This week, South Side native Damani Bolden steps into the role of executive director of South Side Weekly NFP, the nonprofit that publishes the Hyde Park Herald and South Side Weekly. In an interview with the Herald, Bolden said he wants to offer South Siders a platform that “traditional media would never provide.”
Although he brings a bevy of experience in politics, not journalism, Bolden said he wanted to take the helm at the Weekly and the Herald because of a commitment to “telling real and authentic stories that are meaningful and reflective of the communities that we’re serving.”
He also said he plans to foster greater community engagement through in-person events and workshops, as well as by strengthening digital engagement with the papers and adding more Spanish-language translations and original content.
Bolden is succeeding longtime Weekly leader Jason Schumer, who spent the past eight years stepping into a range of roles and assuming a Herculean number of tasks at the biweekly paper. Last year, Schumer also oversaw the merger between the Weekly and the Herald under one nonprofit.
Growing up in the Wrightwood neighborhood of Chicago, Bolden was raised by two parents who were dedicated public servants. As a child, Bolden was a self-described “avid newspaper reader,” soaking up headlines and stories from the Sun-Times, RedEye, the free daily commuter paper, and the Tribune—when he could afford it.
For him, the South Side was a vibrant place where people loved and took care of each other. But he felt the portrayals of his neighborhood in those mainstream publications served a different set of interests from his community’s.
“Those papers were reflective of the negative things that went on in our communities,” Bolden said. “It’s easier probably to sell ‘32 people shot, 11 killed over 48 hours’ versus 100 percent of African American kids at Urban Prep graduated and matriculated to college … At the end of the day, it’s a business.”
But he connected with the range of perspectives expressed on WVON, Chicago’s long-running Black-led talk radio station. He first listened to the station in his grandfather’s car on their rides home from school at Vanderpoel Elementary in Beverly and later from Lindblom High in Englewood.
“WVON was always a place that expressed Black excellence, South and West Side excellence, while also not negating the issues and problems that we have in our community but talking about them from a solution-oriented standpoint,” he said.
Bolden called WVON his “greatest source of media inspiration,” noting that the Weekly and Herald have similar strengths.
“South Side Weekly and Hyde Park Herald give people the platform to tell those positive stories, to shine a light on things that need to be improved, and to connect with one another in a way that other publications don’t give us the opportunity to do,” he said.
In 2010, Bolden went downstate to attend the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he majored in agricultural and consumer economics. He was also elected student body president for the third straight time in his life, holding the position during the 2013-14 academic year. He was the third Black American to win that elected office at University of Illinois.
Bolden said his experience working with press, in his case with the Daily Illini, the student-run paper at University of Illinois, was on the whole positive, even when the paper wasn’t entirely favorable in their coverage.
He said they had an “open and transparent relationship,” that was only occasionally contentious because he was the subject of their reporting. He understood that they were playing a role of ensuring accountability and transparency on his part, which he views as the purpose of journalism for society as a whole.
After graduating, Bolden worked as chief of staff for State Senator Emil Jones, III and on the state budget for former President of the Illinois Senate John Cullerton. He also did some political consulting work but eventually grew disenchanted with politics.
“I found that my impact on my community could be so much more meaningful than just helping put people into elected offices,” Bolden said.
Now, as publisher of two community newspapers, he hopes to find greater meaning in reflecting what is “bustling, beautiful and thriving” in Hyde Park and the South Side writ large, back to those communities.
Readers can reach Bolden at firstname.lastname@example.org
Max Blaisdell is a fellow with the Invisible Institute and a staff writer for the Hyde Park Herald.