CHICAGO - The board that controls public radio station WBEZ on Tuesday approved the acquisition of the Chicago Sun-Times, taking a major step forward in a deal to create one of the largest nonprofit news organizations in the country.
The noncash transfer will not be final until contracts are approved, but both media organizations said they hope for a closing on or about Jan. 31. Under the deal, the Sun-Times would become an independent operation of WBEZ’s owner, Chicago Public Media, and convert from for-profit to nonprofit status.
Both groups said they share a mission of investing in local journalism. While the news operations would remain separate, the combination will allow content to be shared on different platforms and gain a larger audience, the principal executives said.
"This is an important step to grow and strengthen local journalism in Chicago," said Matt Moog, CEO of Chicago Public Media. "A vibrant local news ecosystem is fundamental to a 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, fact-based journalism and connect Chicagoans more deeply to each other and to their communities."
Nykia Wright, CEO of the Sun-Times, said, "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. 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."
Moog will continue to lead Chicago Public Media. He said the WBEZ board’s support for the acquisition was unanimous and followed weeks of "healthy conversations" about combining the news operations. Wright will report to him and join Chicago Public Media’s executive team.
Private-equity specialist Michael Sacks, a lead investor in the Sun-Times, supports the sale. The combined entity also has the backing of 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 paper has narrowed 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 achieve more digital revenue. The paper added to its editorial staff, ending years of cuts under prior owners.
The partners outmaneuvered the Chicago Tribune’s then-parent company, which wanted to buy the Sun-Times with what analysts believed was an intent to shut it down.
In 2019, Sacks and W. Rockwell "Rocky" Wirtz, owner of the Chicago Blackhawks, joined the group as lead investors. They will not continue as board members of Chicago Public Media, but a source said Sacks will continue to provide financial support to the Sun-Times through the new organization.
Jorge Ramirez, the chair of the Sun-Times board, said WBEZ’s decision recognizes the paper’s improved financial stability.
"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, including more than 150 journalists and employees that work for the paper and the loyal readers who rely on the paper for quality news about Chicago and beyond," said Ramirez, who works at Sacks’ investment firm and is a former president of the CFL.
"This innovative merger honors the valuable and important role the paper has played and ensures a bright future for the paper and all members of the Sun-Times team."
Sacks in a statement thanked the executives involved in the sale and said he is "proud to have played a part in securing the future" of the Sun-Times.
With a combined employee total of close to 300, the WBEZ-Sun-Times venture could be the largest nonprofit journalism organization in the nation, based on data from the Institute for Nonprofit News. It also appears to be the largest with a traditional print newspaper as part of its operations.
The institute’s data, based on responses to a survey of members in January 2021, showed the Salt Lake Tribune, with 80 full-time employees, to be the largest nonprofit paper. It listed investigative website ProPublica, with 148 employees, and Boston TV station WGBH, with 100 employees, as the largest media nonprofits among its members.
While WBEZ and the Sun-Times will continue as independent operations, the deal could change one newspaper tradition. Executives said that as a nonprofit, the Sun-Times can no longer endorse political candidates. News coverage and investigations of public officials would be unaffected.
Both organizations will conduct searches for executive editors to lead their newsrooms.
WBEZ, which started as an extension service of the Chicago Board of Education in 1943, is one of the largest public media stations in the country, known for shows such as "This American Life" and "Wait, Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me." Its news programming has included investigations in areas such as public corruption, criminal justice and poverty.
The Sun-Times has a corporate lineage that dates from 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 a bankruptcy filing in 2009, the paper has continued aggressive, scoop-oriented coverage of local government, civic affairs and sports. It has won eight Pulitzer Prizes.
Like other newspapers with a local focus, the Sun-Times has taken deep hits to advertising and circulation revenue as audiences have moved online. Publications with a national reach, such as the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, have fared better, but falling revenue has dried up sources of local news across the nation.
Analysts have linked the decline of local news in part to a greater public belief in disinformation and conspiracy theories that circulate on social media.