One of the last conversations I had with the beloved Chicago writer Andrew Patner took place after running into him as I was coming out of an event. I mentioned to him that I was thinking about writing a story about how, hypothetically, I would save the Sun-Times, and he strongly encouraged me to write it. The newspaper was something dear to his heart.
I decided that it was some kind of karmic intervention that the morning after the one-year anniversary of Andrew’s unexpected death brought a surprise announcement—that Michael Ferro, the principal owner of the Sun-Times since 2011, and the man credited with turning Jenny McCarthy into a columnist, was buying a substantial stake in Tribune Publishing and taking on the role of non-executive chairman. Simultaneously, he was stepping out of his controlling role at the Sun-Times parent company, the cringingly named Wrapports. A seismic shift roiled the quicksand of local media.
Bruce Sagan had his own karmic intervention last week. The longtime Chicago publisher and one of the most important nurturers of the arts in Chicago (ask the Joffrey Ballet and Steppenwolf Theatre for starters), celebrated his eighty-seventh birthday by finding himself at the helm of the Chicago Sun-Times, where he’d been a board member, when the news of Ferro’s defection broke.
I’ve known Bruce for a long time and cherish him as one of Chicago’s saints; he’d also encouraged me to write this story the last time I’d actively considered it. Though I’m not sure he’d still feel that way today, the messaging that Ferro’s move has unleashed in the media, both traditional and social, tells me it’s now or never. “Ferro deal raises the specter of a one-newspaper Chicago,” read the Crain’s Chicago Business headline. “Chicago Sun-Tribune….has a nice ring to it,” read one Facebook comment on media scribe Robert Feder’s Facebook page.
Though so obvious it hardly seems necessary to mention, I write this story burdened with a multitude of conflicts of interest, from the personal relationships I have with many of the players on all sides, to the obvious longtime competition between Newcity and the Reader, to even the fact that my very small retirement account owns a few Tribune Publishing shares.
So here, Chicago Sun-Times, is what I’d do if you gave me the keys to the place.
Get Ferro out entirely.
By continuing to have financial control of the Sun-Times while casting his future lot with the Tribune, you’re in an obvious no-win situation. It’s the reason why everyone is assuming this is the end of Chicago as a two-newspaper town. (Even if the Tribune acquires the Sun-Times and keeps it operating, perhaps merging it with its own anemic RedEye, that’s NOT the same as two independent organizations fighting it out.) And as long as he (and apparently other similarly compromised investors) own the shop, you’ll feel handcuffed to make the drastic changes you need to—many of which will reverse his pet projects—lest he simply pull the plug on you in disgust. Of course, getting him out is easier said than done. Who’d buy the thing right now when he was the only one willing to take it on these last few years? But if a private investor can’t be found, perhaps Ferro would donate his interest to a foundation that might be able to raise money to keep it going as a public interest rather than a private investment. Though this is clearly tricky and prickly, the paper is likely doomed in its current ownership structure.
Print is not dying as much as the old daily newspaper model is. Act accordingly.
The history of the newspaper was one of mass-reach, of “newsies” literally fighting it out in the streets in a battle for the biggest circulation. Though broadcasting quickly surpassed newspapers as the world’s mass communication vehicle, the newspaper’s circulation decline was a long gradual downward trend rather than a steep slope. That is, until digital media reached critical mass and destroyed the last remaining intrinsic advantage of the newspaper; that it was a one-stop carrier of all the latest news, where you could catch up even if you’d missed the TV news, and find greater depth and context in the process.
The print-media survivors of this time of accelerated Darwinism will be those who no longer care about reaching everyone in a market but rather choose an audience and focus with intensity on serving that audience. The more boutique nature of print in the future makes it a medium well-suited for the intellectual elite, for opinion and community leaders. With a well-educated and affluent contour, the more selective print audience is increasingly attractive for the marketers who support it. But survival is only for those who think constantly about the physicality of print and the aesthetic singularity that it offers.
So what does that mean? Figure out what you can do best, especially if no one else is doing it well, and shift resources there. Analyze every current feature and kill it if it’s not part of that new mission, even if it loses some readers (remember, every change will bring louder voices of complaint than the silent chorus of affirmation). And though the tradition of the tabloid is perhaps to be the lowbrow alternative, the paper of the people, the future is likely a bit different. Here’s a stab at a mission statement: “To chronicle the daily life of the great American city, with depth and intelligence, giving appropriate weight to politics, culture, business and sports, and to do so in an inclusive manner that reaches across the city’s vast melting pot of citizens.” Accompany this with a sleeker, more sophisticated design, too, please.
Keep the faith in print but fix the web site. And for god’s sake, kill the Sun-Times Network.
I’m far from the first to say this, but the irony that under a “technology millionaire” the Sun-Times web site turned into a monstrous embarrassment is extreme enough that it borders on satire, if it was not true. Not much needs to be said beyond that other than, please, shut down the “Sun-Times Network” immediately. It’s a horribly ill-conceived idea that seems like it was borrowed from 1997, and its execution is both embarrassing and a detriment to the journalistic values of the enterprise.
If the Sun-Times is a brand worthy of a national network, it is certainly worth shoring up in Chicago. But you don’t have the resources to create and build new brands. The business publication Grid showed some sign of promise in a space worth developing, but you spent too much too fast with its magazine-quality paper stock. It would have been better to print it on newsprint and invest in magazine-quality journalism. Splash is another story entirely. Widely believed to be a vanity project of Ferro’s that he could use to curry favor on the social circuit, it is trying to move into a space where two standalone publications, CS and Michigan Avenue, are already established. And Chicago does not need two such publications, let alone three. Even worse, it operates as a separate operational entity and with, allegedly, lower standards of journalism. (It sure reads like “pay for play” with its small universe of subjects often found among its advertisers.) In every way, the resources committed to Splash and the way it operates outside the newsroom kills the morale of everyone else at the company. I’ve heard it several times over.
Wait! Here’s an inspiration! Sell it to the Tribune. Something tells me they’d now be interested.
Merge the Reader into the mothership.
The Sun-Times and the Chicago Reader have terrific histories yet both are generally seen to be in a late state of decline. There was a time, a couple years back, when scuttlebutt said that the Reader was the only profitable enterprise in the Wrapports realm, but even that notion seemed to be more a manifestation of artful cost accounting than real P&L. And the recent “redesigns,” which downgraded paper stock and made it easier for the publication to drop to total page counts that not long ago would have been just one section of four, make it pretty obvious to anyone paying attention what is going on. Time to circle the wagons.
Here’s the rationale. One, the Sun-Times is strapped for resources and content. This has led you to strike a deal to print several pages of the USA Today to fill out the paper and give it substance. Though derided by some, I am a fan of that deal (both as a reader and for business reasons). It adds heft and breadth to what would otherwise be an unfathomably thin publication, with content that, let’s face it, no one sees unless you’re traveling and staying in a hotel. And it’s not really that different than using wire copy, which has long been a tradition for newspapers.
But if it makes sense to distribute USA Today copy, what about this reservoir of topnotch writing that you already own? Can you really afford NOT to take advantage of it? Yes, some of this is done with the poorly executed Agenda section on Fridays, which tries to Frankenstein the two brands’ arts coverage together, but that’s not what I’m talking about. 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 (more on this later).
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 liberal DNA of the Reader should help revive the genetic origins of the Sun-Times’ editorial stance as a publication crafted in the 1940s by the Marshall Field family as a progressive alternative to the retrograde Republicanism of Colonel McCormick’s Chicago Tribune. While Trumps and tea parties might play well in the suburbs, the city, and the relatively younger audience you’ll be cultivating, wants nothing of them. Obama endorsements notwithstanding, the Tribune sill oozes Republican values as it casts its future in suburbia. You can own the left; grab it. Start endorsing again. Stake out a position on the issues of our time. And start it off by boldly and publicly retracting your endorsement of Rauner for governor. Now.
Screw the suburbs.
With the exception of the CTA-friendly Oak Park and Evanston, the suburbs are from Venus and the city is from Mars, or something like that. Trying to reach both audiences means you’ll reach neither. In fairness, you seem to get this already, perhaps out of necessity since you offloaded your suburban presence to the Tribune a while back. But own it. Be the voice of the city in all of its diversity. Find more writers of color and cover the whole city, especially the South Side. Cover the African-American and Latino communities in all their range of accomplishment and activity, not just as cesspools of crime and poverty. Guess what? National icons from Chicago in our lifetime aren’t white folks: Obama, Oprah, Kanye… Own that.
Enterprise with even more vigor.
Yes, investigative journalism is expensive, so you’ll have to do so selectively. (It’s already core to your identity.) But as your recent documentation of the propensity of Chicago police brass to banish its bad eggs to the academy, where they can teach recruits how to abuse citizens and perpetuate the cultural cancer of the CPD, you can make a difference, and we, your readers, notice. Keep your focus narrow, on the city and its problems like this, and your relevance will soar. After all, you’re the paper of The Mirage, the most famous act of investigative journalism in Chicago history, where you opened your own tavern in order to secretly document the culture of bribery pervasive in trying to run a business in Chicago. That was almost forty years ago, and it still reverberates.
You’ve got big voices. Nourish them and cultivate more.
Though he jumped ship when Rupert Murdoch took a brief turn at captaining the Sun-Times, you are the paper of Mike Royko, the most famous columnist in Chicago history. You had Roger Ebert. And now, you still have, pound for pound, better columnists than the Tribune. Expand upon and exploit this, as it is still the thing that makes a daily newspaper a daily read. Consider making it a requirement that your columnists live in the city (grandfather Neil Steinberg if you can’t get him to move out of Northbrook) and ensure their continuing relevance.
Consider going free. Or charging more.
Experiment vigorously with distribution models. The Reader has always been free, and was long robustly profitable too. Think about a hybrid model, where you charge for the convenience of home delivery (which many of us would still pay for, as long as the price was reasonable) and give it away in street boxes and via hawkers throughout the greater downtown. The reinvented publication needs to be seen. Or, on the flip side, make a great product and charge more, at least a dollar an issue. But make it convenient to do so, by incorporating Apple Pay and Android Pay on your boxes. (It might just be me, but that seems a bit more logical than your widely publicized decision to accept Bitcoin.) And if you do charge for it, invest in street-level marketing. Better than ads on the El would be enthusiastic college students—not the rugged world-weary hawkers who sell your paper with a deficit of joy—along CTA stops giving “samples” away with subscription offers inside.
The history of the Sunday newspaper dates back to 1791 in London. As much as I love traditions, something tells me that the weekend habits of a twenty-first-century Chicagoan have very little in common with the weekend habits of an eighteenth-century Brit, or American for that matter. Saturday newspapers today are invariably thin and uninteresting, so losing their current rendition will upset no one. And everything that makes a Sunday paper appealing, expanded in-depth coverage across a variety of sections and a robust offering of sales fliers, will be more effective on Saturday, where the entire weekend, then, would be available for reading and shopping.
But for this to work, the weekend edition needs to be robust, a viable if not superior alternative to the Chicago Tribune. Why do approximately 50,000 Chicagoans subscribe to WSJ Weekend on Saturdays as well as the Sunday New York Times? Quality and depth of coverage, plain and simple. Perhaps the Reader might morph into a weekend magazine section of this new daily, with long-form articles perfect for that languid morning coffee reading that makes a weekend a weekend. Maybe even call the whole thing the Sun-Times Reader.
I know I’ve ruffled some feathers with many of these ideas, but I’ve done so in the spirit that I think many of us share: that a one-newspaper town is not a future we should enter without a fight. I sure wish Andrew was still here, as he’d have much to say about what I’ve written, and would do so thoughtfully, albeit while lovingly pointing out some quibble of grammar.
As for Bruce, I intentionally have not reached out to him about this story, so I’ll let Neil Steinberg’s blog coverage of Sagan’s staff meeting in the wake of the announcement speak for him:
“ ‘If I have my way you’ll be here forever,’ Sagan said.
Maybe you had to live under the sword of Damocles for a decade, watching the thread fray, to really understand the impact of those words. While optimism is typically misplaced in the newspaper business, I found Sagan’s appearance somewhere between encouraging and stunning, like the Officer in White showing up at the end of ‘Lord of the Flies,’ representing civilization and order returned.”
Neil, I hope Bruce is right about your future. This city needs you.