Roger Ebert's come up with an interesting idea for saving the Sun-Times. Before I tell you what it is, a little background . . .
My column this week begins with a visit to an el station where a guy paid $200 a week by the Tribune hands out copies of RedEye from 6 to 10 AM. He told me he gives away a few hundred every day, while "seven or eight" people pass him carrying the Sun-Times. I happened to go by his station one evening this week, and apparently he hadn't made it to work that morning -- sealed bundles of RedEye sat in a stack by the station door. There you have it, I thought -- hand the public a free RedEye and they'll take it, but no one wants the paper enough to bend over and pull a copy out of a bundle.
Ebert read the column and he e-mailed me: "The Tribune started Red Eye to kill the Sun-Times. Is that really what they want to do? How much are they losing by hiring people to give it away? Wouldn't this be a good time for them to fold it?"
It's an idea reminiscent of the one Alberts Brooks had in Lost in America: when his character's wife loses her head in Las Vegas and gambles away their life's savings, he tries to sell the casino boss on the idea that it would make for wonderful PR if the casino gave them back their money. Casinos are in the business of keeping the money, and American businesses are in the business of putting each other out of business. (Though collusion has its own proud history.)
The niggling detail here is that the Tribune is also in the business of informing the public, something it will swear on a stack of Bibles is a sacred trust worthy of constitutional protection. Seen in that light, driving the Sun-Times into extinction is utterly immoral behavior. Seen in that light, it's also bad for the Tribune. "Not only are we important to our readers, but we're important to [Tribune] readers, even if they don't know it," Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg told the Tribune. "If you have no competition, you're not on your toes. Older readers remember this as a four-paper town."
Two-fisted competition among news houses is something Chicago is supposed to be about, and maybe for old time's sake, if for no other reason, the Tribune should let the fight continue. Sure, it's got its own problems, but God help the Tribune if RedEye's the answer to any of them. RedEye's making money, says the Tribune. Fine. Call the experiment a success and end it. Tribune, they're all but pleading.
I asked Tribune publisher Scott Smith about Ebert's idea. He e-mailed back: "I respect Roger Ebert and his movie reviews, but his review of our situation is way off the mark. The Tribune's goals are to serve our customers and communities, and to make money doing those well. We launched RedEye five years ago targeting segments we saw as underserved: young urban commuters and the advertisers who want to reach them. As you know, RedEye has become extremely popular with readers and is also solidly profitable based on a growing ad revenue stream. It's a highly competitive marketplace and we're working to grow our share of all media, but our intent is not to kill off the Sun-Times. If it were, why would we enter into a long term agreement to distribute the Sun-Times and save them money? We believe multiple news voices serve the public's interest, that competition is healthy and makes us better. Hope that answers Roger's questions and yours."
Then there's Plan B. The Sun-Times starts giving itself away.
Better make that Plan A.