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Sept. 30, 2021, 4:48 p.m.
Business Models

Chicago Public Media is exploring a deal to acquire the Chicago Sun-Times

Public radio “is in a good position to pick up the slack if the legacy newspaper starts getting squeezed by corporate ownership.”

Chicago Public Media, home of NPR station WBEZ, could change the fate of one of the city’s two daily newspapers.

On Wednesday, Chicago Public Media’s board of directors signed off on a “non-binding letter of intent” to pursue the acquisition of the Chicago Sun-Times, the second largest newspaper in circulation in the city after the Chicago Tribune.

If a deal is finalized, it would make the Sun-Times a subsidiary of Chicago Public Media, WBEZ reported, and “create one of the largest local nonprofit news organizations in the nation and be a national model for the future of local journalism.”

While the Sun-Times wouldn’t be the first American newspaper to explore the non-profit route, this may be the first time a public media outlet has offered to help one.

As Northeastern University journalism professor Dan Kennedy points out, it’s unclear what the tax status of the Sun-Times would be under this deal. Non-profits aren’t allowed to endorse political candidates, for example, and whether or not those matter is a separate question, but it’s a long-held newspaper tradition that the Sun-Times also participates in. Still, Kennedy was optimistic about the announcement, writing that he hopes “it becomes a model for what might take place elsewhere.”

“Public radio (and/or television) in many markets is in a good position to pick up the slack if the legacy newspaper starts getting squeezed by corporate ownership,” Kennedy told me in an email. “They already have a high profile in the community and have a fundraising apparatus in place.”

So far, financial support for this deal would come from Sun-Times investor Michael Sacks, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Pritzker Traubert Foundation, though how much hasn’t been disclosed. Chicago Public Media CEO Matt Moog said that individual donations would also be a form of revenue in this partnership, which WBEZ already receives as a nonprofit.

WBEZ and the Sun-Times’ joint statement said that both news outlets would operate independently and continue to serve their respective audiences, but that they would “broaden their impact” by sharing each other’s content across their platforms (i.e. WBEZ republishing print stories, the Sun-Times sharing or collaborating on podcasts, co-hosting future community events).

Moog and Chicago Sun-Times CEO Nykia Wright both said that there were no plans to reduce or lay off staff in this deal, and it would instead be an opportunity to expand both newsrooms.

Should the deal go through, it would be the fourth time the Sun-Times has changed ownership since 2009.

Somewhat similar deals have taken place in other cities. In 2018, WNYC in New York, KPCC in Los Angeles, and WAMU in Washington D.C. acquired digital news sites Gothamist, LAist, and DCist, respectively. In 2019, Colorado Public Radio acquired Denverite.

But acquiring a print newspaper is different, stressed Chris Krewson, executive editor of LION — who struck a note of caution about the deal. “The overhead of the new digital newsrooms tends to be exponentially smaller; this is pretty key, in my mind,” he wrote me in an email. “If you were going to start a nonprofit organization to serve a city or region in the year of our lord 2021, why on Earth would it look anything like a metro daily newspaper?”

“I saw far too little in this announcement about what Chicago needs, news and information-wise, and a whole lot of optimism around what, essentially, has already been sold for the sum total of its obligations,” Krewson said.

Chicago Sun-Times building by Don Harder used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 30, 2021, 4:48 p.m.
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