WBEZ, Sun-Times strike “non-binding” deal to merge

Historic deal aims to strengthen journalism

For the first time since the Chicago Tribune and WGN-AM had the same owner, a daily newspaper and a local radio station could team up – though the transaction is unusual. 

But unlike the Tribune and WGN-AM, the transaction discussed here is non-profit. Chicago Public Media’s WBEZ-FM and the Chicago Sun-Times on Wednesday night signed a non-binding letter of intent to explore merging the news operations of both media outlets – a first in the city. The letter was approved by the boards of both entities and if all goes as planned, the combination between WBEZ and the Sun-Times would be the largest non-profit news operation in the country as the merger could be complete by the end of the year as terms were not disclosed.

News of a possible combination between WBEZ and the Sun-Times was first reported by Robert Feder Wednesday morning

As part of the proposed deal, the Sun-Times would have to convert from a for-profit model to a non-profit model. Unclear is if the deal would need FCC approval as WBEZ operates on a non-commercial license. Under the previous Presidential administration, the FCC threw out the 42-year-old cross-ownership rules prohibiting companies from owning a television, radio, and newspaper in the same market unless grandfathered. The FCC’s action was upheld unanimously by the Supreme Court earlier this year. 

Those rules forced Rupert Murdoch to sell the Sun-Times in 1986 after he bought Metromedia’s six television stations including WFLD-TV, forming the nucleus of what would become the Fox network. The Chicago Tribune and WGN-TV and Radio were owned by Tribune Co. and were grandfathered in when the rules took effect in 1975, but ended in 2014 when the company was broken up. 

It is not yet known how this merger would work when it comes to staffing, although Chicago Public Media CEO Matt Moog – whose interim tag in the position was dropped yesterday, pledged both entities would remain independent from one another and no jobs would be lost from the planned joint agreement. In fact, Moog claimed there were 30 job openings at WBEZ

The move was encouraged by Sun-Times investor Michael Sacks, who is pushing for the paper to be on stronger financial footing. The Sun-Times has lost money for years as circulation continues to drop not only for the Sun-Times but for most newspapers as ad revenues were being battered by a number of factors, including the readership moving online, the recession in the late 2000s, and most recently, the economic fallout from the pandemic. 

No matter how this turns out, it’ll be interesting to see if the union would improve journalism for both. While WBEZ has been top-notch reporting on local issues, the Sun-Times has been less so – as this site pointed out repeatedly over the years. Maybe we’ll see more enterprise reporting from the Sun-Times and less of the crime blotter stuff, which every local media outlet seems to be guilty of. 

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