The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Chicago, a public radio station comes to the rescue of the Sun-Times newspaper

WBEZ is set to acquire the tabloid and bring it under nonprofit ownership -- in what could prove a model for the industry

(© Jeff Haynes / Reuters/REUTERS)
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In an unusual merger that some hope could serve as a national model to preserve local journalism, Chicago’s NPR station plans to acquire one of the city’s major daily newspapers.

On Tuesday, the board of directors for Chicago Public Media, the umbrella organization for WBEZ, approved moving forward with the acquisition of the Chicago Sun-Times. The deal is expected to be complete by Jan. 31.

Chicago is one of the nation’s largest media markets, and WBEZ — which started in the 1940s as an arm of the Chicago Board of Education — is where some of public radio’s most notable programs were formed, including “This American Life,” “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me” and “Serial.”

The Sun-Times has also been publishing since the 1940s. It is known as much for its hard-hitting tabloid-like coverage as its eight Pulitzer prizes — and being the longtime home of celebrated film critic Roger Ebert. Lately, however, it has endured the same financial tumult as many other local newspapers.

Public radio stations have acquired for-profit news competitors in the past — but never at this scale. In 2018, NPR stations in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and New York City resurrected a consortium of newsy local websites, including Gothamist and DCist, after their billionaire owner shut them down.

This is the first time a major public radio organization has acquired a big-city newspaper, according to Jim Friedlich, executive director of the nonprofit Lenfest Institute for Journalism, which took over the struggling Philadelphia Inquirer in 2016. He has also been acting as an unpaid adviser to the merging news organizations in Chicago.

Via email, Friedlich called it “a landmark deal in American local media” and said bringing the Sun-Times under nonprofit owners allows the paper to access financial backing from local foundations. “This approach has worked well in Philadelphia and is off to a promising start in Chicago,” he said.

Mark Jacob, a former editor at the Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune who authored a comprehensive report on the city’s media ecosystem, said the merger is probably the best chance for the Sun-Times to survive in perpetuity. “If they’re doing it in the best way for Chicago consumers, they’ll be coordinated and complementary,” he said.

He thinks the merger could also inspire news outlets in other cities to think about nontraditional collaborations. “That’s what local news needs right now: creativity,” he said.

Chicago Public Media’s chief executive, Matt Moog, said in a statement that acquiring the Sun-Times will “grow and strengthen local journalism in Chicago.” Together, the news organizations will “aim to tell the stories that matter, serve more Chicagoans with our unbiased, fact-based journalism, and connect Chicagoans more deeply to each other and to their communities.”

Sun-Times CEO Nykia Wright called it “an extraordinary opportunity for our collective news community and for the future of the hardest-working paper in America, which counts some of the best storytellers in Chicago among its ranks.”

The two news organizations say they have a combined weekly audience of more than 2 million.

For decades, the local newspaper industry has bled cash and staffing as it tried adapting to the digital publishing revolution and a precipitous drop in advertising revenue.

The Sun-Times has seen ups and downs and changed hands many times, including being bought and sold by Rupert Murdoch in the 1980s. It has struggled in the digital economy, at one point laying off its entire photography staff. In 2017, a group of private investors and labor unions came together to purchase the newspaper, averting a rival bid by the then-owner of the city’s other major newspaper, the Chicago Tribune. The Tribune and its sister newspapers were acquired last year by a hedge fund known for deep cost-cutting, and nearly 40 Tribune journalists reportedly took buyout offers.

“The city’s newsrooms have been gutted over the years by hedge funds, out-of-town owners, the secular decline of print, and a failure to invest in the digital transformation of local news products,” Friedlich said. He was “unabashedly bullish” that the Sun-Times would avoid a similar fate by merging with WBEZ.

While the two organizations will come under the same ownership and share each others’ content, editorially they will operate independently. The Chicago Sun-Times newsroom employs nearly 100 people; WBEZ employs nearly 150 full-time staff, which includes many non-newsroom employees.

There are no plans to reduce staff, and in fact, the organization plans to hire for new roles, a Chicago Public Media spokeswoman said; public radio executives have previously said they expect to hire 40 to 50 new people.

The merger has been in the works since at least last year, when Chicago Public Media and the Sun-Times signed a nonbinding letter of intent. No cash will change hands between the two companies; the deal is akin to the Sun-Times being donated to Chicago Public Media. But the exact financial terms have not been disclosed, and the two groups have been fundraising for a planned expansion.

Sun-Times investor Michael Sacks has committed “significant future financial support,” according to Chicago Public Media, and early funders include John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Pritzker Traubert Foundation.

“I think it’s a great move for Chicago,” said Sue Cross, executive director of the Institute for Nonprofit News, a network of nonprofit news organizations in North America.

She said mergers between for-profit and nonprofit news groups could become increasingly common, particularly in metro areas facing a difficult economic climate. Long-term, she expects Chicago to see more investment in “deeper reporting and reporting that may be really important for the community but not as profitable” or reliant on “advertising or algorithms.”

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