Then-U.S. Senate hopeful Jack Ryan back in 04
  • Then-U.S. Senate hopeful Jack Ryan back in ’04

A day or two before this month’s elections, I spotted a curious political ad on TV. Bob Dold, the Republican candidate for Congress in the Tenth District, was boasting that the newspapers had spoken—and they all rejected his opponent, the Democratic incumbent, Brad Schneider.

Some of the critical language Dold scraped together was pretty tepid. “Partisan record,” Chicago Tribune, October 13, 2014. “Voting party line,” Daily Herald, October 10, 2014. Some of it was stronger stuff. As a deep and disapproving voice intoned, “Schneider pushed for big cuts to Medicare,” we read onscreen, “Brad Schneider cut Medicare $716 billion. Source Washington Post 8.14.12.”

I checked. Yes, there had been a Post story that day examining shifts in health care funding as Obamacare came on line. But the story made no mention of Schneider—and how could it have? He wouldn’t be elected to Congress until November of 2012.

But what caught my eye about the Dold ad was the way it began. “Schneider’s dirty campaign,” said the screen, quoting a suburban paper. If only the Tribune had said that! But no, this was the Northbrook Tower, a weekly I suspect most Tenth District voters had never heard of. The name rang a bell with me, however; what it meant was that a Republican candidate for Congress had been endorsed by a former Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate.

Imagine that!

The Northbrook Tower endorsement accused Schneider of misrepresenting Dold’s positions on Medicare, abortion, and drilling in Lake Michigan. What’s more, Schneider had ducked debates with Dold, including some the Tower‘s parent company, 22nd Century Media, had wanted to sponsor.

The Dold endorsement also ran in 22nd Century Media weeklies serving Highland Park, Glencoe, and Glenview. Dold—the incumbent Schneider had defeated in 2012—would win the 2014 election by 3.2 percent of the vote, and who’s to say 22nd Century Media didn’t have a lot to do with the outcome? Its papers apparently get read. Another of the company’s papers—this one outside the Tenth District—is the Winnetka Current. In September the grassroots Winnetka Caucus Council surveyed residents on their “source for information about current events and key issues in our village.” They got about 850 responses, and 87 percent of them named the Current. A distant second and third were TribLocal (52 percent) and Winnetka Talk (51 percent), which is a Pioneer Press paper recently sold by Sun-Times Media to Tribune Publishing.

In an era in which only madmen go into the newspaper business, 22nd Century Media founder Jack Ryan must be doing something right. Does the name ring a bell? If you remember Ryan, you remember him as the dashing young man who left a career as an investment banker with Goldman Sachs to teach at Hales Franciscan High School, then defeated all comers to win the Republican Senate nomination in the spring of 2004. That’s when sealed custody records involving his ex-wife and their then nine-year-old son were opened in California at the request of the Tribune and WLS-TV and it was learned she’d accused him of taking her to sex clubs in America and Paris. This sensational story drove Ryan out of the race—and the public eye—in a matter of days. It was the kind of brush with mainstream media that can make an object of it unforgiving forever, and the other day I asked Ryan why in the world he chose that business to go into.

Ryan gave me three reasons. The first was sweet: “I was committed to improving the communities in which we live, and our profession [his and mine] seemed like a very good way to do so.”

The second was shrewd. Back at Goldman Sachs he’d seen big retailers brought to their knees by “category killers”—specialty shops that did a better job of selling one thing than the department stores did selling anything. Best Buy took away electronics; Toys R Us took away toys. “I looked at the Tribune and thought exactly the same thing will happen to traditional media companies,” Ryan told me. “Every section will be taken out by category killers.” In 2005 he joined the wolf pack (led by Craigslist, which had classifieds between its teeth), and launched his first weekly in Homer Glen. “My aisle is the local journalism aisle,” he says. 22nd Century Media now has six weeklies on the North Shore, seven in the southwest suburbs, and yet another in Malibu, California, where Ryan has a home.

Ryan’s original idea was to exist strictly online, but like everyone else who’s tried he discovered hyperlocal digital journalism by itself doesn’t exactly work. When he enters a new market—as he did in Glencoe this year with the Anchor and plans to do next February in Lake Forest and Lake Bluff with the Leader—he sends copies to every home and business in town for a year, and then asks residents to sign a card if they want to keep getting the paper. About 60 percent do, he tells me. Meanwhile, the website is tucked behind a pay wall, and it costs $39 a year to get past it.

“We go into a town and deliver 50 stories every week unique to that town,” says Ryan. “Where else do you get 50 stories about your town. If you move from Lincoln Park to Wilmette, etcetera, there are two things we know about you. Your biggest finance investment is your house; your biggest emotional investment is your kids. That’s why you moved. So nowhere else do you get 50 stories about things that affect your home, your neighborhood, and your kids.”

Which brings us to the third reason Ryan, after hitting bottom, decided to go into journalism. His personal encounter with it, he says, showed him there was room for improvement.

“It’s still hard to get your head around it ten years later,” he said, meaning himself and his so-called sex scandal. “How can it be a sex scandal when no sex was involved,” he continues to wonder. The other woman was his wife, and she didn’t say they actually had sex in sex clubs, just that he liked to take her to them. What’s more, he tells me the judge in the custody battle disregarded the sex club allegation as more prejudicial than probative—though nobody reported that! And as the Tribune made his life miserable, he doesn’t remember it reporting that the other guy in the Senate race, Barack Obama, was being advised by a former Tribune reporter—David Axelrod. “By analogy,” says Ryan today, “if that happened to me I was sure it was happening to many others, and so therefore was undaunted by the journalistic capabilities of our competitors.”

(Ryan has a point about Axelrod. I scanned the Tribune‘s election coverage from 2004 and came across Axelrod being described as “Obama’s chief strategist,” as “Obama’s lead campaign consultant,” as a “Chicago-based Democratic political consultant,” as a “repulsive Democratic political consultant” (that was Dennis Byrne), and as “president of AKP Message & Media, the Chicago-based media firm that is advising the Obama campaign on media strategy.” But nowhere did I see him identified as a former Tribune political reporter. I probably gave up too soon.)

I tried a couple of times to get the Schneider camp to comment on the Dold ad I described at the top of this story. They didn’t call me back; and if they don’t have a problem with being hammered for a Medicare vote their guy had nothing to do with, or being accused of a “dirty campaign” by a Republican whose own campaign crashed and burned, who am I to belabor the subject? As a publisher, Ryan has the right to endorse anyone he wants to in whatever language suits him. It’s his bandwidth and his ink.

The Dold endorsement is exceptional chiefly because Ryan says it is. Only twice in the ten-year history of 22nd Century Media, he says, has its papers made a political endorsement—one of Dold, the other of Bruce Rauner for governor. In both cases, “extraordinary circumstances” forced his hand. Illinois is in a “horrible horrible state,” says Ryan. “We have to try something else.” As for the Tenth District, he says Schneider was dodging debates and shamelessly misrepresenting his positions. “At some point we thought, if we don’t stand up he’ll get away with putting out totally crazy information.”

But Ryan assures me his papers report every candidate’s positions fully and fairly, “which is very unique in this age of hyper-partisan journalism.” And to put my mind completely at ease, he continues, “If one were to describe 22nd Century Media to someone who had never heard of it before and spent time talking about our political positions, it would be a little like describing the ocean to someone who had never seen it before and spending time talking about the coelacanth.”

I’m not sure I follow this exactly, but the coelacath is a prehistoric fish long believed to have gone extinct 65 million years ago. As a publisher of suburban newspapers who’s actually making a go of it, Ryan might identify with the fisherman who in 1938 caught a live one off the coast of Africa.