Chicago Public Media and the Chicago Sun-Times have made their partnership official Monday, creating one of the largest non-profit news organizations in the country, with pledges of $61 million from nearly a dozen philanthropies and donors.
Now under the banner of Chicago Public Media, WBEZ and the Chicago Sun-Times will reach more than 2 million people a week in the Chicago area across broadcast, print, and digital channels.
“We are excited about what lies ahead for this unique model of nonprofit news and raising the bar for supporting, preserving, and strengthening local journalism,” said Nykia Wright, the CEO of the Chicago Sun-Times.
To help finance the new operation, Chicago Public Media has announced it raised the $61 million dollars in philanthropic support from local and national foundations and individuals who “share a belief in journalism’s critical role in informing the public, strengthening local communities, and safeguarding democracy,” according to a press release issued Monday.
The funding is “mostly pledged over a five-year period,” the statement reads, and the CPM says it will be directed toward maintaining and building the Sun-Times’ print and digital products, as well as covering the financing needed to support collaboration between the two newsrooms.
This initial investment is a significant amount of money for Chicago’s flagship NPR station. In fiscal year 2020, CPM received $25 million from contributions and grants, and $29 million in the two prior fiscal years. The Sun-Times has in the past declined to comment about its financial footing, only to say it has been stable in recent years.
CPM has pledged to boost its fund-raising efforts to support the Sun-Times and maintain the partnership long term. WBEZ is more than 60% listener-supported, with nearly 90,000 members making individual donations to support WBEZ’s programming and journalism.
Founding donors include Sun-Times’ investor Michael Sacks, who helped spearhead the partnership. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Pritzker Traubert Foundation have also pledged support from the beginning.
The signed agreement will bring on additional financial resources from Builders Initiative, Chicago Community Trust, Walter and Karla Goldschmidt Foundation, the Joyce Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Mansueto Foundation, Robin Steans and Leonard Gail, and an anonymous donor.
“The response from the philanthropic community has been tremendous,” said Matt Moog, CEO of Chicago Public Media, in a statement. “With their support, our talented team will tell the stories that matter and serve more people than ever before with human-centered, solutions-oriented journalism. We aim to connect Chicagoans more deeply to each other, to their communities, and to the issues and solutions that shape their lives.”
Builders Initiative is founded by a billionaire heir to the Walton family, Chicago-based Lukas Walton. The Glencoe-based Walter and Karla Goldschmidt Foundation has donated to dozens of organizations for the arts, health and journalism (including WBEZ), and in 2020, secured the future of former WBEZ show, Sound Opinions, with a gift to move it to WCRX.
The Chicago Community Trust is a philanthropic organization that raises money to fund efforts to reduce racial and economic barriers across the Cook County region. The Mansueto Foundation was founded by Morningstar CEO Joe Mansueto and his wife, Rika, in 2009 to support education. The group founded a public charter school in Brighton Park.
Robin Steans is president of Advance Illinois, a non-profit education advocacy organization; Leonard Gail is a founding member of Massey & Gail law firm. Both are also members of the Chicago-based Steans Family Foundation.
The closely-watched deal is being held up as a possible template for other impoverished news organizations whose newsrooms have been gutted by declining advertising revenues, audiences migrating to social media for their news and disinterested media owners unwilling to invest.
Under the deal, the Sun-Times, whose solvency was questioned for decades such that it once turned off the escalators in its downtown offices to save money, would get a new, long-term financial lease on life, and WBEZ would capitalize on the newspaper’s larger digital and print presence.
According to the two organizations, the Sun-Times would join WBEZ as a not-for-profit subsidiary of Chicago Public Media and would get its own non-profit board.
Both WBEZ and the Sun-Times would maintain their own newsrooms, staff, and “editorial independence,” according to the organizations. Wright would remain the CEO of the Sun-Times but report to Moog. Both newsrooms would also hire executive editors, positions that do not exist at either organization. (The Sun-Times has an interim editor-in-chief, Steve Warmbir.)
Their respective newsrooms will also be represented by different labor unions with the Sun-Times aligned with the Chicago News Guild and WBEZ with SAG-AFTRA. Both unions are entering contract negotiations this year.
The deal gained steam last fall, when the paper’s lead investor, Michael Sacks, and several prominent foundations stepped up with offers to help underwrite the acquisition, and WBEZ’s board voted in September to explore a pairing of the two organizations.
Founded in 1948 through a merger of the Chicago Sun and the Daily Times, the paper has had a long history of success – it has won eight Pulitzer Prizes – and financial struggles, including bankruptcy. But its current leadership has said this is not a “fire sale” and insisted the Sun-Times remains on firm financial footing.
Claudia Morell is a metro reporter for WBEZ. Follow @claudiamorell.