No one is born into journalism, but Tracy Baim comes pretty close. “I had journalism both in my blood and in my environment,” she said, in a conversation at the Chicago Reader office in February. Her mother, Joy Darrow, and her stepfather, Steve Pratt, met while working at the Chicago Tribune. Intimately familiar with the business from a young age, Tracy said, “none of it scared me.”
“Undaunted” seems to describe a lot of Baim’s approach to life and work. She started a family newsletter at ten years old, and in college she began a feminist newsletter. As a student at Drake University, “my journalism professors told me I couldn’t be a journalist and be an activist, and/or openly gay.” It was “honest, paternalistic, in many ways demeaning, but it was true.” Tracy knew that at mainstream journalism publications in the 1980s, gay people were routinely treated poorly and subject to discrimination. “It was devastating. But from that point on it kind of released me into a universe where I wasn’t going to have a traditional path.”
In what would become a pattern in Baim’s life, those harsh lessons fueled her motivation. “Any time you tell me I can’t do something, I will work even harder.” In search of a place where she wouldn’t have to compromise herself or her values, she found a home at GayLife newspaper. Just one year later, in 1985, she co-founded LGBTQ publication Windy City Times (where she remains owner to this day).
Tracy spent the next three decades reporting, writing books, and otherwise advocating for the LGBTQ community–including in 2013 leading the March on Springfield for Marriage Equality. When asked what she’s most proud of, looking back on her work so far, Tracy said, “Sticking around. Sticking around despite a lot of negative people.” She recalled one story in particular that she felt compelled to tell, despite anger and pushback from her own community.
Several years ago Windy City Times ran an investigative series on misuse of funds by the leadership of Howard Brown Health, a mainstay of Chicago’s LGBTQ community. The reporting was seen by some as a betrayal, and the center itself boycotted the paper. “That was not easy,” said Baim. “The closer you are to the people you cover, the harder it is to cover them honestly.” But the stories were ultimately proven to be true, and the center’s operations and finances stabilized after some fundraising and changes in leadership. Today you’ll find copies of Windy City Times back at Howard Brown and their venues.
The last couple years have marked the latest of Baim’s big leaps. In 2018 she became publisher of the alt-weekly Chicago Reader. It’s been a fortifying change for an organization that had been losing money, reducing staff, and changing leadership for a while. In late 2019, the Reader announced it would file for nonprofit status–not to replace previous revenue streams, but to add to them, Tracy said.* Also last year, the Reader launched the Chicago Independent Media Alliance (CIMA), a network of over 50 local community media organizations working collaboratively to support best practices, training, and funding. It’s a big project, but Baim sees CIMA as a necessary step for the Reader’s survival–and a challenge. “If it’s an easy path, well, then someone else can do it. Let someone else do it. But if you tell me I can’t do it, and nobody else wants to try, then I might try.”
Tracy received the Studs Terkel Community Media Award in 2005. By now, it’s one of many honors she’s collected for her work over the years. But the Terkel Award “was one of the highlights of my life,” said Tracy. Of Studs, she said, “He was borderless in his approach to what journalism was.” It’s an approach Tracy can relate to. “So much of what I have done is not typical journalism.” But, she said, “I’ve done what I’ve had to do, to do what I love.”
*Disclosure: Public Narrative is the fiscal sponsor for the Chicago Reader.