The most powerful women in Chicago journalism: 2019 edition

Goli Sheikholeslami

The most powerful woman in Chicago journalism isn’t a journalist.

But as chief executive officer of Chicago Public Media, Goli Sheikholeslami, 50, is well on her way to transforming the nonprofit parent company of WBEZ 91.5-FM into the premier broadcast and digital news organization in town.

At a time when other legacy media brands are struggling to survive, WBEZ is thriving under her leadership.

Since the former Washington Post digital executive arrived in 2014 (and promptly secured a $2 million grant from the Pritzker Foundation), the station has expanded its news and programming staff from 45 to more than 70, and forged editorial collaborations with ProPublica, the Better Government Association, Politico, the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times, among others.

Supporting Sheikholeslami's mission to deliver "independent, fact-based, objective news and information" is a dedication to robust investigative and enterprise reporting (including the recent scoop that Governor J.B. Pritzker was under federal criminal investigation for a questionable property tax break).

Record-setting audience and membership growth have followed. Drive-time ratings are regularly in the top 10, and station memberships are up 32 percent from five years ago. WBEZ now reaches more than 550,000 listeners over the air and more than 100,000 on its digital platforms each week. Local, regional and national awards keep piling up.

Thanks to the success of its listener-supported funding model, WBEZ continues to invest in innovative and original podcasts and programming, including the highly acclaimed "Making Oprah," "Making Obama," "16 Shots" (about the fatal police shooting of Laquan McDonald), and "Public Official A" (about the rise and fall of ex-Governor Rod Blagojevich).

As the person most responsible for leading Chicago Public Media’s transition from a broadcast radio service to a cutting-edge digital, on-demand news and information source, Sheikholeslami tops the list of the most powerful women in Chicago journalism.

“We’re building the next great local newsroom, right here in Chicago, with expanded resources and investments in reporting, producing and editing talent,” Sheikholeslami said. “We also need to be available to our audience no matter where or how they want to engage with us – whether that’s on the radio, on smart speakers, on their phones or on social media.

“Local journalism is more critical than ever for strengthening communities and creating a more informed, engaged public. We play an important role in Chicago for bringing trusted, unbiased news and information to our community, and I’m honored and grateful to be a part of this organization at this time.”

In 2011 I surveyed the media landscape to compile my first power list. (No. 1 that year was Emily Barr, president and general manager of ABC 7.) Since then I've updated the list every few years.

Once again you won’t find any newsreaders among these local media agenda-setters. Anchorwomen may be better known than some of the people I've listed, but fame is not the same as influence.

Here’s one man’s opinion. As always, I welcome yours.

The Power 25

  1. Goli Sheikholeslami, CEO, Chicago Public Media
  2. Jennifer Lyons, news director, WGN Television and CLTV
  3. Jennifer Graves, vice president and news director, ABC 7
  4. Julie Mann, managing editor, WBBM Newsradio
  5. Carol Marin, political editor, NBC 5; correspondent, WTTW “Chicago Tonight”; director, Center for Journalism Integrity and Excellence at DePaul University
  6. Ann Dwyer, editor, Crain’s Chicago Business
  7. Teri Arvesu, vice president of content, Univision Chicago
  8. Christine Taylor, managing editor, Chicago Tribune
  9. Sandra Cordova Micek, CEO, Window to the World Communications
  10. Nykia Wright, interim CEO, Chicago Sun-Times
  11. Diana Maldonado, vice president of news, Telemundo Chicago
  12. Susanna Homan, editor-in-chief and publisher, Chicago magazine and Splash
  13. Diane Dungey, senior deputy managing editor, Daily Herald
  14. Tracy Baim, publisher, Chicago Reader
  15. Mary Field, executive producer, "Chicago Tonight" WTTW
  16. Louise Kiernan, editor-in-chief, ProPublica Illinois
  17. Mary Schmich, columnist, Chicago Tribune
  18. Heidi Stevens, columnist, Chicago Tribune
  19. Lynn Sweet, Washington bureau chief, Chicago Sun-Times
  20. Maudlyne Ihejirika, columnist, Chicago Sun-Times; president, Chicago Journalists Association; president, National Association of Black Journalists Chicago Chapter
  21. Bettina Chang, co-founder and editorial director, City Bureau
  22. Susy Schultz, president, Public Narrative
  23. Fran Spielman, City Hall reporter, Chicago Sun-Times
  24. Shia Kapos, reporter, Politico Illinois Playbook
  25. Heather Cherone, managing editor and City Hall reporter, The Daily Line