It’s still early, but the Sun Times Network does not look very good

CHICAGO, IL — When Wrapports LLC, the publisher of the Chicago Sun-Times, announced in October that it was launching a project called the Sun Times Network, the initial reaction here was mostly skeptical. Few media observers in Chicago had seen it coming, and much of the discussion on Twitter and comment threads revolved around the question: What is this thing?

A few months in, we have some sense of what the network is. But the question remains: What—and who—is it supposed to be for?

A press release at the project’s launch boasted that the network would “reinvigorate local journalism” by blending Sun-Times material with “curated” and original local content in markets around the country, all in a “mobile-first app” package that called to mind the digital savvy of BuzzFeed or Deadspin. In essence, it was an attempt by Wrapports—which had just sold off its suburban Illinois papers—to crack the local-news-network problem that has frustrated other companies, to compete with the likes of The Huffington Post and Gothamist in a crowded digital space, and to do it on the cheap. With a small group of digital editors producing aggregated content, and technology doing much of the heavy lifting, national pageviews might translate to ad revenues that more than offset the low overhead.

Arriving as other digital news sites increasingly focus on high-quality original content and alternatives to generic ads, the project had a bit of a swimming-against-the-tide feel, even as it sought to capitalize on some industry trends. The analyst Ken Doctor wrote in his analysis that the network “compels at least some attention” for “its application of today’s digital business ideas”—platform-centric, mobile- and social-first. Still, he wasn’t bullish: “The odds of major success seem long.”

That was October. Three months later, the network is showing few signs that it can turn the odds in its favor.

To be fair, the network was launched as a work-in-progress, and it may still be too early to offer a full assessment of its business or editorial prospects. In an email, Sun Times Network CEO Tim Landon wrote that the effort is off to a good start. “Basic story is things going quite well, like the traction we’re getting, ahead of plan in terms of both audience and revenue, but still very, very early,” Landon wrote, adding that it was premature to discuss more detailed questions.

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But, so far, the network has done little to distinguish itself from anything else on the web—or even to fix some of the glitches that have plagued the platform since the launch.

The network is a collection of about 70 city sites, each built from a cookie-cutter template that relies heavily on images, often grabbed straight from Facebook feeds. What these picture tiles link to varies from city to city. In some smaller markets, sites can be populated by links to Facebook or YouTube posts from local political parties or the parks department—it would be a stretch to call much of what’s on the Anchorage, AK, site “news.” In Albuquerque, NM, links to stories from one local TV station account for much of the content. Local business journals often feature heavily.

In larger markets, from New York to San Francisco to “Disney,” stories are culled from a wider array of sources, and some of the top stories bear the bylines of “digital editors.” These curated stories tend to follow a formula: a few original lines, a block quote, and some embedded social media to offer a visual element.

But the vast majority of the posts across the network appear to be automatically aggregated, and they are coded to jump to a page containing the first few sentences from the original article, followed by an outbound link—which, when it goes to a news site, sometimes leads straight to a paywall.

The automated aggregation can introduce other unfortunate glitches, especially when the sources being aggregated are themselves aggregating or using wire copy. Last week, a TV station in Columbus, OH, picked up a story by an Associated Press television writer—datelined New York—that examined whether the setting of an Islamic State hostage video might have been faked. It was labeled as “Columbus Entertainment” on the Sun Times Network site. On the same day, a “Columbus Business” story turned out to be about Saudi Arabia’s new king and his country’s oil business.

Doctor, the analyst, hasn’t seen anything to make him more optimistic. “In a word, they seem generic, with little sense of any local knowledge. They are attractive enough but give scant reason for anyone to use regularly,” he told me. “Overall, it appears to be an underfunded, template-over-journalism approach that won’t gain traction.”

Alan Mutter, a former Sun-Times city editor who went on to become a Silicon Valley CEO, concurs. “For those who happen to discover the site, it becomes quickly obvious that there’s not enough deep local content to make for a compelling read,” he says, “and therefore the utility of the site to any user is questionable.”

The network’s social media presence seems to bear this out. The Facebook page for Columbus has 65 likes; for New York, it’s 128 likes, and posts Monday about a major snowstorm and star Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. had drawn no interactions hours later. On Twitter, the San Diego feed has 273 followers; the San Francisco one, 254.

The one market where the network doesn’t have to worry about robust local content, of course, is Chicago, where the Sun-Times has been incorporated into the template since December. (That meant that the paper shed the distinct look of its “Early and Often” political portal, along with the “newsfeed” design that had debuted only months before the network’s launch.)

Still, even here, glitches can pop up. In this screenshot, the same aggregated story is featured three times:

And, curiously, stories from The Irish Times can occasionally get mixed up in Chicago’s feed:

There is another Irish connection worth noting here: The Irish technology executive Denis O’Brien was a major investor in a 2014 funding round for Aggrego, the Wrapports affiliate behind the network. From one perspective, even if the network doesn’t amount to much editorially, if it can attract investors—and generate profits—that might at least relieve financial pressure from the Sun-Times, which remains an important local news source.

For that to happen, though, the network will have to offer readers enough to stick around. Based on what he’s seen so far, Doctor says, time is running out.

“Unless the network moves on—quickly—to a second generation,” he says, “it will become a small anecdote of digital history.”

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Rui Kaneya is CJR’s correspondent for Illinois and Indiana. A former investigations editor at The Chicago Reporter, Kaneya was a recipient of the Investigative Reporters and Editors Minority Fellowship and the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Minority Fellowship in Urban Journalism. He has received numerous journalism awards, among them the Watchdog Award for Excellence in Public Interest Reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists and the National Association of Black Journalists’ Salute to Excellence National Media Award. Follow him on Twitter @ruikaneya.

TOP IMAGE: So far, the network has done little to distinguish itself--and observers doubt that it will