Public radio owner buys Sun-Times in big Chicago media deal

Tali Arbel and Sara Burnett
Associated Press

Chicago — The combination of two storied Chicago news brands has created one of the country's largest local nonprofit news organizations.

Chicago Public Media, which owns WBEZ, the local NPR affiliate, announced Monday it completed a deal to buy the Chicago Sun-Times, the punchy tabloid with roots that stretch back to the mid-19th century. Final terms were not disclosed.

The Sun-Times will be an independent subsidiary of Chicago Public Media, and the paper and the radio station will have separate newsrooms. But they will share content across their platforms, and will combine to reach more than 2 million Chicago residents weekly via print, broadcast and digital platforms, Chicago Public Media said. And in an era when many local newsrooms have bled staff, particularly after mergers, the head of Chicago Public Media, Matt Moog, told WBEZ there will be 50 open positions at the two organizations and they will be hiring.

Chicago Public Media said it raised $61 million for the deal, with funding coming from local foundations and individual donors via multi-year commitments. Most commitments are pledged over a five-year period, and the funds will be invested in the Sun-Times to expand its journalism, invest in its digital product and maintain the print paper, the company said.

Moog called the response from the philanthropic community “tremendous.” The company noted 60% of WBEZ's support comes from listeners, with nearly 90,000 members making “mostly modest, affordable individual donations."

“People are willing to support news they value and trust,” Moog said. “We hope to grow our community of members and donors who will invest in journalism from both WBEZ and the Chicago Sun-Times so we can expand our service and deepen our impact for the public good in Chicago.”

While nonprofit local newsrooms remain rare in U.S. media, there has been a growing push to create them as the pressures of a declining business model force consolidation and increasing ownership by hedge funds and private equity.

The decline of local news organizations as print-ad dollars dwindle and tech giants suck up digital advertising money has attracted the attention of philanthropic foundations and public officials worried about “news deserts,” the growing number of communities without a local news source.

The Sun-Times is getting a boost as its rival, the Chicago Tribune, had dozens of staff take buyouts after hedge fund Alden bought its owner, the Tribune Publishing, last year.

“Chicago is going to become, is on the precipice of becoming, a largely nonprofit-driven local news ecosystem, which is also something that is pretty rare in the country,” said Tim Franklin, senior associate dean of Northwestern University's Medill journalism school and the former president of the Poynter Institute, the media think tank and nonprofit owner of the Tampa Bay Times. “It's kind of hard to overstate how profound this development is. I think in some ways could be a model for the nation.”

He noted other nonprofit outlets in Chicago like Block Club Chicago, which covers neighborhoods, and investigative organization Better Government Association, which just got a $10 million grant from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.

Another former Tribune paper is also getting a nonprofit rival. In Baltimore, hotel mogul Stewart Bainum is launching the Baltimore Banner in the next several months with 50 hires. He had tried and failed to buy the Baltimore Sun and then its owner, the Tribune chain, before Alden eventually won it.

The Texas Tribune, which launched in 2009, “may be the single most successful model for digital news,” Franklin said, assuring investors and philanthropies that a nonprofit model can work when done correctly. The Philadelphia Inquirer remained for-profit but is now owned by a non-profit organization, as the Tampa Bay Times in Florida has been for decades, while the Salt Lake Tribune in Salt Lake City, Utah, itself went nonprofit in 2019.

Among those contributing to Chicago Public Media's aquisition of the Sun-Times deal are Sun-Times investor Michael Sachs, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Chicago Community Trust, Joyce Foundation, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and an anonymous donor.