Report: Chicago Sun-Times to drop paywall

Moves to a membership model instead

It’s rare for a newspaper to drop its paywall, given it helps pay the bills because as you know, journalism doesn’t come free. But the Sun-Times is betting a new model would attract more readers and visitors to its website. 

Crain’s Chicago Business reported Thursday the paper is dropping its paywall five months after being acquired by WBEZ-FM parent Chicago Public Media in a non-profit deal. It’s now planning a membership program. 

“One of the major initiatives we have that we know has some risk associated with it but we’re very committed to is to roll out a membership program,” Chicago Public Media CEO Matt Moog said recently at a Northwestern University Medill School Of Journalism panel earlier this week. “We’re going to drop the paywall of the Chicago Sun-Times and launch a membership program that will count on voluntary contributions to support the journalism.”

The membership model is used by many non-profit news organizations in order to keep their operations afloat, in addition on relying on corporate and philanthropic donors. Other major non-profit news organizations include Block Club Chicago and the Chicago Reader. A date has not been set for the paywall’s end. 

The deal made waves when it was announced because for the first time in recent memory, a non-profit radio station was acquiring a newspaper. The FCC’s decision to end the cross-ownership rules – prohibiting a radio station to own a newspaper in the same market – obviously paved the way for this to happen, although it didn’t really need FCC approval in the first place. After decades as a for-profit entity under a parade of owners, the Sun-Times had to convert to non-profit 501(c)3 status to make the deal happen. As a result and by law, they cannot endorse political candidates. The merger was completed in February

Moog stated the WBEZ/Sun-Times partnership has reached about two million people in the Chicago area, and both have collaborated on several projects. Both are moving into the Old Post Office over the Eisenhower Expressway, a former U.S. Postal facility that has been refurbished and remodeled over the years, though WBEZ is maintaining space and studios at Navy Pier. He pointed out there are around 200,000 members/subscribers of both and believes the numbers can be expanded. 

The merger came as WBEZ has experienced a surge of listeners over the last few years, often placing first as it did in February when it tied Adult R&B V103 (WVAZ-FM) for the honors. During the last ratings period, WBEZ was tied for fourth overall with iHeartMedia Gold AC music station The Lite (WLIT-FM) overall. 

This wasn’t the only news about non-profit newspapers on Thursday. Earlier, two South Side newspapers announced a merger: The Hyde Park Herald and South Side Weekly as Hyde Park Herald owner Bruce Sagan announced his retirement at 93 and donated his assets of his paper to the principals behind South Side Weekly. 

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