On Nov. 25, John Fountain resigned as a columnist after Sun-Times Executive Editor Jennifer Kho told him in a telephone conversation that she would not run a column he had written after he did not agree to one of her two revisions or revise that column in the way she had suggested. The editor's revised versions included restructuring of Fountain’s original column as well as revised sentences and the insertion of the editor’s own words. Fountain subsequently published that column, a tribute to the life and memory of a former journalism student Aaron Lee, on Fountain’s website.
Days after resigning verbally, Fountain sent two other Sun-Times editors a letter on Nov. 29 about the exchange with Sun-Times Executive Editor Kho. One of those editors followed up with Fountain by telephone, saying that Fountain, who has written a column as a freelance journalist for the Sun-Times since January 2010, would be allowed to write a final farewell column. After Fountain submitted that column Friday, Dec. 2, that editor called again to inform Fountain that the executive editor had made the decision to not run it.
The column, as Fountain wrote it, with a few minor insertions, appears below. The print in italics represents excerpts from the aforementioned letter Fountain wrote to Sun-Times editors after resigning.By John W. Fountain
This is the post-mortem of a Black Chicago newspaper columnist and a page in \the diary of a free Black journalist. I am gone, for real this time. Having succumbed to a 37-year career of Reporting and Writing While Black but having been finally liberated by the last insult, indignity or innuendo, and finally made free.
The challenge was always to try and be authentically me in a predominantly white journalism world that challenges, rejects, or else seeks to modify our words, voice or perspective. A world in which even some “Black” journalists have, at times, seemed more foe than friend. At least not supportive, or a defender, if not co-conspirators in my tumult and ultimate newspaper journalism demise.
And yet, I am free. At last.
Freer than when I typed my first byline nearly four decades ago, publishing in a mainstream American newspaper. In an industry that has long loathed, rejected or else tolerated, then dispensed of the likes of me, or relegated us to lesser positions while purporting that it cannot find “qualified” Black journalists.
"In a journalism career of nearly 40 years, I have rarely felt as disrespected as my encounter with Jen last Friday. And it signals to me not an end but a new beginning."
“Never Internalize Their Disrespect.”
They were the words of another Black journalist early on when I contemplated leaving newspapers for a job as a letter carrier. I printed and tacked them to my cubicle in defiance. And also these words from a Pulitzer Prize-winning Black photojournalist:
“You Can’t Argue With Excellence: Be excellent.”
That was always my endeavor. Even when I was overlooked as a reporter, underpaid, or passed over for national or foreign correspondent positions.
Even when I was maligned in newsrooms, treated like a second-class citizen and more like the resident Black man who conjured hate or fear because I fit, in living color, a stereotypical portrait of the big scary, dark-skinned, sullen and angry Black man--no matter how softly I spoke or tried to shrink myself.
Even when as a journalist who--no matter our education, experience or demonstrated talent and commitment--was always “incompetent” until proven competent, a status that always soon evaporated.
* * * *
It was a simple story, a tribute to my former student who died at age 34.
I received a call from Jen at 2:46 p.m. Friday, Nov. 25. She said she had sent two edited versions of my column to my email, which I opened and reviewed briefly as she spoke to me about why she thought the column needed revising. Essentially, she said she thought it moved too slow, was confusing, and did not get to the news of Aaron Lee’s documentary airing.
I explained that I had been deliberate in structuring the column and intentional in my decision to delay revealing to the reader Aaron’s “big news.” That this as a column was different from a hard news story or a feature. And that as a columnist, my words and the way I choose to tell the story are essential to my voice and perspective.
I was always respectful, never raised my voice and several times prefaced my responses to Jen with the words, “with all due respect and humility,” even as her voice and tenor grew terser and more irritated, if not angry, and even as she said things to me that were presumptuous and also disrespectful. She told me, in fact, that I think my writing is too perfect to need an editor (a near direct quote). I explained that I did not and that indeed I tell my students that every writer needs an editor. I always have needed an editor and always will.
She said several times she was “looking out for the readers” and thought the piece as written “confused” readers or would cause some not to read the column. She said she had edited other writers at the Huffington Post and The Guardian.
I argued that some readers perhaps might not read my column as I wrote it but that there are many who tune in to read my column. That I had constructed the story intentionally as a narrative to not give the end away and to draw the reader. I said that I essentially had earned the respect of readers, colleagues and outside judges for numerous journalism awards over many years, including the Lisagor and others. I also said that I had been writing a column for the Sun-Times for 13 years and had never experienced this kind of revision or editing.
I explained to Jen that good “editing” does not necessarily mean making wholesale changes. That punctuation, grammar, and fact checking are also a part of editing but that in column writing, maintaining the writer’s voice and choice—notwithstanding any factual errors—of how to tell a particular story are critical. In hindsight, it was clear to me that Jen had decided that my column would be changed in the way she saw fit to tell it.
Our conversation lasted 20 minutes 6 seconds.
Ultimately, Jen said that I could choose one of the two revisions she had suggested. Or, she said, I could take another stab at the column. I told her that I would not agree to either. She said: Well I’m not going to run it. I responded with two words: “I resign.” She hung up. So did I. My wife, who sat nearby listening all the while to the conversation, which I placed on speaker phone, shook her head. So did I.
For the record, I’ve had two really great editors at the Sun-Times: Tom McNamee and Paul Saltzman. They were editors who questioned, tightened and helped make my work better. The greatest gift of these two editors, even if we did not necessarily always agree, was that they trusted and respected my voice and writing, right down to the way I told my stories.
In a journalism career of nearly 40 years, I have rarely felt as disrespected as my encounter with Jen last Friday. And it signals to me not an end but a new beginning.
I am grateful for the opportunity to have written a column for the Sun-Times for nearly the last decade and a half (well over 600 columns and stories), and to have written for the readers of Chicago for decades more. To have been among the Sun-Times’s most decorated columnists in that time…
And, for the record, having been born and bred here in Chicago and growing up reading the Sun-Times and other Chicago newspapers, I think that maybe that qualifies me as maybe, just maybe, knowing a little bit about Chicago readers and how to give to them stories that matter. That certainly has always been my endeavor. And I will continue, although on a different forum.
I did, however, misspeak when I said, “I resign.” Truth is, I was never hired. It would have been more appropriate to say, “Fountain out.”
* * * *
I have always sought to be excellent, to be true to the story and to myself as a writer. Even when my heart was broken and my psyche and confidence seized by the constant bombardment, both inside and outside the newsroom, from those who contended that I could not write, did not belong or deserve to occupy that space as a journalistic storyteller at a major big-city daily.
I decided to persevere. To hold onto Journalism. Not the industry. But the ideal. The belief that the pen is mightier than the sword. Still. That journalism is pure and true. That at its core it seeks truth, shines light, yields hope and possibility.
Is not corrupted by human frailty, incompetence, favoritism and racial prejudice, which have calcified within its institutions that have left many a Black journalist battered and bruised and too often prematurely exiting this dream they once loved.
I endured. For the love of journalism, for the love of storytelling, for the love of humanity. Because of my belief in the shining light that is journalism.
And, frankly, because I was too stubborn to quit and unwilling to let anybody make me abandon my first love.
And yet, the time has come to say farewell. To the Sun-Times, which has hosted my column for the last nearly decade and a half. I must say farewell ultimately because my feelings, thoughts, and every word I write must always be my own. And I believe that is no longer possible for me in this newspaper.
Thank you, dear readers. For reading me, for believing in me, and even for challenging me. Your faith in me has meant more than the numerous awards my column has won.
I say farewell. Not because I don’t have anything left to say. But because I do.
So while I say farewell, I also say, “hello” as my demise in these pages has given birth to journalistic storytelling in a new venture, I call FountainWorks NFP. And I will write. No longer a participant in volunteer slavery, but as a Black journalist at last set free.
Free to tell whatever stories I choose exactly the way I choose to tell them. Free at last.
Editor’s Note—John W. Fountain:
I will continue to write my column as part of my launch of FountainWorks NFP, a not-for-profit focused on telling the untold stories of marginalized or underrepresented people like the stories of Jelani Day; the Unforgotten 51; Hear Africa Calling; Invasion of Faith; People of Accra; and many other stories and forthcoming independent journalism projects in digital print, multimedia and film as well as essays and columns by others in the FountainWorks team.
FountainWorks also includes a literacy and mentoring arm through the Real Mean Read program in 2016 at Matteson Elementary School and The Richard R. Siska Scholarship established for college-bound young men at Southland College Preparatory High School in Richton Park, Illinois, who volunteer in the program, reading with adult male participants to schoolchildren on Thursday mornings: community writing and multimedia storytelling workshops; a media literacy and arts program that will take urban youths to Ghana for an immersive transformative experience.
You may assist John Fountain’s efforts by making a contribution to FountainWorks directly by sending contributions to: FountainWorks, P.O. Box 485, Matteson, IL, 60443
Thank you kindly in advance.