A People with Passion series
August 15, 2011: Mick Dumke
If you have lived in Chicago for more than six months, it’s possible you don’t know Mick Dumke’s name, but you probably know his work. Along with fellow reporter Ben Joravsky, Dumke was instrumental in guiding Chicago into awareness of our shady tax increment financing program, better known as the TIF fund, a program that in theory diverts tax money to blighted communities, but in practice diverts them anywhere the Mayor sees fit. You may have also been bothered by the city’s agreement to lease our parking meters to a group led by Morgan Stanley for the next 75 years. Mick covered that too.
Here in this third installation of Jack M Silverstein’s Chicago journalism People with Passion series, the man who Mayor Daley once threatened with a rifle discusses his introduction to investigative reporting, his love for the craft, and why the Chicago dailies still matter to him.
“I was editor of my high school paper, and then I did go to Northwestern to study journalism, but I got there and, I don’t know why exactly, but I wanted to do something different. I have a real idealist, impractical streak in me I suppose. I’d gotten into what many people thought was the finest journalism school in the country, so of course I decided to study religion instead. And you know, like many of us, I consider myself kind of a spiritual seeker. I’d gone to church as a kid with some degree of dissatisfaction I suppose about just the whole thing, growing up in a church, the preaching vs. the ideas, and what I felt vs. not wanting to be in church, and that sort of stuff. When I got there I took a class on comparative religion, it was one of the first classes I took, and I was just blown away. I was so excited and intellectually stimulated by the idea of studying religion as not just something people presenting to you as The Truth, but as a series of ideas and a force of history, as well as kind of the metaphysical, spiritual component to it.
“I’d wanted to be a writer since I was a little kid. Back then journalism seemed like actually a career that one could go into, with, I wouldn’t say stable, but it was a respected, professional track. Setting out to be a novelist seemed sort of foolish, but going into journalism seemed like a decent career choice coming out of high school. I was very into politics and yeah, in high school I read The Jungle and studied the muckrakers and the impact they had on American politics and society, so that was an early inspiration as well. So yeah, I guess, my courses had a bunch of alternations. You can call that a degree of sort of instability, or you can say I have this sort of seeking, searching part of me, and both of those things are probably true.”
I started reading the newspaper as a kid. We always had newspapers in my house. My mom and dad were both daily newspaper readers. We always had dinner as a family, but breakfast time, everybody read the newspaper. My dad read the newspaper. My mom, when she actually sat down for breakfast, would read the newspaper. So it was a habit I picked up probably by the time I was in junior high, starting with the sports section.
A lot of us go through this period where we’re in our teens, in high school, where you start to connect the things that you get excited about with how the world works. That was going on for me. Eventually I started reading the front part of the newspaper, and then I started reading it first. I’m back to actually reading the sports first, now. But one thing led to another, and I learned about the muckrakers, people who didn’t just go to press conferences but actually did the digging. They put a story together. That was sort of groundbreaking.
A big part of this for me, my whole life, is the ethical component. The social ethics involved. To me, the thing that was appealing about being a journalist wasn’t just the writing. The reason I got serious about journalism was that I saw it as a way to practice my social ethics. People who had used their obvious passion for creating a turn of phrase and for getting the story in the newspaper combined that with a social conscience – that really struck me at that time in my life, and it’s continued to reverberate. I consider myself part writer, part reporter, and part activist on some level.
I really started reading the Reader for the entertainment stuff. I was way into music, especially in college – I’m still into music, but that was the primary thing that brought me to the Reader. And once I started learning the city, getting off campus and exploring, it was a helpful guide to the city’s cultural life. It was probably much later that I started reading the front section a little more carefully. Graduated from college, started teaching, started seeing how the city worked from the vantage point of working with high school dropouts, kids involved deeply in gangs, violence on the streets, this sort of thing – then I started taking interest in the way the Reader covered the city, beyond just the cultural stuff.
You’ve been at the Reader, and you’ve been at the Chicago News Coop, and now back. It feels to me, when I read the Reader or the CNC, my understanding of the city deepens. When I read you and Ben, Bogira, John Conroy certainly, Jim O’Shea, Jim Warren – I feel like I’m following stories and I’m understanding how the city – you know, the big phrase – how the city works. I feel like I understand it when I read those sources, and I feel like I don’t as much when I read other papers. In your experience, are these papers doing something different? I know obviously the Chicago News Coop was founded as hard news, city hall, all that…
Right. Well first of all, thanks for including me and the publication I work for on that list. That’s actually really encouraging. But I guess, I’m a little (pause) – obviously you see the kind of stories I do. That’s the kind of stories I want to read. That’s why I do them. I think there needs to be more of that kind of stuff that the Reader tries to do, that CNC tries to do, which are both small shops, you know, in relative terms.
That said, I don’t want to dismiss what the dailies do. They provide a tremendous service. That’s the first source of news for all of us. We do reporting on topics that they don’t ever touch, but we also do a lot of stuff that builds on things they’ve gotten out there. There’s room for – I’ve said this before – different types of reporting. There’s some people who just want to know what’s happening, not just day-to-day, but hour-to-hour, almost minute-to-minute. The breaking news stuff is where the dailies are going online. I think that’s an important service. People want to know what’s going on. They like heading into work knowing that Google’s buying a division of Motorola, or whatever, the stuff that just happened that could impact how they do business, if not directly then certainly indirectly. I think that is helpful.
But I also think we need explainers. We do need people who connect dots. We do need people who discover and tell stories, and not just provide the facts as they’re emerging. I hope that we provide a compliment on what they do, but I think that they provide a valuable service. That’s how I learn about Chicago, reading the newspapers. Living here, certainly. But my bigger sense beyond my neighborhood and my job and my direct experience is reading the newspapers. I certainly wouldn’t dismiss them. That’s the reason I continue to read them.
It’s a matter of taste. You like the stories you like. You trust the sources you trust. But I do think that the Sun-Times has some exceptional people. Tim Novak, one of the best investigative reporters in town. He helps inform me on how the city really works. He’s been for a couple of years now looking at all of the Daley relatives, and he still keeps digging stuff up, from Lollapalooza to a botched murder investigation. He’s found all types of stuff. The Tribune – there’s a lot of good enterprise and investigative reporters there. Michael Hawthorne, their environment reporter, is a fantastic reporter. David Jackson – I haven’t seen his byline for a little while, but he’s won two Pulitzer Prizes. He usually disappears for three months to a year, and then comes up with something that kicks major ass. My problem with those papers is there’s not enough of it. I would like that kind of stuff out there every single day along with the nuts and bolts stuff.
They obviously have resource issues as we all do. They don’t have the staffs to do everything, and they make decisions. The Tribune is writing not just for city dwellers, but increasingly I think they see their audience as people in the suburbs, or the region even. They used to cover things that happened in the rest of the Great Lakes area to some degree too, which is why people like us who didn’t live in Chicago would subscribe. And then the Sun-Times, I think, has continued to sort of narrow its focus to some particular beats in the city, which is probably smart too.
So my point there is, no, I don’t think you do anything wrong, but they see themselves pursuing different missions or different audiences, and that’s what they try to do. In some ways it’s harder for us, and in some ways it’s easier for us. We’re a weekly. We let a lot of the stuff go from week to week. We can’t cover it all. We don’t try to cover it all. We’ve chosen to do a few things with a little more depth than to try to cover everything. Mike Miner had a column two or three weeks ago about this very issue: How do you do the big picture stuff, the investigations, the deep dives, but at the same time feed the daily beast? We all have to have websites that are lively. And so we’ve been going through this process ever since I started working at the Reader, trying to figure out how to populate the website while at the same time doing investigations that could bring about change. That’s not an easy thing to do. But that’s where we are.
Like I said, you spent about a year at the Chicago News Coop. What did that experience do for you as a writer, as a reporter…?
You need changes sometimes just to get you thinking about who you are and what you add. That’s what that experience did. What am I bringing to the table? And I’m not saying I figured it out. I certainly haven’t. It’s a question I’m going to keep asking – I think you should. But that’s one of the things that it really taught me to think about: what is the work that I’m doing? You can’t ever afford to go into auto-pilot and take anything for granted.
I think it really helped me think about, you know, Why am I doing this? Who am I writing this for? What is it that I want to accomplish? Because it’s a hell of a way to earn a living. It’s fun, something I’m passionate about, but you don’t make much money, you work long hours. Even somebody like me who’s not necessarily chained to breaking news, still, you know – we’re trying to do too many things at the office I work in. Deadline pressures. So forth. I really want to know why I’m doing it. Otherwise I should be doing something else.
This is something that actually surprised me: I didn’t get into journalism because I wanted to be a reporter, but it’s the thing that makes me want to continue the most. I really like being a reporter. There are a million ways that you can be a writer, especially now. You can be a blogger. You can work as a freelancer part time and do something else to pay my rent. There are a bunch of different scenarios by which you can become published. But getting paid for the privilege of being a reporter is a pretty cool thing. I like seeing something, having a question, and being able to get the sign-off to say, Yeah, go find out what’s going on. I love that. That’s the part of what I do now that I think is the most creative. I used to think it was the writing that was creative, but now I’m like, The writing stems from what you find out, and what you find out stems from the questions you ask.
I don’t think I’ll be a journalist for the rest of my life. There are other things I’d like to do. I may return to teaching. I may find some other way to write that’s away from the daily news or weekly news cycle. But right now, I can’t shake loose the idea of being a reporter. I just really, really love it. I’m grateful for the privilege, and I’m thrilled that anybody reads any story that I write. That’s still a basic thing. Both because, you know, there’s a little ego lift from someone coming across your work, but there’s something even more powerful when candidates for alderman were talking about Tax Increment Financing policy, and things like that where, that wasn’t all because of what we did, but some of it was. At the very least, I feel like I get to be part of this conversation here going forward. That’s really exciting and important to me.
PREVIOUSLY IN THE SERIES:
December 12, 2008: Alex Kotlowitz (re-edited August 15, 2011)