t help but feel like it’s because we’re black and brown.

I’ve also learned a lot about the business of alt-weeklies and the business of publishing. Sitting down with the publisher, going over the budgets and really understanding what this all costs has been a huge learning experience for me.

Also: having a diversity of revenue streams. That, to me, is the reason we haven’t had to lay anyone off, furlough anyone or cut anyone’s salary. Tracy Baim, 20 months ago, started the process of lessening our reliance on advertising.

Speaking of “saving The Reader” and the importance of diversifying revenue, y’all have employed some creative methods for generating revenue during this challenging time for media, especially alt-weeklies. Can you talk a little bit more about what The Reader has done to replace that advertising loss?

Starting 20 months ago, one of the big revenue streams was in-person events, including the Best of Party in Thalia Hall and our massive Pride celebration. Those are all postponed or cancelled now, of course.

We put out a coloring book a few months ago; we have a cookbook that’s out now, which features recipes from more than 90 cooks and bartenders throughout Chicago. We are selling merchandise; we have memberships for the first time.

We have started inviting our writers to compile their favorite stories into books, starting with Leor Galil’s favorite music stories from the last 10 years. We’re selling masks. And we are also now selling subscriptions, where you can have The Reader delivered to your home. Because so many places where you could pick up The Reader have closed, more folks have signed on to have them delivered.

According to a recent announcement, The Reader plans to “undergo a complete digital makeover in 2020, with a new website and other digital channels to come.” What will that look like?

We are launching a new website and migrating all of our content and have something we can take into the future with us.

Websites are like cars in that they become obsolete as soon as you launch them, but we’re hoping our new site will be scalable and easier to change as trends and audience tastes change.

Our current site is stuck in a certain era, so we’re excited to be able to change that.

Is there a timetable for that?

The dream is by the end of the year. I’d really love it by Oct. 1, which is our 50th birthday; we were founded Oct. 1, 1971, so we’re going to begin a yearlong celebration starting then.

Coronavirus, protests against police brutality, a supposedly progressive mayor receiving criticism for her refusal to cut police funding: There are a lot of big stories in Chicago right now. In your opinion, is there a story that’s going under-covered in the midst of everything?

For me the missing story is about what this all looks like in 3, 6, 9, 12 months. The 24-hour news cycle makes us want instant gratification, but what I have my eye on is putting a pin in things and checking back.

We have the luxury of covering so many of these things, from a progressive perspective, for a very long time. So a lot of the things that are becoming mainstream are not new to The Reader.

In fact we asked Maya Dukmasova, our news reporter, to compile all the stories she’s written about the police-abolition movement, and they were from 2016. So it’s like, “You want to know more about this? We’ve been writing about it for four years.”

Can you talk a little about Rebellious Magazine? What can you do with Rebellious that you feel can’t be done with The Reader?

Rebellious Magazine is an outlet to continue to provide a voice for all these writers I’ve been working with this whole time. I founded Rebellious in 2012, we took a disco nap and I relaunched in 2016, and I have this stable of amazing freelancers whose work I love.

Having a platform where we can all contribute together is really meaningful to me; they’re also folks who might not want to contribute to The Reader, or who have interests outside of what The Reader would cover.

One of the things we can do at Rebellious that we don’t do at The Reader is this very specific focus on feminist issues and news from a feminist perspective. We’ve kind of just planted that flag and are hanging out there. While The Reader is for everyone, Rebellious has a very specific point of view.

There has been a lot of interesting discussion lately about the idea that the concept of “objective journalism,” in many ways, helps maintain the status quo, and therefore is not a position of neutrality. Is this something that you think about, agree with or disagree with?

I absolutely agree with the notion that being “objective” maintains the status quo. Objective according to whom? Who gets to decide what’s objective?

I worked in mainstream media, I know exactly what that means. I was told I was getting hired because I “didn’t seem to have an agenda.”

The notion of objectivity is arrived at by assuming that there is a “default” way of looking at the world. That we are writing stories for this very particular person, and anything that deviates from that perspective is no longer “objective,” which is crap.

There are many reasons I left mainstream media, and that is certainly one of them. I am thrilled to be working at a publication and for a publisher who doesn’t believe that objectivity is a thing.

Just being able to write “Racism is wrong and we’re pointing it out” — I mean I worked at the Associated Press, where they still called things “racially tinged” until like a month ago. Not feeling an obligation to do that. Not giving any energy at all to certain points of view.

For instance, 20 years ago, if you wrote a story about gay people, no matter what it was about, you had to go quote somebody who thought homosexuality was wrong. Even if you were writing about Pride Fest.

This notion has even begun to change how mainstream newsrooms interact with cops. When something happened, you would call the police department and report exactly what they told you. It’s very recent, the notion that cops are not going to really tell you what happened, at all.

The media world has faced a racial reckoning in the last few months, with several prominent editors being fired for racist actions or discriminatory treatment of their employees of color. Do you think the changes rippling through the industry will effectively solve the problem, and if not, what else do you think needs to be done?

In 23 years, I’ve seen diversity organizations come and go, and that will always be the case so long as executives see diversity as a luxury to strive for when you have the budget. I am hopeful that that shifts; I don’t think that it’s going to go away.

I think the biggest thing that has to change is the gatekeeping that happens in journalism. People have to reckon with the idea that they really don’t want people who look like me in the newsroom. They don’t want to report to me, they don’t want to listen to me in meetings.

We live in a very segregated city in a very segregated country, so you can go your whole life without any meaningful interactions with people of color. We’re the barista, we’re your doorman, your nice butcher at the grocery store. And then you get to work, and you’re expected to hire people who look like your barista or doorman.

We haven’t addressed people’s own personal biases; we haven’t addressed people’s ingrained ideas about who can be a journalist and who can’t.

Journalists need to acknowledge that they are raised with the same biases that everyone else is.