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Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago NPR outlet WBEZ to merge – Crain’s Chicago Business

8:45 P.M. UPDATE:

The board of directors of Chicago Public Media, the parent of public radio station WBEZ-FM, voted late Wednesday to pursue an acquisition of the Chicago Sun-Times, the next step in a process that could lead to the combination of two city newsrooms.

Both organizations have signed a nonbinding letter of intent to hammer out a partnership. Chicago Public Media also announced that Chicago tech entrepreneur Matt Moog, who has served for a year as interim CEO of the local National Public Radio affiliate, will become the new CEO. Nykia Wright, meanwhile, will remain CEO of the Sun-Times.

The two newsrooms would “create one of the largest local nonprofit news organizations in the nation and be a national model for the future of local journalism,” a joint statement issued Wednesday evening stated, adding that the two organizations “would continue to serve their respective audiences.”

EARLIER:

The board of WBEZ’s radio’s parent, Chicago Public Media, is expected to vote tonight on a deal to combine ownership with the Chicago Sun-Times, according to media reporter Robert Feder.

A deal could be announced this week, Feder reported this morning, saying the talks still could fall apart.

WBEZ interim CEO Matt Moog sent a note to employees this morning, confirming Feder’s report and telling them he would share additional information as he is able.

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“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,” Moog wrote in the note. “These conversations are an important part of our commitment to serving Chicago and ensuring local news continues to thrive.”

Moog scheduled a staff meeting for Thursday, according to a second note he sent to employees mid-morning. He also stressed that nothing is final and told staffers there would be opportunities for their input before anything is finalized. He reassured employees that WBEZ’s discussions with the Sun-Times would not affect job security.

“The fundamental premise of these talks is about growth and investment and expanding local journalism in Chicago,” he said in the second note. “Job security and offering career opportunities are of paramount importance.”

Sun-Times top investor Michael Sacks is leading the proposal, Feder reported. His report said details such as whether the newsrooms would remain separate could not be confirmed.

Moog, Sacks and Sun-Times CEO Nykia Wright did not respond to requests for comment this morning. Sun-Times board Chairman Jorge Ramirez declined to comment.

“Stations are independently owned and operated and we don’t comment on their business dealings,” NPR said in an email.

The potential arrangement seems a bit unusual, with a nonprofit journalism institution combining with a for-profit one, said Rick Edmonds, media business analyst for the Poynter Institute. But it is becoming more common for legacy newspapers to convert to nonprofit status.

“I think that’s part of what would be happening,” Edmond says. “I hardly think that an NPR station would turn into a for-profit.”

Nonprofit news organizations have become increasingly prevalent since the Great Recession, which devastated traditional newsrooms. A dozen or more nonprofits have launched every year since 2008, according to the Institute for Nonprofit News. As of early this year, those organizations had a 93% survival rate. Experts say they’re not just surviving, they are thriving.

Encouraged by that success, legacy newsrooms have begun seeking nonprofit status. The Salt Lake Tribune in Utah was the first major daily to make the switch in 2019 and set the leading example. By 2020, six organizations had made the jump, half of which are in Chicago.

Additionally, the Chicago Reader was in the midst of its transition earlier this year, as was the Hyde Park Herald.

“Chicago is a petri dish nationally, and I would say even a globally important petri dish, for the reinvention of journalism,” said Sue Cross, CEO of the Institute for Nonprofit News.

The market has shifted in recent years regarding the news industry, Cross said. The Sun-Times still has a substantial body of reporters and plays an important role in Chicago’s news scene, but like many newspapers around the country, it is likely not sustainable as a for-profit institution, she said.

It is not unheard of, either, for a nonprofit to own a for-profit newspaper. The nonprofit Lenfest Institute for Journalism owns the Philadelphia Inquirer and runs it as a public benefit corporation. The Poynter Institute owns the Tampa Bay Times.

Though questions remain about what a deal would look like between the Sun-Times and WBEZ, joining forces would make sense for both organizations, said Tim Franklin, senior associate dean at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. 

WBEZ could “tap into the breaking-news muscle of the Sun-Times,” he said. The Sun-Times, in turn, could get more stability around its ownership structure.

Around the country, National Public Radio stations such as WBEZ have seen a bump in membership in recent years, and with it, increased hiring. In contrast, other papers have seen their employee counts drop. In Chicago, the Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune have both had tumultuous ownership patches in recent years. The Chicago Tribune was recently bought by a hedge fund, which immediately offered buyouts to the newsroom employees there. Dozens left, and the leadership shakeup continues. Crain’s reported today that Managing Editor Chrissy Taylor is leaving Oct. 8.

There’s potential for WBEZ to become more of a force in the city, Franklin said.

“We’re at a historic inflection point in news in Chicago, because of the digital revolution and what’s happening with ownership changes, at the Tribune specifically,” he said. “There is an opportunity for other players to step up and fill some of that void.

“My guess is that ‘BEZ sees this as a significant moment in time and may be looking to capitalize on it.”

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