United States Project

Union-backed investors snatch Chicago Sun-Times from Tronc

July 13, 2017
The Chicago Sun-times office. A reporter tweeted that the paper plans to cut rent costs by moving to West Loop. Photo by edenpictures, via Flickr

A GROUP OF INVESTORS led by a former member of the Chicago City Council bought the Chicago Sun-Times this week, preventing the paper’s acquisition by Tronc, the parent company of the Chicago Tribune. The group reportedly purchased the Sun-Times for $1, and pooled $11.2 million to fund the newspaper’s operating costs. Sun-Times reporter Lauren FitzPatrick tweeted during a meeting between the paper’s staff and new owners and disclosed several details, including that the paper will likely move from its current office to save money on rent:

After the Sun-Times solicited other buyers, former city alderman Edwin Eisendrath emerged as a potential owner. Until today, most of the investors involved in ST Acquisition Holdings LLC were not named in reports on the deal as it developed. (One exception: corporate restructuring expert Bill Brandt.) When the Sun-Times reported on the sale last night, it noted that Eisendrath “didn’t yet have permission to identify all the members of his investment group.”

Today, FitzPatrick reported on Twitter that other investors include veteran broadcast journalist Linda Yu; lawyers Skip Herman and Len Goodman; Edwin’s brother, John Eisendrath; and developer Elzie Higginbottom, a prominent local real estate mogul. ST Acquisition Holdings, the limited liability company formed for the purchase, also attracted the support of several unions: In addition to the Chicago Federation of Labor, union investors include SEIU Local 1 and Operating Engineers Local 150. In a way, the investment group resembles the city itself—or, at least, the people who run it.

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The sale effectively ends the Justice Department’s anti-trust investigation into Chicago-based Tronc’s effort to purchase the Sun-Times and the Chicago Reader from Wrapports. CJR reported in May that Tronc, which owns the Tribune, had entered into a nonbinding letter of intent to purchase Wrapports. Tronc had pledged that the two papers would maintain independent editorial operations. But most observers in Chicago saw the bid as the beginning of the end for the city’s status as a two-newspaper town—one of the few remaining in America.

In a tweet yesterday, the day the sale closed, Eisendrath described the investment group as “civic-minded leaders” who were inspired by the writing and reporting at the Sun-Times. “We wanted to make sure that Chicago had a genuine voice with honest & good reporting that connects with working men & women,” he wrote in another tweet.

In most other cities in America, it might seem unusual that the unions stepped up to buy the paper. But unions are big business in Chicago and in Illinois, which has one of the largest union workforces in the country.

“I can think of no other publication today in the United States with the support of labor unions,” says Steve Franklin, who covered the labor beat for the Tribune and has taught courses on employee and labor relations at the University of Illinois. “It could be a genie that would open up and give them a voice.”

Franklin says the new union ownership in the Sun-Times is a “nice comeuppance” for the smaller paper over the Tribune, which waged war against its blue-collar unions in the 1980s and broke them.

With the exception of the Operating Engineers Local 150, which has a reputation of being one of the most conservative unions in Illinois, the other union investors are very left-wing, says Mike Fourcher, editor of the Chicago-based Daily Line political newsletter. The SEIU Illinois State Council helped launch the pro-union Illinois Progress news website, which ceased operating last year.

“It’s interesting,” Fourcher says. “They’re upgrading from Progress Illinois to the Sun-Times.”

Susy Schultz, president of Public Narrative, a Chicago-based community journalism organization, sees the sale as an opportunity for the paper to innovate and deliver news to a community it knows well. She rejects the narrative that people don’t like the media, especially their hometown paper. In Chicago, the Sun-Times is the working class paper—the scrappy competitor to the bigger, more conservative, and more monied Chicago Tribune. (Both papers have gone through and emerged from bankruptcy protection.)

“When you talk to most people, they are hungry for news,” Schultz says. “They are hungry for information. Having somebody like Edwin Eisendrath and the unions coalesce around the paper is crucial.”

Eisendrath, a former city council member who represented the Lincoln Park neighborhood on the city’s north side from 1987 to 1993, comes from a wealthy family of bankers and investors with a long history in Chicago. After he left the council, Eisendrath became an administrator in the Chicago regional office of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. In 2006, he lost a Democratic primary bid for Illinois governor to former governor Rod Blagojevich, who was later impeached and jailed.

The unions have said they will not interfere with editorial coverage at the paper. Fourcher isn’t sure. “This is a fairly left[-wing] group of people, with the exception of Local 50,” he says. “I don’t think anyone should have the idea that there is impartial reporting these days, although I try hard to do it. The idea that a news organization is not going to be slanted is a myth.”

Sheila Solomon, a long-time recruiter for the Chicago Tribune and currently manager of recruitment and internships at Rivet Radio, says she worries that the well-intended investors simply do not have the financial resources to keep the Sun-Times alive.

“Honestly, I am not as excited about the deal as some other people are,” she says. “My fear is that they really will not have enough money to sustain what we know needs deep, deep pockets. There is still quite a mountain to climb. Yes, they saved the Sun-Times from being bought by a big bad Tronc, but for how long and really what is that going to mean?”

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