The board chair for the Reader Institute for Community Journalism, Eileen Rhodes, makes lighthearted fun of me when I use the word “pivot.” I probably used it dozens of times since March of 2020, when the revenue dropped out from under a lot of companies, including the Chicago Reader.
I also described it like I was the “Cookie Monster,” grabbing funds and dancing for dollars wherever I could to meet payroll, print bills, delivery costs, etc., just as we lost 90 percent of our revenues—from lost advertising.
When I took over as publisher of the Reader in the fall of 2018, it was already rough waters. The paper was losing a million dollars a year. In my first 15 months, we had already made a lot of changes, including convincing the owners who had saved it (Elzie Higginbottom and Leonard C. Goodman) that we should turn the Reader into a nonprofit enterprise.
There was a lot of pessimism around that idea, but less so as other forprofits started the conversion process. We filed our nonprofit paperwork with the IRS on February 1, 2020. Six weeks later, COVID-19 caused the shutdown of the U.S. economy. Many of our clients were devastated, so the ripple effects were quick.
Fortunately, because we had been moving in the nonprofit direction, some foundations and donors were generous in supporting our work. Thanks to PPP loans and additional support from Goodman, plus a whole lot of those pivots (merchandise such as coloring and cookbooks, cutting frequency, going to a virtual office, voluntary temporary furloughs, etc.), we made it through to these final weeks of 2021.
In the meantime, we did receive 501(c)(3) nonprofit status from the IRS last fall, and we have had a joint operating agreement since that time. We are now weeks away from the final baton handoff from the Chicago Reader L3C to the Reader Institute for Community Journalism, Inc. On January 1, 2022, RICJ takes over all operations of the Chicago Reader.
Thanks to a tremendous staff, support from our owners and donors, and generous readers and foundations, we were able to make it to our 50th anniversary this year. But the future for all media is still tenuous. Our pivots have worked, but we need to continue to be nimble, and responsive to changes.
In advance of this year’s #GivingTuesday, the Reader wanted to do something special as we join the ranks of the amazing nonprofit universe in Chicago. We printed a 24-page guide to Chicago-area nonprofits, fiscally sponsored, and other organizations. We partnered with the Executive Service Corps to create the listings, and for months asked agencies to submit to be in the free guide. Yes, free. Because what we have always done at the Reader is provide a free service—free in print and free online.
You can download the PDF of the full November 25 issue here, the nonprofit guide here, and see the text-based listings here. We are proud to join these organizations in serving this city and region.
So how do we survive if we’ve been “free and freaky” since 1971? Because of you. So this #GivingTuesday, please consider the Reader among your contributions. We have a $10,000 match, so your donations at this link will be matched dollar for dollar. You can also become a monthly donor here.
Pivot really is the perfect description of our lives these past two years. One definition by Webster’s is “an adjustment or modification made (as to a product, service, or strategy) in order to adapt or improve.” We hope we’ve been improving the Reader as we’ve made these changes. Thanks for your support of our community on #GivingTuesday, no matter what nonprofits you choose.
This note is adapted from Monday’s free Daily Reader email newsletter. Get exclusive insights like this from our co-publishers, editors, and staff writers by signing up today.