Could the Chicago ownership shuffle mean a brighter future for the Sun-Times?

Photo by Drew McKechnie, Flickr Creative Commons

The Chicago Sun-Times had a message for Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner last week: “It ain’t workin’,” the paper’s editorial board declared in a blistering editorial that accused the Republican governor of “inflicting permanent damage” on the city and blamed him for making a political mess of the state since taking office a year ago.

Two days later, the paper again called out the governor on its editorial page, this time for a courtship with a mouthy Democratic state representative from Chicago.

It was a remarkable turnabout for an editorial board that stopped endorsing candidates in early 2012 but reversed course nearly three years later to endorse just one—Rauner, a former stakeholder in the ownership group led by the tech entrepreneur Michael Ferro that bought the Sun-Times in December 2011.

Since then, the board has kept mostly quiet about the governor. So it didn’t go unnoticed that the recent editorials closely followed a major shift at the paper: Ferro, a controversial, hands-on owner, on Feb. 4 became the largest shareholder in Tribune Publishing, the parent company of the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times. Though he retains his stake in the Sun-Times, as part of the deal Ferro relinquished any involvement in the operations of the tabloid, a longtime rival of the Tribune.

Upon seeing the editorial, “The first thing I thought was, wow, Ferro is no longer there, clearly,” said Craig Newman, the former managing editor of the Sun-Times, whose position was eliminated last year.

Tom McNamee, editorial page editor of Sun-Times, said the timing was just a coincidence. “We had been working toward that view [of the governor] for some time. It just seemed time to take a strong stand—unrelated to Michael Ferro being here or not here,” he said.

Still, Newman’s comment captures a sentiment shared by some other media observers here in Chicago: The change at the top just might create new opportunities for the Sun-Times.

When news of the Tribune deal broke, it quickly prompted speculation that the Sun-Times might not be around for much longer, and that the two Chicago papers would inevitably merge. (There was also immediate wariness in some quarters about Ferro’s plans for the Tribune, where he’s reportedly already flexing his muscle. The Tribune’s top editor, Gerould Kern, stepped down yesterday, though Kern told Crain’s the decision had nothing to do with the arrival of Ferro.)

But that speculation has been followed by a flurry of discussion about how the Sun-Times—which has foundered in recent years, with misguided digital strategies and a high-profile resignation to go along with the usual newspaper industry difficulties—could be revitalized under new leadership.

“The idea that the Sun-Times can come out of this a success is not implausible,” Newman said.

Control of the paper now rests in the hands of Bruce Sagan, a longtime Chicago newspaperman and the new chairman of Sun Times Holdings, who has said he believes the city still needs a “second voice.” In a recent blog post, Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg wrote about the 87-year-old Sagan’s first meeting with staff on Feb. 4, likening it to the Officer in White showing up at the end of Lord of the Flies, “representing civilization and order returned.”

“Maybe you had to live under the sword of Damocles for a decade, watching the thread fray, to really understand the impact of those words,” Steinberg wrote of the encounter.

Hopes for a brighter future aren’t confined to the newsroom. Brian Hieggelke, publisher of the alternative site Newcity, penned a thoughtful manifesto for saving the Sun-Times that sparked a lot of local discussion last week. His ideas included the obvious, like fixing the website (which is reportedly in the works)—but also getting rid of the Sunday edition, abandoning the suburbs as part of a move to “be the voice of the city in all of its diversity,” focusing on investigative journalism, and moving the editorial page clearly to the left, as a sharper alternative to the Tribune’s conservative voice.

“The story was written with a desire to create a dialogue in the public space,” Hieggelke said in an interview, adding that we wanted to challenge the narrative that the paper’s demise is inevitable. “I don’t have the power to do the things I suggested. I wanted before everyone had given up, to reconsider… what can we do to save it and make it better.”

Of course, the fundamental challenges the Sun-Times still faces are considerable—and even where there’s optimism, there’s hardly a consensus on strategy. One of Hieggelke’s ideas was to merge the Sun-Times with the alternative Chicago Reader, which has a legacy of investigative reporting and is now owned by the same parent company. That idea landed with a thud at the Reader, which responded with a post accompanied by a photo of a giant middle finger. The “merits of Hieggelke’s strategy are lost on the staff of the Reader because one element of his strategy for saving the Sun-Times is to cannibalize our own paper out of existence,” wrote the Reader’s Michael Miner.

In an interview, Miner was less dismissive about Hieggelke’s other ideas, including getting rid of the Sunday paper and going more aggressively after a well-defined audience in the city. “I think people agree with Brian that the era of mass media is over, where you write things in language that appeals to everyone” in the hopes of offending no one, Miner said.

Because it’s part of the same company as the Sun-Times, the Reader is also directly affected by the ownership shuffle—and the alt-weekly’s newsroom was optimistic after its own meeting last week with Sagan, Miner said.

“I think the people running the paper now and running the company are feeling out from under Ferro,” he said. “Bruce Sagan knows a lot more about papers. He’s a lot less impressed with himself.”

For one more perspective, I reached out to Kenneth D. Towers, the former executive editor of the Sun-Times. Towers was with the paper for more than 30 years, mostly during the era of Marshall Field ownership before the publication was sold to Rupert Murdoch in 1984.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given that pedigree, Towers was skeptical about strategy that would leave the suburbs behind. The paper’s approach during the “golden days,” he said, “didn’t exclude the suburbs,” and it shouldn’t now.

He added that he would make the paper more focused on consumer news, get rid of the crime blotters in favor of more in-depth crime reporting and give more space for letters to the editor. “A lot of what I’m talking about may not be doable,” he acknowledged. But a man can dream, right? “I wish I were there now,” Towers said.

And he agreed with Hieggelke that the paper should shift left editorially—which it already seems to be doing, Towers said, noting the recent editorials that went after the governor.

“Is that because of Sagan?” he asked. “I think in his first week, he might have wanted to signal something. It’s interesting how the tone has changed. Within a week.”

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Jackie Spinner is CJR’s correspondent for Illinois and Indiana. She is an assistant journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former staff writer for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.