Chicago Reader publisher to step down

Three months after completing a long and daunting quest to turn The Chicago Reader into a non-profit, Tracy Baum announced that she would be stepping down as publisher of the alternative newspaper by the end of the year.

Bem, 59, a veteran Chicago journalist who has led Reader since 2018, made an arduous journey from a money-losing publication to a potentially solvent nonprofit, a process that this year almost stemmed from a battle for survival between its two owners. was derailed, and allegations of censorship

The publication was sold in May to the nonprofit Reader’s Institute for Community Journalism, and Baum said Friday that he is ready for the next chapter in his life.

“I have a sense of optimism and relief at the same time, because I know there’s going to be someone out there who is going to be able to take this to the next level,” Baum said. “I can be satisfied that I accomplished what I set out to do, which was to diversify its revenue and make it stronger over the long run.”

Reader’s future, 51, looked far more difficult as the year began, when the planned transition to a nonprofit model was delayed by then-co-owner Len Goodman, who retroactively published a November opinion piece. Had issue with attempts to edit. Wrote her 6-year-old daughter expressing concern about getting vaccinated against COVID-19.

In 2018, Goodman and Chicago real estate developer Elsie Higginbottom purchased Reader from the Chicago Sun-Times for $1 more debt assumption, saving it from dissolution. But the owners, who each pumped more than $1 million into Reader to keep it afloat, lock horns as Goodman investigates alleged censorship and insists on the ability to appoint more members to the successor board of the nonprofit. stopped the process.

The situation worsened and by April, Reader had no money and staff were rallying in front of Goodman’s Lakeview East home to allow the criminal defense attorney to relinquish control and move the newspaper forward as a non-profit. Goodman relented and Reeder completed the transition on May 16.

A longtime Chicago journalist and co-founder of the Windy City Times, Bam became Reader’s publisher under the new owners and planned the non-profit. She said the struggle to get the publication over the finish line had its impact and may have influenced her exit strategy.

“I was definitely disengaged,” Bam said. “It exhausted me and it probably accelerated my decision-making.”

Bam leaves the reader in a better position than he found it. Once the red ink bleeds, Reader has a $3 million annual budget and is working on break-even, she said.

Published weekly, Reader has grown its press run from 50,000 to 60,000 copies, which are distributed for free in approximately 1,200 locations. The workforce has more than doubled, from 17 to 38 employees. Formerly supported entirely by print advertising, Reader now gets more revenue from digital ads and branded content than from print, Baum said.

While advertising still accounts for two-thirds of its revenue, the nonprofit Reader now gets a third of its support from donations and subscriptions, a category Baim hopes to grow under the new leadership.

The nonprofit’s board plans to hire a national search firm this month to find Bam’s successor. Baum said she would stay until December to overlap with the new hires and help with the transition, if necessary. She will also serve as an advisor to the board on the search for a new publisher.

“We hope to have someone hired well before Tracy leaves so she can transition as much as possible,” said Eileen Rhodes, board chair. “We want it to be smooth and seamless, so funders and advertisers and employees are confident that Reader will continue and continue to improve.”

The shift to a non-profit model is a growing trend in the declining newspaper industry, with the Salt Lake Tribune the first major daily newspaper to transition in November 2019. In January, the Sun-Times became a non-profit newspaper when it merged with The Public. Radio station WBEZ-FM 91.5 under the banner of Chicago Public Media.

Started as a free weekly by a group of Carleton College graduates in 1971, The Reader became known for its ambitious long-form journalism, arts news, and offbeat classified ads. Like many print publications, Reader has struggled in the digital age, leading to many changes in ownership.

The original ownership group sold Reader in 2007 to Creative Loafing, a small chain of alternative weekly based in Atlanta. New York-based hedge fund, Atalaya Capital Management, acquired Pathak out of bankruptcy in 2009. Rapports, a Chicago investor group led by Michael Farrow that acquired the Sun-Times in late 2011, added Reader to its portfolio in May 2012. For about $2.5 million.

In 2017, an investor group that included Goodman and Higginbottom bought the Sun-Times, Reader and other assets for $1. A year later, Goodman and Higginbottom put in another dollar and keep the Chicago Journalism Institute alive.

A prolific journalist who has spent 38 years in community media, Bam, who turns 60 in January, plans to focus on writing for local media and continuing advocacy. He said that his role in saving Pathak has done its job.

“I was basically a foster parent for the last four years, who tried my best to shepherd it to my next parent,” Baum said. “I don’t want to outrun my welcome.”

rchannick@chicagotribune.com

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