Parent Company WBEZ’s Board of Directors Approves Sun-Times Acquisition – NBC Chicago
The board of directors that controls public radio station WBEZ on Tuesday approved the acquisition of the Chicago Sun-Times, taking a major step in a deal to create one of the nation’s largest nonprofit news organizations. .
The non-monetary transfer will not be final until the contracts are approved, but both outlets said they hoped for a close on or around January 31. Under the agreement, the Sun-Times would become an independent operation from WBEZ owner Chicago Public Media and transition from for-profit to non-profit status.
Both groups said they share a mission to invest in local journalism. While information operations would remain separate, the combination will allow content to be shared across different platforms and gain a wider audience, the top executives said.
“This is an important step in growing and strengthening local journalism in Chicago,” said Matt Moog, CEO of Chicago Public Media. “A vibrant local news ecosystem is fundamental to healthy democracy, informed citizens and engaged communities. Together, WBEZ and the Chicago Sun-Times aim to tell the stories that matter, serve more Chicagoans with our unbiased, factual journalism, and connect Chicagoans more deeply to each other and their communities.
Nykia Wright, CEO of the Sun-Times, said, “This is a tremendous opportunity for our collective news community and for the future of America’s hardest-working newspaper, which boasts some of Chicago’s finest storytellers among its ranks. . We are excited about the opportunities available to us for this unique not-for-profit news model and to raise the bar in supporting, preserving and strengthening local journalism.
Moog will continue to lead Chicago Public Media. He said WBEZ’s board of directors’ support for the acquisition was unanimous and followed weeks of “healthy conversations” about combining news operations. Wright will report to him and join Chicago Public Media’s management team.
Private equity specialist Michael Sacks, a top Sun-Times investor, is backing the sale. The combined entity is also supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Pritzker Traubert Foundation.
Chicago Public Media will create a separate five-member board to oversee the Sun-Times. Its members will be Moog, Adrienne King of Bain & Co., Lerry Knox of Sovereign Infrastructure Group, Kristen Mack of the MacArthur Foundation and Aretae Ortiz Wyler of The Atlantic.
Sun-Times executives said the newspaper had reduced its financial losses in recent years, making it an attractive partner for WBEZ. Since 2017, the Sun-Times has been owned by private investors, unions and the Chicago Federation of Labor, which have continued the daily print publication while spending to generate more digital revenue. The paper has bolstered its editorial team, ending years of cuts under previous owners.
The partners outwitted the parent company of the Chicago Tribune, which wanted to buy the Sun-Times with what analysts believed was an intention to shut it down.
In 2019, Sacks and Chicago Blackhawks owner W. Rockwell “Rocky” Wirtz joined as lead investors. They will not remain on Chicago Public Media’s board of directors, but a source said Sacks will continue to provide financial support to the Sun-Times through the new organization.
Jorge Ramirez, chairman of the Sun-Times board, said WBEZ’s decision recognized the paper’s improved financial stability.
“We should all be grateful to the newspaper’s current investors for finding the best way forward from the perspective of all constituents of the Sun-Times, including more than 150 reporters and employees who work for the newspaper and loyal readers who rely on the newspaper for quality news about Chicago and beyond,” said Ramirez, who works at Sacks’ investment firm and is a former CFL president.
“This innovative merger honors the valuable and important role the newspaper has played and secures a bright future for the newspaper and all members of the Sun-Times team.”
In a statement, Sacks thanked the executives involved in the sale and said he was “proud to have played a role in securing the future” of the Sun-Times.
With a combined total of nearly 300 employees, WBEZ-Sun-Times may be the nation’s largest nonprofit journalism organization, according to data from the Institute for Nonprofit News. It also appears to be the largest with a traditional printed newspaper as part of its operations.
Institute data, based on responses to a January 2021 membership survey, showed the Salt Lake Tribune, with 80 full-time employees, was the largest nonprofit newspaper. It listed investigative website ProPublica, with 148 employees, and Boston television station WGBH, with 100 employees, as the largest nonprofit media outlets among its members.
While WBEZ and the Sun-Times will continue to be independent operations, the deal could change a press tradition. The executives said that as a nonprofit organization, the Sun-Times can no longer support political candidates. Media coverage and investigations of public officials would not be affected.
Both organizations will search for editors to lead their newsrooms.
WBEZ, which began as the extension service of the Chicago Board of Education in 1943, is one of the nation’s largest public media stations, known for shows such as “This American Life” and “Wait, Wait.” Don’t tell me Its news programming includes investigations into areas such as public corruption, criminal justice and poverty.
The Sun-Times has a line of business that dates back to the founding of the Chicago Evening Journal in 1844. The Journal became the Daily Times, which Marshall Field III merged with his Chicago Sun in 1947. Through several ownership changes and to a 2009 bankruptcy filing, the paper continued aggressive, scoop-oriented coverage of local government, civic affairs and sports. He won eight Pulitzer Prizes.
Like other locally oriented newspapers, the Sun-Times suffered deep declines in advertising and circulation revenue as audiences moved online. Publications with a national reach, such as the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, fared better, but declining revenues have dried up local news sources across the country.
Analysts have linked the decline of local news in part to greater public belief in misinformation and conspiracy theories circulating on social media.