The Sun-Times goes blank for the cause

Local paper sell subscriptions – by using the public TV model 

The Sun-Times have found a new way to sell newspapers – going the pledge route.

Taking a page from public television, the Chicago Sun-Times Monday published a front page with a blank canvas. The decision to do so illustrated the need for readers to support the long-term survival of the newspaper.

Beginning Monday, the paywall – up for years at rival Chicago Tribune, returned to the Sun-Times as the paper is asking readers to pony up $7.49 a month – that’s nearly $90 a year – to have unlimited access to its website and “help protect the long-term survival of our newsroom”.

The Sun-Times also pointed out the rough turbulence the paper has been through over the years, from the disastrous Conrad Black era to Michael Ferro and Wrapports. The Sun-Times was sold last year to a group led by former Alderman Edwin Eisendrath. Chicago Tribune owner Tronc was also a bidder.

This comes as many newspapers – the Tribune and Sun-Times included – continue to struggle in the digital age for revenue as newspapers continue to decline as a medium. Not helping matters is a proposed tariff on Canadian paper that would drive up the price of newsprint – recently, the Tampa Bay Times laid off staff due to the tariffs.

The Denver Post editorial board recently slammed its hedge-fund owners on the editorial page after the paper was forced to lay off a third of their staff. Recently, the Post mistakenly published a photo of Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park instead of the city’s Coors Field in a story about the venue some said wasn’t a mistake after all.

While it is understandable the newspaper industry is indeed struggling, keep in mind some of the Sun-Times’ problems are of its own making. For one, the paper cut photographers from its publication, including the esteemed John H. White and now uses Google’s Street View to “photograph” scenes. Also, the paper cut its arts coverage by firing theater critic Heidy Weiss without replacing her and has not shown any commitment to covering Chicago’s arts scene, something this person cares about deeply.

Then, there’s this new found “attitude” they have, including throwing shade at the rival Tribune for cutting White Sox and Blackhawks beat writers, reminiscent of the way Wendy’s recently dropped a mixtape on McDonald’s for slow drive-thru service and “broken ice cream machines” (Really.)

As noted by Capitol Fax’s Rich Miller, Eric Zorn of the Tribune said:

Traditionally, competing papers, like most competing consumer products, tout their virtues in ads and imply or allude politely to their advantages over other brands. Harsh attack commercials are generally reserved for political campaigns, which is why this Sun-Times spot, which alternates praise for itself with whacks at us — the Sun-Times’ “priority is hardworking people”; the Tribune’s “priorities aren’t so clear,” and so on — feels distinctly political.

As noted by Robert Feder Tuesday, the reaction to the Sun-Times’ was mixed. While I understand the Sun-Times was trying to make a point, it came across as a little desperate and kind of pathetic. “Begging for money” is something commercial enterprises shouldn’t do – even if it is in the name of journalism. Last I checked, the Sun-Times isn’t a charity and isn’t a non-profit.

Look, if you want people to pay for your product, there has to be product worth paying for – something the New York Times, Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and even the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press can vouch for, while the Sun-Times hasn’t even come close (one news columnist recently wrote about how great The Big Bang Theory is. Yeah, this is what passes for “arts” coverage.)

You need to have a return on your investment, and given the Sun-Times’ atrocious coverage of urban issues south of Cermak Rd. (the South Side and south suburbs), we  haven’t been getting any “ROI” from the Tribune, Sun-Times, or any of the downtown-based media outlets for decades. And no, employing Mary Mitchell and Laura Washington does not count.

So if I send money, do I get a mug and a tote bag? For this person to “donate”, there has to be a considerable improvement on the way it covers the arts and urban issues so they would actually have something to brag about – and no, having White Sox beat writers isn’t enough.

Coming up next, I suppose the Sun-Times is going to drop a mixtape on the Tribune’s slow home delivery and terrible customer service. I guess we should get tickets now for the on-stage Neil Steinberg-Eric Zorn rap battle.