Chicago Headline Club President’s Report 2019-2020 from Robert K. Elder

Robert K Elder, Chicago Headline Club President, 2019-2020. Portrait by Greg Rothstein.

Usually, this report is delivered during our annual Peter Lisagor Awards banquet in May. This will be an online-only address, since the COVID pandemic made us go virtual. Check out our amazing Lisagor video, which features our Lifetime Achievement Awards to WBEZ’s Jim DeRogatis and Jet’s Clarence Waldron. For the first time ever, we also gave distinguished Service Awards to two of our longest-serving members, Susan S. Stevens and Howard Dubin. (Thanks to Bill Kurtis for announcing those last two awards, both long-kept surprises.)

This past year, I’ve been so grateful to our hard-charging board. Our members came together in a difficult time to put on some spectacular programs and deliver some much needed resources for local journalists during a tumultuous time.

We’ve had an historic year, both because of the coronavirus pandemic and because of the demonstrations seen nationwide in the wake of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. We issued a statement in support of journalists covering those events, and we joined with the AAJA to speak out about anti-Asian racism during the COVID pandemic.

CNN correspondent Omar Jimenez, his producer and a photojournalist were arrested covering unrest in Minneapolis.

Our board also rose to the occasion when I called for an increased focus on diversity, equity and inclusion in our programming and new member recruitment. To that end, I asked each of them to recruit two new members personally, which was a resounding success. We still have work to do, but this was a positive step forward.

The Headline Club co-sponsored and held numerous efforts in this area, including July 2019’s Covering Race and Ethnicity: A Guideline for Finding The Deeper Stories and May 2020’s Covering communities in crisis: “Cooked: Survival By Zip Code” & the COVID-19 pandemic.

We held a diversity and multicultural training program titled “Managing Across Generations and Cultures,” which was popular and which we put online afterward.

Look for more programming and resources on supporting diversity, equity and inclusion efforts in the future.

Grants to struggling journalists
This year, in partnership with our foundation, the Chicago Headline Club gave direct aid to journalists facing unemployment and under-employment during the coronavirus crisis. To date, we’ve awarded 110 Chicago-area grants that totaled $50,500. Special thanks to Greg Karp, our treasurer, who designed and administered the program.

The feedback was amazing, particularly from the grantees themselves. 

Here are two examples:
#1: “Want to say thank you and so appreciate the support of the Chicago Headline Club during this unprecedented and difficult time. I have been a member of the Headline Club for about 20 years and want you to know it is much appreciated.”

#2: “I really appreciate the help with these bills, and it’s wonderful to know that an organization like this exists for struggling media workers. It added a bright spot during these sometimes dim days.”  

Through an anonymous source, each grantee was also gifted a year membership to the Headline Club and SPJ for a year, which will increase engagement. This also applies to finalists and winners of Lisagor Awards this year. If you haven’t yet claimed your free membership, please do so here.

Our FOIAFest continues to grow. This daylong event is chock-full of panels that train, inform and inspire journalists—and anyone interested in Freedom of Information laws. 

Our 2019 sold-out FOIAFest was no different. Maria Zamudio, our VP of FOIA, and past president Alejandra Cancino put together an impressive line-up.Our keynote speaker was Cheryl W. Thompson, an investigative correspondent for NPR and president of the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE). We hosted 15 panels featuring 49 speakers in a diverse and inclusive conference. Half of the panelists were female and half were journalists of color.

We sold 70 tickets and gave out 30 tickets to journalists of color; most of those journalists attended FOIAFest for the first time.  

Maria Zamudio with Cheryl W. Thompson.

The Chicago Headline Club does so much every year, and we’re not always great at publicizing our efforts (the curse of an all-volunteer organization). However, we’ve made significant changes in our messaging and communications strategy this year, including our #WeAreTheHeadlineClub campaign, aimed at increasing our visibility, recruiting new members and educating the public.

Brandis Griffith Friedman of WTTW

And we launched an online store with Chicago’s own Threadless platform, which carries T-shirts, masks, mugs and other swag. Most popular for us were our T-shirts that proclaim: “Journalists do it on the record.”

Ethics Efforts
Journalism ethics remains a strong area of focus for the Chicago Headline Club. We remain a visible presence on ethics issues nationally, and have worked hard to ensure that our national policies reflect SPJ’s Code of Ethics. We’ve made considerable progress in this area, as the SPJ board voted to endorse a revised sponsorship policy, which was supported by 15 national chapters. That policy, rewritten with a nationwide task force I served on, will be voted on by members at the next convention.

We also published a history of the conflict, and a statement on why journalists should not take money from sources that attack them.

The Chicago Headline Club is the host and core sponsor, with our foundation, of the Ethics AdviceLine For Journalists. The AdviceLine has operated since 2001, in a partnership with Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. The AdviceLine answers calls from professional journalists seeking guidance on ethics, sometimes on deadline. Since its inception, the AdviceLine has responded to queries from about more than a thousand journalists. AdviceLine’s co-director, Casey Bukro, blogs at

Casey wrote an important history of SPJ’s Code of Ethics, which was more of a struggle to pass than one might think.

Programming and training
We had several initiatives launched this year, notably:
Job and Career Resources for Journalists, our resource guide for working journalists, from Christine Wolf and Taylor G. Moore.

The Headline Club also put on a ton of programming, including:

Our partnerships with the Gene Siskel Film Center and 20th Century Fox included four events:

We also continued to administer our $2,500 Watchdog Fund grant. Journalists may apply for a grant to offset costs associated with investigative reporting work. Preference in the award decision is given to applications by individuals reporting for small newsrooms and underfunded news outlets, or as freelancers. More information:

We continue to publish our JobFile, which alerts members to new positions.

And that’s not all, but this probably tests the limits of your attention span.

In closing, thank you to the Headline Club board and foundation, and for all the journalists out there working to keep the public informed. Next year is our 100th anniversary, and we’ve got a lot of exciting things in store.

So, stay tuned. I’ll still be active on the board, but I’ll be handing over the reins to the next generation of leadership this month.

It’s been my honor to serve you.

Robert K. Elder is the 2019-2020 president of the Chicago Headline Club and the Chief Digital Officer for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. He is also the author of 13 books; his work has appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, Paris Review and many other outlets.