In wake of newspaper shutdowns, start-up aims to fill gaps in community coverage

Teri Saylor

Special to Publishers' Auxiliary

Jul 29, 2020

Former 22nd Media editors from L to R: Martin Carlino, Joe Coughlin and Megan Bernard are starting a new nonprofit news site this fall. (Rife Ponce Photography)

Joe Coughlin is living on the edge, and the clock is ticking down. If a Kickstarter fundraising campaign can attract at least $50,000 by August 8, he and two colleagues are poised to launch The Record North Shore, a new nonprofit news site this fall.

As of July 24, with 14 days to go before the campaign ends, 237 funders have pledged $28,376. The team still needs to raise more than $21,000 or the Kickstarter will fail. It is an all or nothing proposition. If the Kickstarter reaches its goal, Coughlin hopes to launch the news site in September.

These days, there are plenty of ways for nonprofit news projects to raise capital — GoFundMe sites distribute proceeds from supporters as the dollars roll in; organizations like the Democracy Fund, the Knight Foundation and others offer grants for start-ups, news projects and other worthy causes.

Despite the chills and thrills, Coughlin is confident in his decision to use Kickstarter rather than relying on traditional grant funding. He is optimistic, believes in the nonprofit business model he is building, and is positive that $50,000 is a realistic and reachable goal.

“We believe this is what we need to fund our launch, and we went the Kickstarter route because its all-or-nothing fundraising model lends a sense of urgency to our efforts,” he said in a phone interview. Coughlin also relishes the idea that funding is coming in small pledges from many supporters. “Through this fundraising effort, we are building grassroots momentum,” he added.

Coughlin spent the most recent decade of his career as publisher of 22nd Century Media, a group of 14 community newspapers in the greater Chicago area. Predicting the COVID-19 crisis would have a crushing impact on the economy and ad revenue, the company shuttered its publications last April.

But Coughlin was not willing to leave the readers in his coverage area stranded without a fight.

“I took some time to just breathe and digest what had happened,” he said. Then he got busy.

He had long harbored the idea of starting a nonprofit news outlet, and in the wake of 22nd Century Media’s closure, he decided to take action. He recruited former 22nd Media editors Megan Bernard and Martin Carlino to build a nonprofit news organization from the ground up.

“Both Megan and Martin were on board right away, even though they knew that in a nonprofit start-up, there is zero income at first,” he said.

Starting with establishing a mission statement and bylaws, the team quickly assembled the necessary paperwork to form a 501(c)(3) charitable organization.

They signed on with the Institute for Nonprofit News as the fiscal sponsor who was willing to accept tax deductible donations on behalf of The Record, while the fledgling organization awaited its own determination as a nonprofit.

Coughlin also recruited a board of directors consisting of J.A. Adande, director of sports journalism at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism and former ESPN and LA Times columnist; John Jenks, digital journalism professor at Dominican University and former beat reporter in Kansas and Florida; Fouad Egbaria, editor for trade publication MetalMiner and award-winning reporter at The Glencoe (Illinois) Anchor and its sister papers; and Jennifer Gordon, attorney who practices in the areas of intellectual property, data security law and corporate law.

The Record will provide news of general interest, including local government coverage, sports, features and investigative reporting, Coughlin said. It will cover the communities along the Lake Michigan shoreline — the same communities that 22nd Century Media covered.
He is especially excited about choosing a nonprofit revenue model.

“We were really interested in maintaining and solidifying our editorial independence by creating a free, independent press. Setting up as a nonprofit will allow us to do that,” he said. He also sees opportunities to build revenue from a variety of funding sources: donations, grants, subscriptions and sponsorships. Traditional advertising will not be part of the revenue mix.

The team plans to provide news and stories on a variety of platforms: newsletters, podcasts and a daily website. Publishing in print is a dream he hopes to realize in the future.

“I do enjoy sitting down with a newspaper. I know many people in our communities enjoy it, too, and I do hope at some point we can figure out funding and if it would make sense to do some sort of print product,” he said.

He has been marketing the prelaunch though emails and on social media sites, calling on his local business community and civic organizations to help spread the word. He was counting on participating in festivals and sidewalk sales and other marketing events this summer, but all have been canceled due to the pandemic. Still, the team is out and about in the communities they serve, dressed out in masks and armed with hand sanitizer, with social distancing practices safely in place.

For Coughlin, a true believer in newspapers and journalism, now is a critical time in our society when communities need news and information more than ever. Failure is not an option.

“Local news resources have been stripped away from readers for the past decade or longer, and those readers deserve thorough, quality, local news,” Coughlin said. “They need a caring and credible outlet that is there for them, telling the story of their community, for better or worse.”

Teri Saylor can be contacted at