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Chicago Public Media acquiring Chicago Sun-Times as nonprofit newsroom

UPDATED: Thu., Jan. 20, 2022

Copies of the Chicago Sun-Times come off the press at Freedom Center in May 2017. The Chicago Public Media board voted to acquire the Chicago Sun-Times as part of a nonprofit-multimedia newsroom.   (Tribune News Service )
Copies of the Chicago Sun-Times come off the press at Freedom Center in May 2017. The Chicago Public Media board voted to acquire the Chicago Sun-Times as part of a nonprofit-multimedia newsroom.  (Tribune News Service )
By Robert Channick Chicago Tribune

The Chicago Public Media board voted Tuesday evening to move forward with its acquisition of the Chicago Sun-Times, combining the long-struggling daily newspaper with resurgent public radio station WBEZ-FM 91.5 as one nonprofit multimedia newsroom.

The transaction is expected to close by Jan. 31, creating a potentially groundbreaking model for the future of local journalism.

“This is an important step to grow and strengthen local journalism in Chicago,” Matt Moog, CEO of Chicago Public Media, parent company of WBEZ, said in a news release.

The proposed merger was first announced in September when Chicago Public Media and the Sun-Times signed a nonbinding letter of intent.

The radio and newspaper would operate separately under the Chicago Public Media banner while sharing content and resources across multiple platforms.

Both WBEZ and the Sun-Times will launch a nationwide search for executive editors to lead their respective newsrooms, Chicago Public Media said.

Moog, a Chicago tech entrepreneur who was elevated from interim to permanent CEO of Chicago Public Radio in September, will continue in that role.

Nykia Wright will remain CEO of the Sun-Times, reporting to Moog. Chicago Public Media will establish a separate nonprofit board for the Sun-Times.

WBEZ, Chicago’s NPR station, has beefed up its local news staff in recent years and bolstered its ratings. The station is tied for 3rd in Chicago with a 5.1 share in December, according to Nielsen.

The combined entities will have nearly 300 employees, with no plans for staff reductions post-merger, Betsy Berger, a Chicago Public Media spokeswoman, said Tuesday.

Chicago Public Media has sought “significant philanthropic support” for the partnership.

Michael Sacks, chairman and CEO of Chicago-based asset management firm GCM Grosvenor and a Sun-Times investor, helped secure the agreement to transfer the newspaper’s assets and committed “significant future financial support,” according to Chicago Public Media.

Other financial supporters include the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Pritzker Traubert Foundation.

Chicago Public Media declined to disclose the funding raised to date for the project.

The pending merger comes as traditional news media struggle to navigate the digital age, and the Chicago market is roiled by ownership changes, downsizing and declining revenue.

Moving the Sun-Times to a nonprofit model follows the path of the Salt Lake Tribune, the first major daily newspaper to make the transition in 2019.

The Sun-Times has a long and colorful history, most of it written in red ink during the new millennium.

Founded in 1948 by Marshall Field III, the Sun-Times has had a succession of owners, including media baron Rupert Murdoch, who bought it in 1984.

Murdoch was forced to sell the Sun-Times in 1986 after acquiring WFLD-Ch. 32 because of Federal Communications Commission cross-ownership restrictions.

In 2009, a group led by former Mesirow CEO Jim Tyree rescued the Sun-Times from bankruptcy, paying $5 million in cash and taking on $20 million in liabilities.

Wrapports, a local investor group headed by tech entrepreneur Michael Ferro, stepped up after Tyree’s death to buy the Sun-Times and 38 suburban newspapers for about $20 million in December 2011.

The suburban papers were sold to the Chicago Tribune for $23.5 million in 2014.

Ferro sold his interests in Wrapports and became chairman and the largest Tribune Publishing shareholder in 2016.

In 2017, an investor group that included the Chicago Federation of Labor bought the money-losing Sun-Times and other assets from Wrapports for $1, after Tribune Publishing was thwarted in its own bid to buy the newspaper by Justice Department antitrust concerns.

“We should all be grateful to the paper’s current investors for finding the best path forward from the perspective of all of the constituents of the Sun-Times,” Jorge Ramirez, current Sun-Times board chairman, said in the news release.

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