At the helm post-9/11

Alysia Tate watched Barack Obama’s historic ascent from a small-time state lawmaker to president during her time with The Chicago Reporter. Photo by Jonathan Gibby.

Alysia Tate watched Barack Obama’s historic ascent from a small-time state lawmaker to president during her time with The Chicago Reporter. Photo by Jonathan Gibby.

Alysia Tate began covering government and politics for The Chicago Reporter in 1998. Three years later, after a brief stint as senior editor, she became the editor and publisher. In 2008, she was named chief operating officer at Community Renewal Society, the Reporter’s parent organization. Tate is now an independent consultant on communications and public policy issues.

Did historical events during your time as publisher affect the magazine?

Well, during the time I was the editor and publisher, George Ryan was serving as governor and later ended up going to jail. That was a pretty significant political event, I think, in the life of Chicago. Public corruption was a huge issue that the George Ryan case brought to light, and we did some good reporting about how many public officials had been convicted of corruption charges and what a big problem that is in Illinois. There was a lot of talk about who would be the next mayor of Chicago. It became pretty clear Mayor Richard [M.] Daley wouldn’t stay there forever. Barack Obama was a young state senator that I got to have breakfast with over here at [Hyde Park’s] Mellow Yellow when he was running for Congress against [U.S. Rep.] Bobby Rush–a race that he lost big because he didn’t know how to campaign yet. But he was becoming a rising star, and we could see that he would have a very, very bright future.

Anything that influenced coverage?

The huge national divides around immigration–those were big and became a big part of our discussions about our coverage. Thoughts about whether we could have a black president, whether that could actually happen for the country and Chicago’s role in that. Because it wasn’t just about Obama; it was about a lot of people who were part of his team in Chicago that helped make that happen.

Did you write about that?

I don’t know if we wrote directly about it. I think that we had those conversations as a staff and we thought about how it would influence our coverage. But it definitely made us think differently about race, about how issues of race play out in politics and government–kind of changed how we framed things. It made us think about really who the black political leadership is in Chicago. There were all these people who we thought were the ones that would set the agenda in Chicago, and it was clear that was changing. So we talked a lot about that and thought about how we think about our sourcing differently.

Did 9/11 have an impact?

It had a big impact on fundraising. As the editor and publisher, that was part of my job–the fundraising. And it was really, really tough raising money for that year after 9/11. A lot of the foundations put a lot of funds into relief efforts and different projects, and we had another dip in the stock market so people didn’t have as much money to give. So it was a hard time to learn that part of the job. It was the part I really knew the least about–fundraising and making sure we had money to operate.

I remember us covering some of the growing Muslim population, particularly in the suburbs, and some of the resistance they were facing. We did try to do a lot more telling of that story and made that story very personal. So I know that that was something that we hadn’t really talked about the same way before. It was not on our radar screen to really cover that community very much.

How did technology fit in?

While I was the editor and publisher, the whole media industry was changing before our eyes–really, really dramatically. This was the time when newspapers just started losing readers in big, big, big numbers, and all of us, who had been trained as basically newspaper reporters, were learning that we had a lot of learning to do and growing to do if we wanted to stay in this industry. So, yeah, it led to a lot of conversations.

You said you created the ‘backbone’ of the Reporter’s Web presence during your tenure. What did that look like?

Well, a few things. I think it involved making sure that the website was accessible, solid, clear, easy to navigate, all those things. Anyway, our main concern was we wanted it to be as accessible as possible, and it looked like more and more people needed information electronically.

This was really before Facebook was even on the map. Or Twitter. People weren’t tweeting it and Facebooking it all the time, but they were at least emailing things and linking to things and wanting to read more and more things electronically.

So we did that, and we put a lot of resources into that. Alongside that, we also realized we have to actually make the print product more appealing. We have to make the print product something that people want to pick up and look at.

How did you change the content?

We did want to keep doing the in-depth projects, but that wasn’t all we did. It became more like thinking about a story as a package of stories. There might be a long-form investigation, there’d be some bullet points summarizing key points, we added a little box on the methodology, a best practices kind of thing. It became a few different elements.

What was one of your favorite memories from being publisher?

I always loved it when the staff would get awards for their work. When you work at the Reporter, you don’t get the money or the fame or the popularity that other journalists might get.

You just kind of labor away on these really, really hard issues, and it’s hard to feel like things are changing. It’s hard to feel like you’re making a difference because the issues we work on are so tough. So whenever anybody gets rewarded for that work or acknowledged for that work, it’s such a great moment.

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