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Chance the Local News Tycoon

On Wednesday night, instead of pulling a mini-Beyoncé and dropping a surprise album, Chance the Rapper pulled a mini–Jeff Bezos and announced his decision to purchase a media outlet

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“I bought the Chicagoist just to run you racist bitches out of business,” Chance the Rapper raps on his new song, “I Might Need Security,” released yesterday at midnight. He wasn’t joking: Chance’s company Social Media LLC did actually purchase the local news website from WNYC.

Chicagoist, which was launched in 2004, has had a tumultuous recent history. It was originally part of Gothamist LLC, a group of city-specific local news websites created by Jake Dobkin and Jen Chung. In 2017, right-wing billionaire Joe Ricketts purchased the company. Following the unionization of Gothamist writers, Ricketts shuttered the sites and laid off their employees. In 2018, the public radio station WNYC acquired Chicagoist’s archives. At the time of the acquisition, WNYC was eyeing Chicago-based WBEZ as a potential Chicagoist buyer. But, instead, Chance the Rapper ended up in charge of the outlet.

“I’m extremely excited to be continuing the work of the Chicagoist, an integral local platform for Chicago news, events and entertainment,” Chance told Gothamist, one of Chicagoist’s former sister websites. “WNYC’s commitment to finding homes for the -ist brands, including Chicagoist, was an essential part of continuing the legacy and integrity of the site. I look forward to re-launching it and bringing the people of Chicago an independent media outlet focused on amplifying diverse voices and content.”

The union of local artist and local outlet is apt. Chance has involved himself in high-profile civic initiatives since the beginning of his career. Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel named him an “Outstanding Youth of the Year” in 2014 after the rapper and his father rallied behind an anti-gun-violence campaign. In 2017, he donated $1 million to Chicago Public Schools and ran additional fundraising efforts for the city’s public education system. Chance’s history of trying to improve his hometown suggests that his purchase of Chicagoist was made in good faith. This is no small victory for Chicagoist; many beleaguered media companies fear acquisition by hedge funds that have no intention of actually supporting journalism. “I think that Chance’s involvement will be an opportunity for an even more diverse set of stories to be covered,” former Chicagoist contributor Leigh Kunkel told me.

Getting purchased by a well-meaning rich person is now often one of the most appealing prospects for struggling independent media outlets. It could certainly be much, much worse for Chicagoist. But Chance is also known for many things apart from his activism—puppets, for example!—and one of those other things is a particularly vindictive relationship with media critics. His management reacted to a measured critical assessment of his work on MTV News by vowing to never work with MTV again; the piece was soon taken down. His manager, Pat Corcoran, called the article—in which critic David Turner expressed his emotional disconnect from Chance’s concert in thoughtful and measured language—“offensive.” That Chance felt it appropriate to cut off access to a media organization whose criticism he did not like does not augur well for the independence of Chicagoist’s critics.

This purchase comes at a fascinating time in local Chicago media. Southside Weekly, an in-depth nonprofit magazine focusing on the city’s South Side, is doing some truly remarkable work in an area of the city that is frequently overlooked. Chicago Reader, the city’s long-running alt-weekly, may be on the brink of a renaissance, as it was recently sold by the struggling Chicago Sun-Times to a group led by black alt-weekly publisher Dorothy Leavell. And while Joe Ricketts also shuttered local news site DNAinfo along with Chicagoist, former DNAinfo staffers have regrouped and launched a nonprofit hyperlocal news website, Block Club Chicago, through the startup Civil. In an interesting twist, Corcoran is a major donor to the project. “Investment in coverage of Chicago is good news—there are so many voices that are not being heard in this city, and Chance has an enormous platform to elevate them,” a Block Club spokesperson said.

Whatever Chance does with Chicagoist—perhaps it will be a beacon for independent journalism, or in a worst-case scenario, the opposite of that—he will do it in an environment where readers have more choices for independent media than they did in the past. Blessings might fall into Chance’s lap, but if he wants to run a media company, he’ll have to proactively change his attitude toward journalism.