Chicago Public Media’s interim CEO confirmed Wednesday morning the non-profit parent company of WBEZ and Vocalo is in talks to partner with the Chicago Sun-Times.
Details of the potential partnership are still lacking, but the confirmation to staff in a morning email comes in response to media columnist Robert Feder’s report that Michael Sacks, the main investor in the Sun-Times, has been looking for someone to take over the paper.
“I can confirm that we are currently exploring partnerships and opportunities with the Chicago Sun-Times to strengthen local journalism in the city and our region,” Chicago Public Media’s interim CEO Matt Moog wrote Wednesday morning, confirming Feder’s report. “These conversations are an important part of our commitment to serving Chicago and ensuring local news continues to thrive.”
Feder said the proposed deal would “combine ownership.” But in his brief email, Moog did not address any details of the potential deal or whether the newsrooms would be combining.
Chicago Public Media’s board is scheduled for a closed-door meeting Wednesday evening.
In an email obtained by WBEZ, Sun-Times CEO Nykia Wright wrote to staff Wednesday that the newspaper is “in talks with Chicago Public Media to determine if there is an opportunity to become a combined entity. It is very important to note that we are not close to any deal. Opportunities like this require a lot of due diligence.”
“Please be assured that the current ownership group is committed to protecting your employment and will continue to invest in the paper with or without any potential future partnership,” Wright concluded.
Chicago Public Media staff received an updated message from Moog later Wednesday, in which he underscored that “nothing could be further from the truth” as to whether any such deal would impact job security at the station. “The fundamental premise of these talks is about growth and investment and expanding local journalism in Chicago,” he wrote. “Job security and offering career opportunities are of paramount importance.”
He also emphasized that the conversations with the Chicago Sun-Times requires confidentiality.
“I would stress that nothing is final, and we will disclose information as soon as we are able,” Moog wrote. “We want you to have input and we will have multiple opportunities going forward for input before anything is finalized.”
Moog, a tech entrepreneur who had served on the organization’s board, became interim CEO of Chicago Public Media in October 2020. He took the interim role after a permanent choice for the position withdrew her acceptance amid questions about how she handled misconduct allegations at her previous employer.
There is recent precedent for legacy newspapers maneuvering toward non-profit status as upheaval in the industry continues.
The Philadelphia Inquirer is now a public benefit corporation owned by the nonprofit Lenfest Institute for Journalism. That status means the company prioritizes its mission to provide a public benefit, while still seeking to make a profit. The Lenfest Institute can provide grant funding to the paper, in addition to any other organizations it chooses.
And in 2019, the Salt Lake Tribune gained approval from the federal government to become a non-profit entity.
In the public media realm, New York Public Radio in New York City, acquired the news website Gothamist in 2018, saying it would help the organization with its effort to grow a digital audience.
What the Sun-Times and Chicago Public Media deal could be, and what form, if any, it would take resembling these other mergers or non-profit shifts remains unknown to the public.
The Sun-Times has a long history of financial struggles and shifts in leadership as it has changed hands numerous times since the paper was born out of the 1948 merger of the Chicago Sun and the Chicago Daily Times.
The Sun-Times filed for bankruptcy protection in 2009, as it and other newspapers struggled to find financial footing amid declining revenue in advertising and print sales. Later that year, the paper was rescued from bankruptcy by an investment group led by James Tyree for about $25 million, $5 million of which was in cash, and the rest in absorbing the company’s liabilities.
Just a few short years later, in 2011, Tyree died and the paper was turned over again, this time to a new company called Wrapports, LLC, led in part by entrepreneur Michael Ferro.
Potential merger deals with other major media players came and went over the years. In May of 2017, when the Sun-Times was reportedly losing $4.5 million a year, Ferro, who had by then divested from the Sun-Times and was chairman of Tronc — which owned the Chicago Tribune at the time — led a new push to acquire the paper.
But regulatory issues got in the way, when the Justice Department’s antitrust division raised issues about the consolidation of two major newspapers in the same town. In July 2017, the Sun-Times instead was sold to a group of investors, including a former Chicago alderman, reportedly for $1.
Its top investors are now Michael Sacks, GCM Grosvenor CEO and board chairman; Rocky Wirtz, chairman of the Chicago Blackhawks; attorney Len Goodman and a coalition of labor unions.
Tony Arnold covers state politics for WBEZ. Follow @tonyjarnold.