WBEZ Parent Agrees To Tabloid Take

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For those who believed the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision to uphold the Pai Commission’s “modernization” of its cross-ownership rules by allowing one entity to own a newspaper and a radio or TV station in the same market for the first time since the mid-1970s was a bad thing, a major deal involving a Windy City institution may come as sour news.


Yet, the FCC under former Chairman Ajit Pai may have helped save a Chicago daily while, at the same time, put the wheels in motion on a unique collaboration between a newspaper and Chicago Public Media — a model that could help save print publications in other markets from extinction.

The board of directors for Chicago Public Media has voted to move forward with the acquisition of the Chicago Sun-Times, the daily tabloid that competes against the Chicago Tribune and, in the suburbs, the Daily Herald. The organizations expect to close the transaction by the end of January.

It’s a non-cash transfer, and comes after a fall 2021 announcement that the organizations had signed a non-binding letter of intent for the newspaper to become a CPM subsidiary.

The deal creates one of the largest local nonprofit news organizations in the nation and, CPM says, “a national model for the future of local journalism.”

While Chicago Public Media took its name in 2010, its history dates to 1943, when the Chicago Board of Education established WBEZ as an extension service. In 1970, WBEZ  became one of the first charter member stations of National Public Radio. In 2007, Vocalo, a sister broadcast operation celebrating Chicago’s alternative R&B music, was launched. It is heard on WBEW-FM 89.5 and, in the Loop, on W216CL at 91.1 MHz. Vocalo is also on WBEZ’s HD2 signal.

Chicago Public Media Board Chair Piyush Chaudhari commented, “I’m deeply grateful to the Chicago Public Media Board of Directors for their work in leading us to this milestone. This new venture will be on its best path forward as we bring together two of Chicago’s most respected news organizations in our city and our region.”

Nykia Wright, CEO of the Chicago Sun-Times, added, “This is an extraordinary opportunity for our collective news community and for the future of the hardest working paper in America, which counts some of the best storytellers in Chicago among its ranks,” said . “We are excited about the possibilities that lie ahead for this unique model of nonprofit news and raising the bar for supporting, preserving, and strengthening local journalism.”

Wright will remain CEO of the Chicago Sun-Times, reporting to Chicago Public Media CEO Matt Moog and joining the Chicago Public Media executive leadership team. Chicago Public Media will establish a nonprofit board for the Chicago Sun-Times with a slate of directors including Moog, current Chicago Public Media Board directors Adrienne King of Bain & Company and Lerry Knox of Sovereign Infrastructure Group (SIG); and Kristen Mack of the John D. and Catherine A. MacArthur Foundation and Aretae Ortiz Wyler of The Atlantic as independent board members.

In 2019 investor and private equity specialist Michael Sacks and Chicago Blackhawks owner W. Rockwell “Rocky” Wirtz joined the group as lead investors. They will not continue as board members of Chicago Public Media, the Sun-Times reports. However, Sacks will continue to provide financial support to the Sun-Times through the new organization.

Both WBEZ and the Chicago Sun-Times will continue to serve their respective audiences, and the newsrooms will operate separately with their own editors and maintain their editorial independence. Tracy Brown continues as Chicago Public Media’s Chief Content Officer. And, in collaboration with Koya Partners, an executive search firm focused exclusively on mission-driven leadership, WBEZ and the Chicago Sun-Times each will launch a nationwide search for an Executive Editor to lead their respective newsrooms.

“I am extremely proud of the work that the Chicago Sun-Times’ team has done to make the paper an attractive partner to Chicago Public Media,” said Jorge Ramirez, Chair of the Chicago Sun-Times’ Board under its current ownership. “Today’s milestone is a testament to their work and how far the business has come. 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. This innovative partnership honors the valuable and important role the paper has played and ensures a bright future for the paper and the Sun-Times’ team.”

Sacks helped secure the agreement to transfer the Sun-Times’ assets and resources to Chicago Public Media, while also committing significant future financial support. Early leading funders also include the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Pritzker Traubert Foundation; additional donors will be announced upon closing.

“We are extraordinarily grateful to the foundations and individuals who have shown their support, especially at this urgent time for local journalism,” said Moog. “Their investment will enable us to develop a sustainable digital news membership model of community-supported local news.”

In years’ past, the Chicago Sun-Times made several innovative moves, including a PDF-only afternoon edition to help attract online audiences. Unfortunately, as is the case with many daily newspapers, the financial struggle was severe. Today, there are still losses, but they have been diminished since 2017, the Sun-Times notes.

Thank the former owner of “Super CFL” for the growth. 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 achieve more digital revenue. The paper added to its editorial staff, ending years of cuts under prior owners. The labor union infamously owned former Top 40 WCFL-AM 1000 in Chicago, a fierce competitor to WLS through the mid-1970s.