The Crusader Newspaper Group

The fight to reach the summit of Black journalism

Photo caption: FOUNTAIN POSES WITH his Lisagor Award at the Union League Club of Chicago, where the annual awards dinner of the Chicago Headline Club was held on May 12.

My daughter Imani and I sat recently at Table 19, at the Chicago Headline Club’s 46th Annual Peter Lisagor Awards, still nursing our drinks from cocktail hour, awaiting with butterflies, the moment that had brought us to the Chicago Union League Club.

Like last year, I was a finalist for the Lisagor Award in the same category: Best Column or Editorial for a large newspaper. Last year, I won for a series of stories on the mysterious disappearance of Jelani Day, the 25-year-old Illinois State University graduate student whose body was found floating in the Illinois River in September 2021.

But at this time last year, I was in Africa as a Fulbright Scholar to Ghana. So, my wife, daughter, and a family friend attended the Lisagor Awards dinner in my stead. My wife’s picture of the Lisagor she had collected on my behalf popped into my WhatsApp at 9:41 p.m. Chicago time, 3:41 a.m. Ghana time. Her note beneath it read, “Best News Column.” She also sent me a recording of the thunderous applause that rang across the ballroom as I was announced as winner.

I celebrated in Ghana alone. “Cool,” I wrote back. “Great!”

I decided that if I had the honor of again being a Lisagor finalist next year, that I would attend the awards dinner. Then on April 5, this year’s Lisagor finalists were announced. I was among them—this time for a collection of three columns I submitted titled, “America The Beautiful,” penned after one of the three, which a Sun-Times editor had elected to run only online but not in the newspaper.

The Lisagors are a big deal—named after one of the nation’s most respected journalists, Peter Lisagor, Washington Bureau Chief of the Chicago Daily News from 1959 to 1976. They are a big deal to me because they rise above the fray of internal newsroom politics, favoritism, cronyism, personal bias, or disrespect. An outside group of peers judge our work—on its own merit, independent of and beyond the institutions through which our work appears.

“I would be honored if you would join me this year,” I wrote in a note to my daughter with a dinner e-ticket attached. “I am a finalist again, the last time for my column in the Sun-Times. If I should happen to win, I’d like for you to go up and accept my award. If I don’t, you and I will still celebrate my being a finalist and you being my daughter, which makes me the biggest winner. Just a night out with you and me.”

Truth is, I wanted to win. Bad. Real bad. Especially this year, for reasons that have less to do with journalism or any vainglory and more to prove a point, which, after more than 35 years as a journalist, I should not still have to:

That my own voice, my own words and perspective as a Black journalist, and my work are valid and good enough—without an editor’s heavy-handed micro-editing and intrusive alterations, or disrespect. Good enough to stand alone among journalism’s best. Even if the decision is made to not run my column in the newspaper. Even as I stand at the end of one journalism journey and at the beginning of another.

Not Without Scars

As a Black journalist, I have fought for most of my career against the sometimes turbulent current and stubborn culture of predominantly white newsrooms, where Black journalists too often are seen as incompetent until proven competent, or as unqualified quota fillers. Where we often have found ourselves swimming upstream as the only Black person in the newsroom on the national desk or metro suburban desk. Where our unique insight and perspective too often are viewed as bias and where too many of us have ultimately vanished or else languished in agonizing isolation without mentors or the kinds of opportunities afforded our white colleagues. They can be mediocre. We have to be stellar.

I have fought to tell stories—stories ignored, forgotten and invisible—the way I see them. For too much of America still lies invisible to the mainstream American press.

When the news media do cover stories about the Black community, it is most often told through the eyes of white reporters and editors who haven’t a clue about Black life nor the cultural insight that might provide a more holistic portrait. What emerges too often is a picture painted with broad strokes of Black pathology and fatalism, filled with classist misperceptions. This is mainstream American journalism’s glaring blind spot.

They purport to have become “experts” on us, after reporting and prodding with an eye on prizes and the possibility of Pulitzers, and emerging with so-called “definitive” work on the Black condition. But neither the Italian American, Irish American, Jewish American, Polish American nor any other ethnic American community would accept my contention as a Black journalist to have become a so-called expert on their culture, life and times.

As a Black journalist, I have sought to tell “our” stories in my words, with my own cultural cadence and literary prose, navigating thoughtfully through the narrative field of single-word sentences to lengthy, more intricate ones laden with sensory detail and metaphor, sometimes interwoven with poetry and phraseology birthed in my own creativity that inspired me even as a child to write. To fall in love with writing. It is my gift from above.

And yet, throughout my career, I have had less-talented writers and editors—sometimes envious of, or threatened by, my work most often stemming from the paradigm that they are always smarter than us—verbally diminish my work or me. Tell me, “you’re not as good as you think you are,” or otherwise attempt to put me in my place, fueled by their own pretension and sense of superiority. Choose not to submit my work for awards or to consider me for promotion, despite stellar work that graced front pages and other sections.

As a dark-skinned big, bald Black man with a serious demeanor and undeniable African features, I bore the weight of racial stereotype assigned in America to Black men. And I have faced the kind of visceral reaction and discrimination that some of my Black colleagues did not.

If I had been short and light-complexioned or even half-Black, with hair curly or straight, with the combination of being meek and mild or funny and appeasing, unwilling to speak my mind, especially on racial matters, I suspect my burdens in mainstream American journalism would have been lighter. Recently, I heard a fellow Black male journalist remark to another Black man, concerning the ill-treatment a Black male journalist had received at a news organization:

“They want a certain type of Black man,” he said, referring to white news organizations. I quietly wondered what one thinks about being the type of Black man that white editors and publishers prefer over the Black men they do not.

Many years ago, a former Black male editor at a newspaper I had since left confided:

“Some of the things that I only heard happen to Black men, John, I saw happen to you here.”

I survived. And I escaped, though not without scars. I endured for my love of journalism. Because of my belief that voices like mine are critical to journalism, to our democracy, to helping leave record of a more inclusive and reflective narrative thumbprint of society. It was costly. My war wounds are mostly invisible.

As a Black journalist, I have, in truth, faced the wiles of disrespect from both white and Black editors. I have experienced firsthand the myriad ways in which petty newsroom politics and the business called journalism gnaw at the psyche and soul of someone who sees journalism as a calling, as more than just a job. I know the kinds of assaults and microaggressions that occur behind the closed doors of mainstream American news institutions, which were never meant for Black faces anyway, except as help in the cafeteria, on cleaning crews and as shoeshine men, waxing white reporters’ and editors’ shoes.

I have witnessed the subtle and also overt denigration of Black reporters, the systemic whittling away of our confidence, self-respect, dignity and pride, and even our passion for journalism by having our reporting and writing skills and their journalistic integrity constantly questioned by some editors and colleagues.

By having to deal with racist attitudes and comments about Black people in general, or about us as Black individuals, both inside and outside the newsroom. Like that time once when I asked a white Chicago Police sergeant at a police auction, where they acquired the items being sold at the auction. He replied gruffly, without flinching, “We get the stuff you people steal.”

Like the time once, when an editor at the Chicago Tribune confessed, “John, I was afraid of you. …I was intimidated by your silence,” she said to me sometime in the early 90s in an office adjacent to the Trib’s newsroom. “Then you have that sign on your desk…”

The sign? That intimidating offensive sign? Four words printed in black ink on a white sheet of paper that I had tacked up as my compass: “Never Internalize Their Disrespect.”

I never did. And I have come to believe that herein lies the secret to survival for those of us consigned to a career of Reporting While Black: To not allow American journalism to break our psyche and soul. I decided long ago that American journalism would never break my soul.

I learned long ago that everyone white is not my enemy and that everyone Black is not my friend. That ignorance and hate, stupidity and disrespect, discrimination, disregard and mean-spiritedness know no color. That the best revenge is success. And that success, when it comes, can clap like thunder, roll and reverberate with distinct clarity even for the deaf, blind and ignorant.

Still, it has never been about awards, but storytelling. About the opportunity to shine a light, to uplift, inform, and inspire. As a columnist, it has also been about the desire to share my perspective on stories and issues that I see as I peer out across the social landscape. To be true to my own self. To seek to write skillfully, utilizing my years of journalism and life’s experience. And to banish editors’ voices from swirling inside my head, and instead to write according to the rhythms of my heart and soul as a Black man.

Before leaving for my Fulbright in Ghana in November 2021, I told Lorraine Forte, the Chicago Sun-Times editorial page editor, that I wanted to temporarily reduce my weekly column to twice a month, given my research and teaching responsibilities in Africa. She agreed. And off I went to Ghana, filing dispatches twice monthly about African life and culture and of my journey back to the Motherland.

The Last Straw

In June 2022, I was on the cusp of returning to America and filled with mixed emotions. I was happy about going home but disturbed by news reports of violence and homicide in Chicago and across the country. By news of Trumpism and the lingering effects of the January 6 insurrection. By news of the mass shooting in Buffalo, New York (May 14, 2022) in which 10 Black people were fatally wounded in a racist terrorism attack by a since convicted 19-year-old white gunman.

With a column due, I began to write: “ACCRA, Ghana—From where I stand, staring back toward home, across this vast rippling ocean, with stinging tears in my eyes these days, I see an America lost in space: Land of the spree. Home of the grave…”

I filed my column to Lorraine on Friday, June 3, 2022, at 1:20 p.m. Chicago time/6:20 p.m. Ghana time. It posted on the Sun-Times website at 4:01 a.m., the following day in Chicago. Story done.

On Sunday, I checked the print edition to download a copy of the story as it ran in the newspaper. Except I did not find my column in the usual space on the OP/Ed pages, nor anywhere else in the Sunday paper. Nowhere. I wrote to Lorraine to find out what happened.

I learned from Lorraine that she had decided, without telling me, that my column would run on the second and fourth Sundays, and that two other columnists would run on the other Sundays of the month. Unaware, I had filed as usual and she had room in the newspaper for either mine or one of the other columnists. She chose to run his. But it was her rationale that stung disrespectfully.

Message from Lorraine: Tuesday, June 7, 2022, 6:59 p.m.—

Regarding the mix-up with your column: as I noted, it was too late to get another page in print, and holding a column that was written by a staff member (Lee Bey) wasn’t an option. I wasn’t going to hold yours either, though I couldn’t get an extra page. That wasn’t a matter of disrespect—I put both columns online, but only had space for one…

Let me know what your thoughts are moving forward.

Message to Lorraine: Wednesday, June 8, 2022, 6:03 a.m.—

Thanks again, Lorraine, A couple of things… I have been a staffer at the New York Times, Washington Post and Chicago Tribune. And never would I expect an editor to trump what is fair and right for a freelancer or even another staffer in my favor because I happen to be “the staffer.” Or simply put, as in this case, to have a decision of which story to run in the paper come down to the fact that one is a staffer and the other is not.

I’m glad the Lisagor judges and the judges for other journalism awards coveted by the Sun-Times don’t use those criteria in selecting the best in writing and reporting. Or surely, I would not have stood a chance, particularly in what I’m sure this year, as in previous years, was a field crowded with the work of staff members. Especially this year (Lisagor Awards for 2021 work) when the category of column, opinion and editorial writers was crammed into one, and other lowly freelancers like myself would have been lucky to get even an entry. Anyway, what’s done is done.

Second, I’m not sure how I want to move forward, if at all…


Truth is, I did. And I didn’t. I decided to stay on a while longer, convinced by other Sun-Times editors I had told about my impending departure last summer, including incoming Executive Editor Jennifer Kho. But months later, after Kho’s insistence to run her modified version of a column I had written, it was the last straw in a long list of slights, disrespect and innuendo over a more than 35-year career as a Black journalist, the last 13 as a lowly freelance columnist—not a staffer, as Lorraine had pointed out—for the Sun-Times (see Eric Zorn’s column and my own).

I hadn’t wanted my journey in mainstream American newspapers to end this way. But my soul, by then, was tired of fighting an unyielding tide, and being fully convinced that it’s not about the vehicle but the voice. I have chosen to exit stage left, though to continue to write on my own platform and also to expand my efforts writing for the historic, critical and indispensable Black press, namely the Chicago Crusader.

A Freed Black Journalist

At the Lisagor dinner on Friday, May 12, the ceremony began with the Chicago Headline Club’s Lifetime Achievement Awards. Among those honored was longtime CBS reporter Dorothy Tucker. She spoke unapologetically of her journey as a native West Sider, like me, to mainstream American journalism, where she was at one time the only Black reporter in a newsroom.

Tucker spoke of her travails as a journalist bathed in chocolate skin and perspective, bred and shaped by the experience of growing up on the other side of the tracks. She spoke of her dream of forging a career in journalism. Of her passion, perseverance, trials and ultimately her triumph. I felt a sense of pride and honor as Tucker received a standing ovation, and also the need for Black journalists like us to tell the truth about our experiences for the posterity of future Black journalists.

I felt butterflies as the announcement of Lisagor winners began by category. Months ago, in January, I had submitted to this year’s contest a collection of three columns titled, “America The Beautiful,” so-named for the column Lorraine had chosen not to run in the newspaper, and which I included in my three. Finally, the moment had come…

“For best column or editorial from a large/print online publication,” the announcer’s voice blared across the ballroom, “goes to Chicago Sun-Times, freelance columnist, America the beautiful, by John W. Fountain.”

I sat in my seat as my daughter walked briskly to collect my hardware, feeling vindicated, due respect for my work, and acknowledged by my peers—with no respect of whether I was a staffer or a freelancer. No politics. No disrespect. Just respect, big respect, for my work.

“Best column or editorial from a large print/online publication: John W. Fountain, a selection of columns.”

LOL. Corrections needed: The Sun-Times didn’t win. I did. And, by the way, I’m not a staffer. Just a lowly freelancer. And finally, a freed Black journalist.


Email: [email protected]

John W. Fountain is an author, professor of journalism at Roosevelt University. An award-winning journalist, he is former New York Times national correspondent, and former staff writer at the Washington Post and Chicago Tribune. He has written five books. His column also appears in the Chicago Crusader.

For Fountain’s Award-Winning Lisagor entry, visit

John W. Fountain
John W. Fountain
Professor of Journalism at Roosevelt University | [email protected] | Website | + posts

John W. Fountain is a professor of journalism at Roosevelt University and a 2021-22 U.S. Fulbright Scholar to Ghana, where he is a visiting lecturer at the University of Ghana-Legon and researching his project titled, “Hear Africa Calling: Portraits of Black Americans Drawn to The Motherland.”

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