United States Project

Suburban Chicago news company vies for recognition in unfamiliar terrain

November 28, 2017
Backyards in Greater Grand Crossing, on Chicago's South Side. Sean Brim, via Flickr

ONE MARCH DAY IN 2015, 22nd Century Media publisher Joe Coughlin sat at a bar in the Roscoe Village community on Chicago’s North Side, sipping beer with local writer Jamie Lynn Ferguson. He shared a vision for a new quarterly magazine, which he called Chicagoly. It would be a vehicle for longform storytelling and commentary about the people and places that make Chicago special, and the topics big and small that locals care about.

Coughlin was familiar with Ferguson from her past stint as an editor at 22nd Century Media. He knew her as a vibrant and descriptive writer with a hopeful voice and a knack for compelling narratives. She was the first writer he thought of bringing on ahead of Chicagoly’s December 2015 launch date. Ferguson was sold, she says, because Chicagoly is all about digging deeper into the city she loves so much—and giving writers the sort of freedom to go long about slices of Chicago life that other Chicago publications might not make space for.

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“If I’m writing about a neighborhood, it’s not really about the restaurants and bars there or the museums and amenities that exist,” Ferguson says. “It’s about how people interact with those things, how they identify with their neighborhood and what it means to be there.”

Chicagoly provides an instructive story of expansion from 22nd Century Media, a 12-year-old company that runs a chain of free community newspapers* in 15 suburbs. Founded in 2005, the company has enjoyed steady growth in precarious times. Now 22nd Century Media is expanding for the first time into the nation’s third biggest media market—a more racially and economically diverse market than the affluent, predominantly white suburbs where 22nd Century Media publishes newspapers. Coughlin says marketing—which can be hard for a new company and isn’t something he’s explicitly trained in—has been a major challenge. But if Chicagoly wants to grow its reader base, there’s plenty of ground the magazine hasn’t covered on the South and West sides. So far, most of those stories and perspectives have centered on mostly white and affluent communities.

Herein lies the central challenge to Chicagoly’s future: If whole swathes of the city are barely acknowledged, and people don’t see themselves or their neighborhoods reflected adequately, what reason do they have to subscribe to Chicagoly or pick one up on newsstands? As the general population of the US becomes less and less white, this challenge isn’t specific to Chicagoly; it’s a question that countless publications must answer.

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I hope that [Chicagoly] takes a turn in the right direction when it comes to representing all of Chicago, not just in the pieces but with the writers as well.


CHICAGOLY FEATURES STORIES about prominent people with Chicago ties, like children’s author Shel Silverstein, and actors Danny Pudi and Joe Mantegna. It readers up with people from the world of sports who have Chicago connections, like former Northwestern University basketball coach and Chicago Cubs great Mark Grace*. It revisits historic moments in Chicago’s history, like the Beatles’ first Windy City show in 1964, and has an ongoing series about the evolution of Chicago neighborhoods. This year, the Chicago Headline Club awarded Chicagoly a Peter Lisagor Award for general excellence in print journalism, selecting Chicagoly ahead of more established finalists like Chicago Magazine and Crain’s Chicago Business and making it the first magazine to take that award home in its first year.

Chicagoly seeks to carve out a niche at a time when other outlets with hyperlocal tendencies like DNAinfo Chicago and Chicagoist have recently shuttered, and publications known for longform journalism (like the legendary alt-weekly Chicago Reader) have been fraught with financial uncertainty and downsizing. The Chicago Sun-Times, which owns the Reader and was recently bought along with the weekly by a union-led investment group, is seemingly always endangered, and though the Chicago Tribune stands on stronger fiscal ground it doesn’t lack challenges.  Both of Chicago’s big dailies have recently been riddled with money problems, and have scaled back suburban coverage or announced layoffs of suburban reporters. Meanwhile, 22nd Century Media—little known by Chicagoans, and a prominent provider of hyperlocal suburban news—sees the city as a place to grow its brand.

Coughlin says 22nd Century Media’s Chicago expansion was a natural progression. The company—which operates 14 community newspapers in Chicago-area suburbs plus one in California—is one of the Chicago area’s fastest growing media company, says Coughlin. It has added a publication to its roster nearly every year.

“We thought we had the capability and the infrastructure to do a magazine that’s really a reader’s magazine that you can enjoy front to back—all substantial stories—filled with in-depth journalism,” Coughlin says of Chicagoly.

Coughlin says 22nd Century Media has a policy of “limited growth, growth within your means,” and that ramping up marketing, page counts and bringing in more writers to write more stories are all depended on getting more ad revenue. He declined to share numbers about Chicagoly’s budget or revenue. But in a 50- to 60-page magazine, there are typically between 10 and 15 pages of advertisements, according to Coughlin, who says they are growing subscribers month over month and have sold relatively more ads in the past few issues.

Chicagoly has a circulation of about 5,000 per issue, about 40 percent of which go into the city, according to Coughlin. Chicagoly can be bought at 117 locations in the Chicago area, and nearly half are in city limits, according to Coughlin. He wouldn’t provide a breakdown of how many papers are sold via news stands ($4.99 each) versus subscriptions ($16 yearly)*. But, of the magazine’s subscribers, about 10 percent are out of state, 67 percent are suburban, and 23 percent are in the city.

He attributes that breakdown to 22nd Century Media’s reader base being in the suburbs, and to the obstacles getting the word out in a crowded Chicago market.

“Showing off what you are and why you are different—and actually proving that with your content—is difficult,” says Coughlin. “It’s still something we’re learning about and doing in our second year. But we’ve caught the attention of some critics and some readers.”


“I know we have diversity but I don’t know if it’s reflective of the city. Every newsroom, including Chicagoly, could do better with that.


COUGHLIN SAYS HE WANTS Chicagoly to tell captivating stories from across the city about everyday Chicagoans and Chi-Town legends alike, and to offer views about what life in the city means. But Chicagoly mostly published stories centered on the North Side of the city and the North Shore in its first year “because that was exclusively our readers,” Coughlin says, noting that early distribution of the magazine followed suit geographically.

If you’ve ever seen a map of Chicago color-coded by race, Coughlin’s comments about Chicagoly’s early geographic focus makes it clear who Chicagoly tended to leave out. Coughlin admits the magazine’s reach was limited in its first year, but emphasizes that anyone can subscribe to the magazine now regardless of location.*

However, a lack of focus on communities of color is still apparent in Chicagoly’s neighborhood profile series, “Evolution,” which Ferguson writes. “Evolution” has focused on long-gentrified, predominantly white communities like Wrigleyville, River North, Old Town and Andersonville—or growing hipster havens like Logan Square, Ukrainian Village and Bridgeport.

To Ferguson’s credit, Bridgeport is on the South Side and is a former white ethnic enclave where Chinese and Mexican people now make up a significant chunk of the population. And Ferguson says one neighborhood she’s working on now is Pilsen, a predominantly Mexican community on the Southwest Side that is also being gentrified. But there’s no story in the series about life in a predominantly Latino or Black community or an underserved area that isn’t gentrifying.

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The focus on hip or white communities and neglect of communities of color is a common problem in Chicago’s media landscape. This mirrors patterns of private investment and city planning that have afflicted Chicago for decades and persist despite some progress.

Of Chicago’s 2.7 million residents, white, black, and Latino people are each about one-third of the city’s population. But diverse Chicago is notoriously segregated by race and class. Most of the white population lives on the well-developed North Side. Most black and Latino residents live on the South and West Sides, in communities where investment from developers, retailers and other private entities lag far behind their northern counterparts. These neighborhoods, especially black neighborhoods, tend to suffer stigma and characterizations as dangerous and poor, even areas with large numbers of affluent or middle class residents.

It’s not just about being fair or addressing systemic inequities and racial power dynamics in the media or broader society. It’s a matter of a publication growing its reader base with authentic coverage; it’s good business.

Ferguson says that when she and Coughlin were discussing the neighborhood profiles, “we were really focusing primarily on areas that had gentrified, and so because a lot of the neighborhoods on the south and west sides have not gentrified or gentrified as much as some of the areas we featured first it didn’t really fit the theme …for us to delve into those sides yet.” Yet Ferguson acknowledged that avoidance of covering black and brown communities reinforces people’s avoidance of these areas, and says she’s looking for ways to counter that.

“I hope that [Chicagoly] takes a turn in the right direction when it comes to representing all of Chicago, not just in the pieces but with the writers as well,” Ferguson says.

The magazine doesn’t have staff writers. It relies on a stable of freelancers. Many are writers Coughlin and the company have worked with in the past for 22nd Century Media’s suburban newspapers like Ferguson, Alan P. Henry, and local veteran sportswriter Neil Milbert.  

Coughlin admits that more pitches might come in about communities of color on the South and West sides if the magazine used more writers familiar with those parts of the city. Coughlin says that that the writers who contribute to the magazine include some diverse voices, but that Chicagoly and 22nd Century Media could do better.

“I know we have diversity but I don’t know if it’s reflective of the city,” he says. “Every newsroom, including Chicagoly, could do better with that.”


WRITING STORIES—and developing a roster of writers that reflect the demographics of a diverse city like Chicago—isn’t some goodwill project. It’s not just about being fair or addressing systemic inequities and racial power dynamics in the media or broader society. It’s a matter of a publication growing its reader base with authentic coverage; it’s good business.  

On October 10, the annual Newsroom Employment Diversity Survey reported that its latest results show “slight decreases in the overall diversity of news organizations” compared to 2016, although newsrooms are much more diverse than they were during the two decades prior. The survey was a collaboration between Google News Lab and the American Society of News Editors.

ASNE Diversity Committee Co-Chair Karen Magnuson, executive editor of the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, emphasizes in the survey’s news release that, “it’s more important than ever for newsrooms to properly reflect and authentically cover communities of color.

“Continuing to improve in this area will help build trust and grow audience,” she says. “It’s critical to our industry’s future.”

Contacted in late October and asked to expand on her comments, Magnuson responded with an email saying she was too busy to chat on the phone by deadline. But she still agreed to unpack her quote a bit.

“My quote stands but please understand the context,” she writes. “I am speaking about the news industry and primarily daily newspapers covering their communities.  I view it as an issue of accuracy.  How can a 24/7 newsroom accurately cover a community if it excludes segments of the population from coverage?”

She adds after her clarification: “Magazines tend to be more niche publications targeting specific audiences.  I cannot speak to the mission of the magazine you reference but it sounds like the publication is targeting a certain segment.”

Yet Coughlin insists that diversity is a priority that has a place within the Chicagoly brand. Coughlin says a feature in the summer issue explored how people from different parts of the city view its skyline. He also says the winter issue will have a piece about human trafficking that includes sourcing from and discussion of the West and South sides. That issue will also include a profile of former Chicago Bull Craig Hodges, who is from the near south suburbs, though that doesn’t qualify as a Chicago neighborhood. “We do not backpedal from stories based on the origination point,” Coughlin wrote in an email.

Even if we have eight stories about the South and West Sides, that’s once every four months. We can’t be the ones to carry it on a weekly basis—but we can help keep that conversation going.

Coughlin says Chicagoly has done a better job of centering narratives on the South and West sides of the city, referring CJR to two stories in the most recent issue. He touts a feature about City Bureau, a nonprofit journalism organization that produces stories about Chicago’s South and West Sides. The organization operates out of a community space called the Experimental Station in the South Side community of Woodlawn, where the Obama Presidential Center is planned.

The issue also has Neil Milbert’s nearly 3,000-word feature about the senior citizens who compete in the Windy City Basketball League at nearby Washington Park. Milbert was among a rash of layoffs that hit more than a dozen Trib staffers in 2008, but he still contributes to 22nd Century Media’s suburban papers, which is how he got connected to Chicagoly. Milbert, a longtime sportswriter who worked on a Trib reporting team that won a 2000 Pulitzer Prize, also played in the league before retiring from competition about four years ago.

“There’s friendships made and wonderful people over there—and it just goes unnoticed,” Milbert says.

Milbert stressed that it’s important to tell stories about everyday people on the South and West Sides of Chicago to counter prevailing narratives from outsiders that stereotype them and their neighborhoods, especially given President Donald Trump’s various remarks about Chicago violence.

Coughlin agrees that publications have a duty to dig deeper, and that Chicagoly has a role to play in that. But the fledgling magazine is only one piece of the puzzle.

“There’s plenty of stories to tell that aren’t just count up the number of shootings and put them in a headline, and there’s our story for the week about the South and West Side, there are innumerable stories out there that need to be told,” he says. “Unfortunately we’re a quarterly magazine. Even if we have eight stories about the South and West Sides, that’s once every four months. We can’t be the ones to carry it on a weekly basis—but we can help keep that conversation going.”

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*This story has been updated to more accurately characterize Chicagoly and to provide greater context for its work and reach to date. An earlier version incorrectly put the cost of subscriptions at $16.99, rather than $16, and referred to a story that appeared online but not in a Chicagoly print issue. CJR regrets the errors.

Adeshina Emmanuel is a Chicago-based journalist focused on race, class, inequality, social problems, and solutions who has been published in The New York Times, Ebony, Chicago Magazine, and by ATTN.com. He's a former reporter at the Chicago Reporter, Chicago Sun-Times, and DNAinfo Chicago. Follow him on Twitter @Public_Ade.