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Brian Hieggelke, publisher of Newcity, has written a long, thoughtful proposal to "keep Chicago a two-newspaper town." The occasion for Hieggelke's exercise is last week's astonishing announcement that Michael Ferro, principal owner of the Sun-Times, would from now on be a silent partner because he'd just become the largest single shareholder of Tribune Publishing. Because of Ferro's dominant position in both camps, "everyone is assuming this is the end of Chicago as a two-newspaper town," Hieggelke writes; therefore, the first thing he thinks the Sun-Times needs to do is get Ferro out of the picture completely.
He follows with several other ideas, and if you want to see the Sun-Times stick around, be sure to read them.
Having said this, I have my own point to get to: the merits of Hieggelke's strategy are lost on the staff of the Reader because one element of his strategy for saving the Sun-Times is to cannibalize our own paper out of existence.
"Merge the Reader into the mothership," says Hieggelke:
The Sun-Times and the Chicago Reader have terrific histories yet both are generally seen to be in a late state of decline. . . If it makes sense to distribute USA Today copy [Hieggelke thinks it does], what about this reservoir of topnotch writing that you already own? Can you really afford NOT to take advantage of it? . . . I say merge the two, and reinvent the Sun-Times as something new, the evolutionary child of its tabloid tradition and the Reader's legacy of alternative weekly greatness. The most obvious fix would be to eliminate overlaps in coverage in favor of expanded arts coverage via the Reader's staff in the Sun-Times. But the Reader also has a strong history of progressive political reporting that dovetails nicely with the Sun-Times. And though it no longer generally practices it, the Reader has a long-form heritage that is unparalleled in newsprint, a heritage worth reviving in a weekend edition. . . .
(Hieggelke wants the Sun-Times to drop its little-read Sunday paper in favor of a fat weekend paper available Saturday—an idea the Sun-Times has kicked around at least since Dennis Britton was editor a quarter century ago.)
Hieggelke goes on:
But what about areas of conflict, like, gulp, swear words in the Reader? Fuck it, print 'em. Those old 'family newspaper' ideas died around the time of Watergate, and this bold new newspaper vision needs to reflect our times and our future, not the world of June and Ward Cleaver.
The problem with this is that the Reader no more considers the Sun-Times the "mothership" than Latvia did the Soviet Union. We'd be about as digestible as the Letts were. The editorial staff's response to life in Ferro's corporate sphere of influence was to organize as a unit of the Chicago Newspaper Guild and parent Communication Workers of America. This step was taken on behalf of the staff's jobs, values, and dignity—unionization had never been seriously considered during the 40 years of the Reader's independent existence.
Hieggelke has been around the block too many times to assume there's any particular comity between the Reader and the investment group that now owns us. But when he proposes a merger he sounds naïve. It would happen under duress, and it would install at the Sun-Times a hive of seething irredentists.
The Reader thrived as an alternative to the Sun-Times; no one at the Reader can calmly think of it as an insert.