Three months after completing a long and challenging quest to turn the Chicago Reader into a nonprofit organization, Tracy Baim announced that she would step down as editor of the historic alternative newspaper by the end of the year.
Baim, 59, a veteran Chicago journalist who has been at the helm of the Reader since 2018, navigated 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 accusations of censorship.
The publication was sold to the nonprofit Reader Institute for Community Journalism in May, and Baim said Friday that she is ready for the next chapter of her own life.
“I have a feeling of optimism and relief at the same time, because I know there is someone who will be able to take this to the next level,” Baim said. “I can be pleased that I accomplished what I set out to do, which was to diversify its income and make it stronger than it had been in a long time.”
The future of Reader, 51, looked much dimmer earlier in the year, when a planned transition to a nonprofit model was delayed by then-part owner Len Goodman, who took issue with attempts to retroactively edit an op-ed. November that he wrote expressing concern about vaccinating his 6-year-old daughter against COVID-19.
In 2018, Goodman and Chicago real estate developer Elzie Higginbottom bought the Chicago Sun-Times Reader for $1 and assumed the debt, saving it from dissolution. But the owners, each of whom pumped more than a million dollars into the Reader to keep it afloat, clashed when Goodman halted the nonprofit process while pushing for an investigation into the alleged censorship and the ability to name more members for the successor board.
The situation deteriorated and by April the Reader was running out of money and employees were gathering in front of Goodman’s Lakeview East home to get the criminal defense attorney to relinquish control and allow the paper to continue as a nonprofit. Goodman relented, and the Reader completed the transition on May 16.
Baim, a longtime Chicago journalist and co-founder of the Windy City Times, became editor of the Reader under the new owners and created the nonprofit plan. She said the struggle to get the post to the finish line took its toll and may have influenced her exit strategy.
“I was definitely taken aback,” Baim said. “It wore me out and probably sped up my decision-making.”
Baim leaves the Reader in better shape than he found it. Once bleeding red ink, the Reader has an annual budget of $3 million and is operating at breakeven, she said.
Published fortnightly, the Reader has increased its circulation from 50,000 to 60,000 copies, which are distributed free of charge in almost 1,200 places. The workforce has more than doubled, from 17 to 38 employees. Previously supported entirely by print advertising, Reader now gets more revenue from digital ads and branded content than it does from print, Baim said.
While advertising still accounts for two-thirds of its revenue, the nonprofit Reader now gets a third of its support from donations and memberships, a category Baim hopes will grow under new leadership.
The nonprofit board plans to hire a national search firm this month to find Baim’s successor. Baim said he will stay through December, if necessary, to meet the new hire and help with the transition. She will also serve as an advisor to the board in its search for a new publisher.
“We’re hoping to hire someone long before Tracy leaves, so she can make as many transitions as possible,” said Eileen Rhodes, president of the board. “We want it to be smooth and seamless so that funders, advertisers and staff have confidence that Reader will continue and improve.”
The shift to a nonprofit model is a growing trend in the declining news industry, and the Salt Lake Tribune was the first major daily to make the transition in November 2019. In January, the Sun-Times became a non-profit newspaper when merged with public radio station WBEZ-FM 91.5 under the banner of Chicago Public Media.
Launched in 1971 by a group of Carleton College graduates as a free weekly, Reader became known for its ambitious long-form journalism, art news, and offbeat classifieds. Like many print publications, Reader has struggled in the digital age, leading to a number of ownership changes.
The original ownership group sold 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 Reader from bankruptcy in 2009. Wrapports, a Chicago investment group run by Michael Ferro that acquired Sun-Times in late 2011, added Reader to its portfolio in May. 2012 for about $2.5 million.
In 2017, an investment group that included Goodman and Higginbottom bought the Sun-Times, the Reader and other assets for $1. A year later, Goodman and Higginbottom chipped in another dollar and kept a Chicago journalistic 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 continuing to advocate for local media. His role in saving the Reader, he said, has run his course.
“I was basically a foster parent for the last four years, doing everything I could to get him to his next parent,” Baim said. “I don’t want to stay too long in my homecoming.”