Chicago Reader publisher steps down

Three months after completing a long and arduous quest to convert the Chicago Reader into a non-profit organization, Tracy Baim has announced that she is stepping down as publisher of the popular alternative newspaper by the end of the year.

Baim, 59, a veteran Chicago journalist who has run the Reader since 2018, has walked an arduous journey from a money-losing publication to a potentially solvent nonprofit, a process that was nearly derailed this year by an existential battle between its two owners, and allegations of censorship.

The publication was sold to the nonprofit Reader Institute for Community Journalism in May, and Baim said Friday she was ready for the next chapter in her own life.

“I have a feeling of optimism and relief at the same time, because I know there’s someone out there who is going to be able to take this to the next level,” Baim said. “I can be satisfied that I accomplished what I set out to do, which was to diversify his income and make him stronger than he had been in a long time.”

The 51-year-old reader’s future looked much more tenuous earlier this year, when the planned transition to a non-profit model was delayed by then co-owner Len Goodman, who challenged attempts to retroactively edit a November opinion piece he wrote expressing concerns about vaccinating his 6-year-old daughter against COVID-19.

In 2018, Goodman and Chicago real estate developer Elzie Higginbottom purchased the Reader from the Chicago Sun-Times for $1 and debt assumption, saving it from dissolution. But the owners, who each pumped more than $1 million into the Reader to keep it afloat, locked horns as Goodman halted the nonprofit process while pushing for an investigation into the alleged censorship and the possibility of appointing more members to the successor board.

The situation deteriorated and by April the Reader was running out of money and employees were gathering outside Goodman’s house in Lakeview East to get the criminal defense attorney to relinquish control and let the paper go from l before as a non-profit organization. Goodman relented and the Reader completed the transition on May 16.

A longtime Chicago journalist and co-founder of the Windy City Times, Baim became editor of the Reader under the new owners and created the nonprofit plan. She said the struggle to get publication over the finish line took its toll and may have influenced her exit strategy.

“I was definitely confused,” Baim said. “It wore me out and it probably sped up my decision-making.”

Baim leaves the Reader better than she found it. Once bled with red ink, the Reader has an annual budget of $3 million and is operating at roughly break-even point, she said.

Published every two weeks, the Reader has increased its circulation from 50,000 to 60,000 copies, which are distributed free of charge to nearly 1,200 locations. The workforce has more than doubled, going from 17 to 38 employees. Once supported entirely by print advertising, the reader now derives more revenue from digital ads and branded content than from print, Baim said.

While advertising still accounts for two-thirds of its revenue, the nonprofit readership now receives one-third of its support from donations and memberships, a category Baim expects to expand under new management.

The nonprofit board plans to retain a national search firm this month to find Baim’s successor. Baim said she would stay until December, if needed, to ride the new recruit and help with the transition. She will also serve as an advisor to the board of directors in its search for a new publisher.

“We expect someone to be hired well in advance of Tracy’s departure, so that she can transition as much as possible,” said Eileen Rhodes, board chair. “We want it to be smooth and transparent, so funders, advertisers and staff all have confidence that the reader will continue and continue to improve.”

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

Launched in 1971 by a group of Carleton College graduates as a free weekly, the Reader became known for its ambitious long-form journalism, arts news and quirky classifieds. Like many print publications, the Reader struggled in the digital age, leading to a series of ownership changes.

The original ownership group sold the Reader in 2007 to Creative Loafing, a small chain of alternative weeklies based in Atlanta. Atalaya Capital Management, a New York-based hedge fund, acquired the Reader from bankruptcy in 2009. Wrapports, a Chicago investor group led by Michael Ferro that acquired the Sun-Times in late 2011, added the Reader to his portfolio in May 2012. for approximately $2.5 million.

In 2017, a group of investors including Goodman and Higginbottom bought the Sun-Times, Reader and other assets for $1. A year later, Goodman and Higginbottom invested another dollar and kept a Chicago journalism institution alive.

A prolific journalist who has spent 38 years in community media, Baim, who turns 60 in January, plans to focus on writing and continue to champion local media. Her role in rescuing the Reader, she said, ran its course.

“I was basically an adoptive parent for the past four years who did their best to direct him to his next parent,” Baim said. “I don’t want to extend my welcome.”

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