The Chicago Reader completed its transition to a nonprofit organization Monday, starting a new chapter for the iconic 51-year-old alternative newspaper.
The sale to the nonprofit Reader Institute for Community Journalism follows months of turmoil, as the owners who rescued the money-losing newspaper from insolvency battled over its direction. An agreement to move forward as a nonprofit was reached last month when co-owner Len Goodman relinquished control and three board members stepped down from the Reader.
Tracy Baim, who became publisher of the Reader in 2018, called the shift to nonprofit “Independence Day” for the newspaper, but said the task ahead remains challenging.
“No doubt this is a big shift that we’re making,” Baim said Tuesday. “But we have some track record that there is support of the Reader and its legacy.”
The Reader had been stuck in limbo since December over censorship allegations about an opinion piece written by Goodman, a Chicago criminal defense attorney. Goodman’s November column expressed concerns about vaccinating his 6-year-old daughter against COVID-19, which created backlash on social media for some disputed scientific claims.
The Reader hired an outside fact-checker for a post-publication edit, but Goodman objected to pulling or revising the piece, and the original version remained online. Goodman then pushed for an investigation into the matter and more representation on the successor board.
Last month, as employees protested in front of his Lakeview East home, Goodman agreed to let the Reader transition to a nonprofit, citing an “unresolvable impasse” with fellow co-owner Chicago real estate developer Elzie Higginbottom. Board members Dorothy Leavell, Sladjana Vuckovic and Carol Bell, who were aligned with Goodman’s concerns, also announced they were stepping down.
In 2018, Goodman and Higginbottom bought the Reader from the Chicago Sun-Times for $1 and the assumption of debt. Goodman contributed about $2 million, while Higginbottom put in $1 million and provided free office space for the publication. Each was entitled to appoint two members to the for-profit board and recommend candidates for the 11-member nonprofit board.
On Monday, they completed the sale of the Reader archives and other assets for a “token amount,” following approval by the nonprofit board May 13.
A longtime Chicago journalist and co-founder of the Windy City Times, Baim became publisher of the Reader under the new owners in 2018 and created the planned transition to a nonprofit organization. On Tuesday, she expressed gratitude to Higginbottom and Goodman for rescuing the Reader.
“The Reader would have folded multiple times over the last three and a half years without them stepping up,” said Baim, 59. “It’s very clear that what Len and Elzie did over the last few years bridged the Reader to this next era in a way that without them would have been impossible.”
Baim said she was saddened the ownership situation “deteriorated” during the transition to nonprofit status, but hoped the relationship with Goodman can be repaired. The Reader will leave all 21 columns written by Goodman online, but is planning to add an editor’s note to the controversial November piece about COVID-19 vaccinations, she said.
Launched in 1971 by a group of Carleton College graduates as a free weekly, the Reader has changed hands several times in the new millennium as it struggled with declining advertising revenue in the digital age.
The shift to a nonprofit model is a growing trend in the struggling newspaper industry, with the Salt Lake Tribune the first major daily newspaper to make the transition in November 2019. In January, the Sun-Times became a nonprofit newspaper when it merged with public radio station WBEZ-FM 91.5 under the banner of Chicago Public Media.
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