Sun-Times Faces Common Newspaper Struggle, with a Twist
What happened to get the company to this point is very different from other newspapersâ€”but the questions it has to answer now are shared by the entire industry.
More and more often these days, the media is reporting on itself. The Sun-Times is the 5th major newspaper group to file for bankruptcy protection. Reporters and at least three television trucks swarmed the Sun-Times building in Chicago yesterday afternoon, looking for employees willing to weigh in on the bankruptcy filing. Those who did talk said they weren't all that surprised, including this woman, who didn't want us to broadcast her name.
WOMAN: You know how there's a little buzz around the office. You know, there was a buzz, but you always hope that's not true. But then you know also that there is a little truth to the buzz.
She says she was laid off from a job in the classified department last week. She attended a staff meeting Tuesday with interim CEO Jeremy Halbreich. The filing means she may not get the severance she thought was coming her way.
WOMAN: To be honest with you I think bankruptcy is kind of like a fad in the business world. You know it's something that they are bailing out on. We as individuals can't bail out on our responsibilities.
Unlike the Tribune Companyâ€”which owns the Chicago Tribune, and is also in bankruptcy, the Sun Times Media Group does not have a significant amount of bank or bondholder debt. Instead, the company says it owes hundreds of millions dollars in penalties and interest as well as legal fees related to criminal mismanagement by former CEO Conrad Black, who's now in prison.
FITZGERALD: It's not so much that ad revenue is down, and certainly it is down, and cash flow is down, and that's certainly true. But there's just been one after another self-inflicted wounds that have driven the Sun Times into this.
That's Mark Fitzgerald, editor at large for “Editor and Publisher”, a journal focused on the newspaper industry. He says Conrad Black is largely responsible for Tuesday's filing. The economy has done it's part: it's been devastating for the newspaper industry.
FITZGERALD: It's a scrappy paper that you never want to count out. My first job here and one of the reasons I even moved to Chicago and that Editor and Publisher wanted me here was Rupert Murdoch was taking over the Sun-Times and everyone thought that was the death knell. That was 1984.
The Sun-Times has survived a lot of nay-saying and lots of rumors of impending death. Bankruptcy may just help it shake off that past.
Mike Smith is the executive director of the Media Management Center at Northwestern University. He says bankruptcy can be a chance for the newspaper group to focus on the future.
SMITH: All of this is legal and economic and financial but they have to think about things that are strategic and more journalistic to be successful going forward.
Smith says to survive, the Sun-Times Media Group has to grapple with its role in the community and how to differentiate itself from the other media options available.
Those questions aren't unique to the Sun Times. These days they're being debated and discussed in newsrooms all over the country.
Sara Sargent contributed to this story.