Announcing the marriage of print and public media in Chicago

As uncertainty looms over its rival newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times finds itself in a budding new relationship with Chicago Public Media

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In Chicago, among the last of the two newspaper towns, the future of the city’s dailies have taken dramatically opposing turns.

The Chicago Tribune, the flagship newspaper of Tribune Publishing and the largest daily newspaper in the Windy City, is now run by a hedge fund after its parent company was sold earlier this year to Alden Global Capital (loading it with $278 million in new debt, according to The Associated Press).

What does that mean for the Tribune? Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo accurately described Alden as “a hedge fund vampire that bleeds newspapers dry,” and the proof is in the pink slips that it has scattered at newspapers from Los Angeles to Trenton.

So yes, it’s not great news for the city’s paper of record, which began offering buyouts just two days after Alden took over.

But just a couple miles west, across the river, there is a sudden swell of optimism about the state of journalism in Chicago, where local journalists are about to answer a question I posed on these pages several years ago: Why can’t newspapers create a business model similar to public radio stations?

The Chicago Sun-Times, the Tribune’s scrappy tabloid rival, probably most famous for being the home of Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert, is expected to be purchased by Chicago Public Media. Chicago Public Media also owns WBEZ, which itself is best known as the home of the popular shows “This American Life” and “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me.”

Chicago Public Media has signed a letter of intent to purchase the Sun-Times, which like many metro newspapers, has navigated troubled waters in recent years and underwent a round of “strategic staff reductions” last year during the peak of the pandemic (though no reporters or content creators lost their jobs).

The structure of the newly-formed media company would mirror The Philadelphia Inquirer, where I work. The Inquirer is owned by the nonprofit Lenfest Institute for Journalism and is the largest newspaper in the country owned by a nonprofit; the Sun-Times would likely be the second. While there have been bumps along the way at The Inquirer (including layoffs due to the sale of the newspaper’s longtime printing plant), the new business model has at least given the media organization a longer path toward sustainability after years of cutbacks and has funneled resources back into the newsroom.

“Nonprofit ownership is not a panacea for any news organization nor a substitute for a sustainable business model,” said Lenfest Institute Executive Director Jim Friedlich. Friedlich said the nonprofit model offers two significant advantages. It cuts out the need to pay sometimes egregious dividends back to corporate ownership, and nonprofit owners can appeal to donors, foundations and other philanthropies for help in supporting public-service journalism.

“The Chicago merger will be a game-changer in both respects, allowing more financial headroom for the newspaper and opening the doors and windows to public support,” Friedlich said. “What is different [from The Inquirer] is that the Sun-Times is being acquired by a leading NPR station with the opportunity to add value to the newspaper and vice versa. If well-executed, this is a one-plus-one equals three opportunity."

Yet, nonprofit ownership remains pretty rare across the newspaper industry. Outside of The Inquirer, only the Tampa Bay Times (which is owned by the Poynter Institute) and The Salt Lake Tribune (which received permission from the IRS to become a 501(c)(3) public charity in 2019) have attempted this approach. Moreover, even outside of corporate ownership, metro newspapers still generate millions of dollars in revenue, which is hard for owners to give up in favor of more altruistic pursuits.

What will the new combined entity mean for both WBEZ and the Sun-Times? For starters, more reporters once the deal closes, according to Chicago Public Media CEO Matt Moog.

“My expectation is, by the time we get ready to close, we’re probably going to have in the neighborhood of 40 or 50 open positions that we need to fill,” Moog said in an interview with Northwestern’s Local News Initiative, telling former Chicago Tribune Editor Mark Jacob, “This is like a George Bush ‘read my lips’ moment.”

“If we look forward years in the future, I am very optimistic that the newsroom will be larger than it is today,” Moog said.

There’s also the possibility of creating a surprising amount of synergy without layoffs or job reclassifications by merging the two brands. For instance, the Sun-Times is focused on breaking news, while WBEZ focuses more on what they call “big news moments.” The Sun-Times also devotes robust coverage to the city’s many major sports teams. At the same time, WBEZ rarely covers sports unless a story intersects with one of the station’s core areas of interest, such as education or criminal justice.

Of course, lots of questions remain about the merger:

  • Will the Sun-Times continue to publish a printed edition daily, or will that get pared down under the new partnership?
  • Will focusing on a digital subscription business place WBEZ content behind a paywall? That would be a rarity as far as public radio stations go.
  • Will the two brands continue to act independently for the most part, or are we looking at something akin to the Chicago WBEZ Sun-Times?

Those questions will be answered as the merger moves forward, and Moog has pledged to be as open as possible about the details because he is optimistic that a similar approach could work in cities across the country.

“There are many, many people interested in finding a sustainable path forward for local journalism,” Moog said. “Although I think for some people this combination was unexpected, when they get a chance to think about it, they get excited, like this could really work.”

Speaking of the Chicago Tribune…

There’s a lot of talk in media circles about how journalists should approach misinformation and dangerously false statements being made by prominent political figures, with a spotlight on one in particular — former President Donald Trump.

Up until 2018, Jacob was the metro editor for the Chicago Tribune and was responsible for editing Page 1 stories for the newspaper. In a recent Twitter thread I suggest everyone read (it’s currently pinned on his handle, @MarkJacob16), Jacob opened up about being “unintentionally complicit” in helping undermine democracy by following journalism traditions and treating Republicans and Democrats equally. 

“When I edited political stories, I went so far as to count the quotes from Republicans and Democrats, thinking an equal number would make us fairer. I didn’t think I was helping either party. I thought I was helping the readers. I was wrong,” Jacob wrote. “If you look back three or four decades, you see many corrupt pols in both parties. Scandals like Abscam and Keating Five were mostly Democratic. But in recent decades, it’s obvious the GOP is more unethical and anti-democratic. Which means treating the parties equally helps Republicans.”

So, what’s the solution? According to Jacob, the framing of political stories needs to change from being party-oriented to democracy-oriented.

“The media shouldn't elevate liars in the interest of ‘fairness.’ Yes, media should be fair — to the readers, to the facts. But not to the two-party system. To our democracy,” Jacob wrote. “We are now in the midst of an assault on democracy unlike any our country has ever seen. Any journalist who doesn’t frame their reports in that context is doing a grievous disservice to our country.”        

Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor & Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor and writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Reach him at robtornoe@gmail.com.

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