Historic deal intended to better serve communities
The long-anticipated merger between WBEZ-FM and the Chicago Sun-Times, first announced in September, is now a reality.
Tuesday night, the board of Chicago Public Media station and NPR affiliate approved a deal to acquire Chicago’s second-largest newspaper, creating one of the largest non-profit journalism outfits in the country. The deal is expected to close by January 31.
This means for the first time in its history, the Sun-Times is converting to a non-profit model, following the move of other papers such as the Salt Lake Tribune as years of declining revenues and the move to digital have hurt newspapers, which has accelerated thanks to the pandemic. Moreover, other newspapers (such as the Chicago Tribune) have been snapped up by private equity groups such as Alden Global Capital, who’ve made enormous cost-cutting moves.
Unlike other media mergers where there usually is a lot of consolidation, the staff and newsrooms of both the Sun-Times and WBEZ will continue to operate separately. Matt Moog will continue in his role as CEO of Chicago Public Media as Nykia Wright will continue in her role as CEO of the Sun-Times as she will report directly to Moog. Both will retain editorial independence of one another, though one major caveat is the Sun-Times will no longer be able to endorse political candidates due to its non-profit status.
Both the Sun-Times and WBEZ will remain with their respective unions, the Chicago News Guild and SAG-AFTRA for now.
“This is an important step to grow and strengthen local journalism in Chicago,” Moog said. “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.”
Wright 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.”
In terms of how this came together financially, no details were released. Chicago Public Media sought philanthropic support for the deal, with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Pritzker Traubert Foundation investing in the venture. Prominent Sun-Times investor Michael Sacks is also an underwriter.
WBEZ and other public radio stations in top markets have been success stories in a medium struggling as much as its linear television counterpart as the public is consuming content in more alternative ways. In the last ratings period, WBEZ tied for third among Chicago radio stations and even finished ahead of all-news WBBM-AM in morning drive for second place (keep in mind this period is skewed heavily by Christmas music, as WLIT-FM swept all time periods.) On the other hand, the Sun-Times has been struggling with low circulation numbers, not to mention a carousel of ownership changes in the last fifteen years from Michael Ferro’s “Wrapports” to the Chicago Federation of Labor.
This is the first merger deal between a newspaper and a radio station since the FCC relaxed the cross-ownership rules in 2017, normally prohibiting a newspaper from owning a radio station and vice versa. The rules were adapted in 1975 and forced many companies to sell their properties in order to come in compliance with the then-new rules, unless grandfathered in and companies would have to apply for a permanent waiver to do so – something the original Tribune Co. did in order to keep the Chicago Tribune and WGN-AM and WGN-TV intact. The FCC’s decision was upheld by the Supreme Court in a unanimous decision last year.
Given this is a noncash transfer, and WBEZ has a noncommercial license, FCC approval for a deal involving two non-profits isn’t usually necessary. Since the rules were upheld, we have yet to see a deal between a newspaper and a commercial TV or radio broadcaster.