Sun-Times Media has new owners and a new stepbrother, the CNC



Timothy Knight
  • Timothy Knight
Even if you’re an old-school journalist who despises fancy words like ‘content’ and ‘synergy,’ you’re bound to think along those lines as you read about the sale of Sun-Times Media Holdings to a new group of Chicago investors, some of whom are already deeply involved with the Chicago News Cooperative.

Chairman of Wrapports LLC—which is what the group is legally calling itself—is Michael Ferro Jr., chairman and CEO of Merrick Ventures, a private equity firm. Ferro was already on the board of the CNC, a two-year-old purveyor of public interest journalism. On the board of Wrapports is John Canning Jr., chairman of the CNC. On the boards of both Wrapports and the CNC is Bruce Sagan, publisher of the Hyde Park Herald.

Ferro and company just purchased Sun-Times Media for $20 million from the investment group organized by the late James Tyree that bought the collection of daily and weekly urban and suburban papers out of bankruptcy for $5 million in 2009.

Under outgoing CEO Jeremy Halbreich, Sun-Times Media slashed the staffs of these papers to the bone. The new CEO, Timothy Knight, is a former Newsday publisher who earlier helped develop the and sites for the Tribune Company. “We are in the business of delivering essential and customized content to print, online and mobile audiences,” Knight said in a prepared statement. “We will do that by investing in cutting-edge technologies, new content portals and other strategic tools, and integrating them with traditional media assets…

“We succeed when readers get the news they want—when and how they want it. We succeed when they have access to news they cannot find anywhere else.”

It’s a hopeful sign that Knight is able to stop talking about content and start talking about news. From what I hear, he’s an exceptionally able executive, the best reason to believe this sale is good news for the Sun-Times. Otherwise, what we have is a paper and a chain now controlled by white, male, North Shore Republican types, Sagan being by a large measure the most liberal of the investors and David Herro, manager of the Oakmark International Fund, the most libertarian. Twenty million dollars is not a lot of money to this group, one of whom was heard to say that owning a bunch of newspapers even beats owning a baseball team. The difference I guess, is that when the perks of big league franchise ownership are indulged in, there’s no price to pay in the loss of editorial freedom.

Sun-Times Media and the CNC remain two distinct entities—with the CNC being a nonprofit—but they will now have a conversation. The Sun-Times (and the other papers as well) needs reporters. The CNC is a cooperative that seeks media to cooperate with—it shares a Springfield reporter with WBEZ, but its public face remains overwhelmingly dependent on the four pages a week of Chicago news it provides to the New York Times. It seems to me a partnership of the Sun-Times and the CNC would be greater than the sum of its parts—that is, synergistic—and I got in touch with Sagan and asked what he thinks. A self-described newspaper junkie, Sagan, who’s 82, took over the Hyde Park Herald in 1953 when it was about to collapse and built it into a chain of neighborhood and suburban papers. He turned the Southtown Economist into a daily the day after the Chicago Daily News shut down in 1978. Eventually he sold everything but his first love, the Herald. The Economist is now the Daily Southtown, part of Wrapport chain.

“For the Chicago News Cooperative to thrive and go on,” Sagan mused, “it has to produce revenue sources. Its information has to get sold to other people. Can an organization like the Sun-Times use it without ruining its own image?” The Sun-Times has its own personality and editorial viewpoint, Sagan reflected, and by editorial viewpoint he did not simply mean editorial policy—he meant its way of looking at the world. The Sun-Times can’t farm out its City Hall coverage, he said; it can’t let a third party tell its readers what’s going on with the governor. “But is that true about everything that goes on in Springfield?” Sagan wondered. “Are we at a different moment in time?”

To ask that question is to answer it. We are. “Because of the economics of the Sun-Times, I’d point out to you the Tribune now furnishes the Sun-Times its mechanical production circumstances,” Sagan said. “It was an undreamed-of thing five years ago.”

He went on, “There’s no deal between the Chicago News Coop and the Sun-Times at the moment. They are indeed organizations with their own goals. But the goals are not far apart. It’s a question if they can make it work, if they can figure it out. The Sun-Times needs personality, viewpoint. That can’t come from somebody else. But is there a lot of news out there that can be shared? My god!”

Nobody at Wrapport has figured out how the Sun-Times and the CNC will support each other, Sagan said. “That’s got to be done by the professionals—by the Sun-Times editorial department and the CNC. It won’t be done by my brethren on the investment side, who are not journalists.

“They’re gonna talk.”

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