You may not be familiar with 22nd Century Media, but you probably remember Jack Ryan, the former investment banker who once ran as the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate from Illinois.
From the bitter disappointment of his aborted bid for public office in 2004, Ryan turned his media ordeal into a business opportunity. The following year he founded a hyperlocal publishing company on the premise that there’s more “positive news” out there than people were getting from traditional sources.
Today Ryan’s 22nd Century Media publishes 12 weekly newspapers and websites mainly in the southwest suburbs and on the North Shore. With the launch in February of a Highland Park edition up in Lake County, the company will reach an estimated 170,000 Chicago area households. That would put it on track to overtake Sun-Times Media as having the second-largest circulation statewide (behind only the Chicago Tribune).
“I’d never really thought about the media business until I ran for office,” Ryan, 54, said in an interview. “But there was a disturbing trend that in an effort to make splashy headlines, too many people were trying to tear people down. I saw this huge opportunity from both a business point of view and a community point of view to get good content out to people.”
The emphasis on “positive news” may offend some journalists’ sensibilities, but Ryan is unapologetic: “It can’t always be positive because the world doesn’t work that way. But most of the people in [a given community] are trying to do the right things for the right reasons. So we report on that. Now if the mayor is stealing from the till or something like that, of course we will report it. . . . But overall, I see this as a way to correct something that seemed to be going wrong from a media point of view, which is too many people trying to tear people down rather than trying to improve things.”
All of 22nd Century Media’s weeklies are advertiser supported and delivered free by mail to every household in their respective communities. Subscribers can pay a nominal fee for personalized email notifications and access to additional material online.
Managing editor Heather Warthen heads the southwest suburban staff, overseeing the Frankfort Station, Homer Horizon, Mokena Messenger, New Lenox Patriot, Orland Park Prairie, Tinley Junction and Lockport Legend. Managing editor Joe Coughlin heads the North Shore staff, overseeing the Glenview Lantern, Northbrook Tower, Wilmette Beacon, Winnetka Current and soon-to-be Highland Park Landmark. Warthen recently was promoted to the additional position of chief events officer for 22nd Century Media.
Last August, Ryan also acquired the Malibu Surfside News, a California weekly that’s been in business for 37 years. “It’s a new venture for us to take someone else’s property and morph it over to ours,” he said. “The idea is to see if we can have the same success on the West Coast as we have in the Chicago area.”
By continuing to expand his company’s presence on the affluent North Shore, Ryan clearly is taking aim at Pioneer Press, the once powerful chain of suburban weeklies that suffered substantial cutbacks under Sun-Times Media ownership. “We saw a huge void as the level of content in some of our competitors dropped so dramatically,” Ryan said. “So we come into a town, and we’ll deliver 40 to 50 news stories about that community every single week. Eventually, the local residents say: ‘I don’t have time to check two or three websites, two or three papers. I’m just going to go to the one that I know has all of the information I want.’ That’s how we get all the eyeballs — and sell them to advertisers.”
There’s no limit to the number of suburbs Ryan can move into as long as they have high percentages of residents who own their homes and therefore have an inherent interest in local news. So far it’s proved a successful strategy, he said. “We’re a private company so we don’t release our information, but we’re funding ourselves out of our internal cash flow and initial investment from me. So we’re doing pretty well.”
Now eight years into the venture, Ryan appears to be as enthusiastic as ever: “It’s fun. I think we’re serving a community need by providing information about the towns we cover. People care a lot more about what happens within a few miles of their home than what may be happening on the other side of the world.”