The Chicago Reader, which last year teetered on the brink of extinction before transitioning to a nonprofit, has a new leader.
The storied alternative newspaper Wednesday named Solomon Lieberman as CEO and publisher, taking the reins from Tracy Baim, who guided the Reader through the pandemic and a tumultuous journey to a nonprofit publication.
A digital media and nonprofit executive with a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University, Lieberman will start at the Reader on Feb. 13.
“It’s a really exciting moment,” Lieberman said. “It’s really heroic what Tracy and the board and everybody’s been able to do to keep it afloat, but also transition into this nonprofit.”
Lieberman, 42, has a diverse resume that includes serving as executive director of the Institute for Political Innovation, a Chicago-based nonpartisan think tank focused on election reform, and vice president of strategy at the Better Government Association. Running the Reader, which has surmounted complex challenges in recent years, may require a broad executive skill set.
In 2018, Chicago attorney Len Goodman and real estate developer Elzie Higginbottom bought the publication from the Chicago Sun-Times for $1 and the assumption of debt, rescuing it from dissolution. But a planned transition to a nonprofit publication was delayed last year when Goodman pushed for an investigation over attempts to retroactively edit an opinion piece he wrote expressing concerns about vaccinating his 6-year-old daughter against COVID-19.
The situation deteriorated and by April, the Reader was running out of money and employees were rallying in front of Goodman’s Lakeview East home to get the criminal defense attorney to relinquish control and let the newspaper move forward as a nonprofit. Goodman relented and the Reader completed the transition May 16.
Baim, 60, a veteran Chicago journalist who has helmed the Reader since 2018, said the publication is starting 2023 in a much better place.
“It took many, many turnarounds over the last four-and-a-half years through a lot of different crises,” Baim said. “So I feel really, really good about handing this off now that it’s ready to be handed off. It’s in a strong enough place that someone new can come in, and take it to the next level.”
The Reader has an annual budget of $3 million and 36 employees, Baim said.
Launched in 1971 by a group of Carleton College graduates as a free weekly, the Reader became known for its ambitious long-form journalism, arts news and offbeat classified ads. Like many print publications, the Reader has struggled in the digital age, leading to a series of ownership changes.
The original ownership group sold the 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 the Reader out of bankruptcy in 2009. Wrapports, a Chicago investor group led by Michael Ferro that acquired the Sun-Times in late 2011, added the Reader to its portfolio in May 2012 for about $2.5 million.
In 2017, an investor group that included Goodman and Higginbottom bought the Sun-Times, the Reader and other assets for $1. One year later, Goodman and Higginbottom put up another dollar and kept a Chicago journalistic institution alive.
As the newest CEO and publisher, Lieberman also values the legacy of the Reader.
“I just really feel like places like the Reader that can protect culture and diversity and expression, are just critical for everybody to succeed and thrive in this country,” Lieberman said.
Eileen Rhodes, chair of the nonprofit Reader Institute for Community Journalism board, which owns the Reader, said Lieberman is the right person to help write the next chapter for the alternative newspaper.
“He has worked in nonprofit Chicago journalism, and built a successful nonpartisan organization with national reach,” Rhodes said in a news release. “Our hope is that he continues to grow the RICJ nonprofit, strengthening the infrastructure needed to lead this legacy newspaper for the next fifty years.”