In late August 2018, I was with my father at the hospital, where he was recovering from open-heart surgery, when I received a call from a representative of the Chicago News Guild asking if I’d like to buy the Chicago Reader from its parent newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times. The Guild represents the Reader’s editorial union, and they wanted to save their jobs. I quickly stepped out of the recovery room to take the call.
Earlier that year, Sun-Times publisher Edwin Eisendrath had offered the Reader to me for $1 on the condition that I take it over immediately. I had said “no” because I did not have the money to shore up a legacy newspaper losing $1 million a year. But now the deal included two individuals from the Sun-Times ownership (Elzie Higginbottom and Leonard Goodman) putting up the funds—they just needed someone to run the paper. The Reader was just two days from being shut down. I was the call of last resort.
I’m a sucker for leaping off cliffs without a full plan. The next day, I met with Eileen Rhodes and Jessica Stites, who were representing the potential new owners, and I was offered the job. Much to my shock, after working in LGBTQ+ community media since 1984, I was the new publisher of the legendary, award-winning Chicago Reader.
When I took over in October 2018, I knew the challenges would be immense. There were about 18 union editorial staff and a digital director, but no one from the business side came with the deal. Morale was low, and there was a lot of cleanup to do in every aspect of the company.
I set out building a team to enhance the experienced editorial staff. We hired new editorial, sales, and business leadership. I realized by mid-2019 the Reader would have a better chance of surviving if it shifted to become a nonprofit. With the approval of the owners on February 1, 2020, I applied to the IRS to launch a nonprofit that would take over the Reader.
Six weeks later, COVID-19 shut down the world. We pivoted, we danced for dollars, we put out coloring books, “best of” books, and merchandise. We did not lay off anyone due to COVID. And then, finally, in May of last year, after a much-publicized battle, we were able to gain independence to become a full nonprofit under the new Reader Institute for Community Journalism (RICJ).
I am now excited to pass the reins to our new publisher. After a six-month search by the Morten Group, LLC, the board of directors last week announced that Solomon Lieberman will take over in mid-February. Solomon, who has experience in Chicago nonprofit media from his stints with the Better Government Association and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University, is excited to take the Reader into a better future. I am grateful that he is up for the challenge.
It has been an honor to help save what I believe is among the most important newspapers in America. The Reader has broken new ground, covered all aspects of the heartbeat of this city, and been a critical part of our landscape for more than 51 years. I have been its caretaker, but no organization should have a single point of failure. So once we stabilized, I set out to make sure there were multiple strong people in leadership roles to ready for a transition to a new publisher.
Not only do we have a solid new board of directors, helmed by incredible friend and colleague Eileen Rhodes, we have great people who will join Solomon in leading the Reader, RICJ, and the Chicago Independent Media Alliance (CIMA, my dream baby) into the next phase.
It was a challenge to get across the finish line to nonprofit independence last year. I have confidence in this team and the newer staff to bring a fresh take on what’s next.
I want to highlight a few key people who have given me the confidence to step away.
My former co-publisher Karen Hawkins, my ride or die, made these past four and a half years bearable. The Reader was lucky to have Karen in leadership for nearly four years, and I learned so much from her. Ann Scholhamer joined in 2021 as vice president of operations. I can’t even imagine surviving the past 16 months without Ann by my side. She helped me absorb the shocks of a tumultuous transition and manage the internal changes needed as we became a nonprofit.
Enrique Limón is our editor in chief, a role he jumped into last fall. I first met Enrique at the 2019 Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) conference in Boulder. He has a larger-than-life personality and the drive to match his big vision of a new Reader. The editorial team he has taken over has a deep bench, some with more than three decades of experience writing and editing for the Reader. This includes editorial union unit chair and music editor Philip Montoro, plus the editors, writers, art department, and more.
Amber Nettles is our senior vice president of growth and strategy. That’s a fancy way of saying she is and has been instrumental in our shifts to a more digital and sustainable revenue future. Amy Matheny and I have been partners in community media since this century began. She’s an incredible vice president of sales. Amy, in fact, was my first call when I was hired—I knew I couldn’t take over the Reader without her.
Salem Collo-Julin is among several staff (Amy, Karen, Terri Klinsky, and Kirk Williamson) with whom I worked with over the decades at Windy City Times. Salem has been a rock in editorial, most recently as managing editor, and she now moves on to help with our collaboration projects including CIMA and its codirector Savannah Hugueley.
Vivian Gonzalez, who joined us during the tumult of early 2022, heads our terrific marketing team. Sandra Klein joined as office manager during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. She and I were the only ones going into the office, which is still mostly the case three years later. She holds down circulation, subscriptions, merchandise, and more.
There are dozens more who make this staff amazing, plus our freelancers, contractors, and delivery crew—and many former colleagues including Ted Piekarz, Nicole Lane, Yazmin Dominguez, Leni Manaa-Hoppenworth, John Dunlevy, and Patti Flynn. It would be impossible to name them all here. I am, simply, grateful.
I want to also thank our funders, donors, advertisers, and readers. Many of our funders stepped up even before we fully turned nonprofit. They did it on trust, and I know what a stretch that can be. I especially want to thank Christie Hefner, a stalwart supporter of all things media and a pioneer our city is lucky to have. She has been somewhat of a consigliere to me, and has helped us so much in our nonprofit transition. Our attorneys Brecken Cutler and Brendan Healey have also guided us well.
Since I took over as publisher, the organization has moved to strengthen its infrastructure and has diversified its revenues, distribution, leadership, and staff. It tripled in revenue, more than doubled its employees, and expanded its print and online readership. In 2018, there was one person of color on our team. Current leadership consists of 57 percent people of color, 57 percent LGBTQ+, 15 percent disabled, and 86 percent female, nonbinary, or trans. Of the overall staff, 47 percent are people of color, 33 percent LGBTQ+, 8 percent disabled, and 67 percent female, nonbinary, or trans.
Sometimes leadership is about knowing when to move on. I am now 60 years old and 39 years into my community media experience. I started at GayLife in 1984 when I was 21, cofounded Windy City Times in 1985, and have loved all aspects of journalism since I was a child growing up in a journalism family. It has been a great honor to helm this legacy newspaper and launch CIMA. And I am very excited about what is next for RICJ, CIMA, and the Chicago Reader. I will stay in their orbit, and help where I can.
Please welcome Solomon and continue to support the Reader as we deepen our work across Chicago, all while keeping the paper free for all.
P.S.: My dad is still doing well more than four years after his surgery.