United States Project

A plan to turn this local paper into a national brand helped make a mess of its website

October 9, 2015
Photo by Drew McKechnie

A year ago, the website of the Chicago Sun-Times was not especially good.

It would have been hard to predict how bad it could get.

On a desktop computer, the current site is cluttered and often painfully slow to load. The search function is inconsistent and unhelpful. The legacy archives are largely missing, stored on a hard drive somewhere in the paper’s downtown Chicago building. Original reporting on local crime and politics vie for attention with slideshows and aggregated posts with little local connection. The homepage and article pages are loaded with ads—lots and lots of ads, auto-playing video ads, ads bracketing the home page, native ads, identical ads stacked on top of each other. Surfing the site is a better experience on a mobile device, but many of the issues remain there, too.

“It always has had a less than useful website,” Andrew Huff, editor and publisher of Chicago Web publication Gapers Block, said of the Sun-Times. “In recent years, that has become even worse.”

But perhaps what is most vexing about the poor quality of the current site is that it stems from a far-reaching plan by the paper’s owners, Wrapports LLC, to build upon the Sun-Times brand. The changes were part of an effort to create a revenue-producing national network, but they have come at the expense of the digital product offered to local readers.

And while a flawed website might not seem the Sun-Times’ most pressing concern at the moment—the CEO of its parent company left Monday; one of its top political reporters departed for Politico last month; the local guild unit recently took the unusual step of asking advertisers to “stand with us” in hopes of forestalling further layoffs—the site matters because it is perhaps the most visible sign of the paper’s troubled course.

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About a year ago, Wrapports launched the Sun Times Network, a collection of local sites featuring aggregated content operating from identical templates in dozens of markets around the country. The Chicago paper is the anchor publication in that network, and the Sun-Times adopted the template in January.

At the time, there were internal efforts underway to upgrade the Sun-Timesprevious site, with new sections like the Early & Often politics vertical featuring more contemporary designs and local sponsorship deals. With the launch of the network, the paper’s owners scrapped those developments without input from the newsroom, said Craig Newman, the former managing editor, who has a new job as director of content strategy for TechWeek in Chicago.

“It was foisted upon us,” Newman said. “At the end of the day, we were users just like anybody else.”

Tim Landon, the chief executive of the Sun Times Network, did not return phone messages or emails requesting comment for this story. Jim Kirk, the Sun-Times’ publisher and editor-in-chief, said via email that he would not be available to discuss the paper’s Web strategy.

The network has generally drawn poor reviews, and its struggles have even drawn national attention. Just yesterday, The Awl ran a reported essay by Sam Stecklow, a fired former Sun Times Network intern, who wrote at length about the “shoddy work” he and his colleagues had been assigned to do.

In his piece, Stecklow wrote that traffic to the network  dropped this summer when Yahoo News stopped regularly featuring its stories. Sources at the Sun-Times, who did not want to be named, told me that Yahoo broke off that relationship after several network stories led to spoof sites. “We don’t currently have a partnership… but through our algorithm, [their] content does appear in our stream,” said Becky Auslander, a Yahoo spokeswoman.

Online traffic is a priority at the Sun-Times itself, of course. Monitors throughout the newsroom display real-time analytics, and members of a Web team track readership and adjust story placement or add content based on what is finding an audience. One staffer who works on the digital team said that online readership numbers have held fairly steady in recent months. The company’s finances aren’t public, but steady traffic, plus all those ads, could mean it has seen a short-term bump in digital revenue. (The company has also launched a business offering “custom marketing and advertising solutions.”)

But it is hard to imagine the current site attracting a devoted core of local readers in the long term. Research by scholars like Matthew Hindman of George Washington University has identified speed and sophistication as key factors in a website’s “stickiness”—how long readers stay, and how often they come back. “We have all this research about how users assess quality,” Hindman said in an interview. “They do it very quickly and largely [based on] the sophistication of a website.” 

Pam Moreland, a digital media consultant and former assistant managing editor at the San Jose Mercury News, viewed the Sun-Times site on both desktop and mobile at CJR’s request. “This digital product must be a great disappointment for a city such as Chicago, with its long tradition of journalism excellence,” she said.

“This site is all about increasing advertising revenue,” Moreland added. “If that stream ever turns into a rushing river, maybe then the Sun-Times owners will think about improving the news content.”

Rich Gordon, a professor and director of digital innovation at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, said that in a sense, he doesn’t blame Wrapports for its overall strategic direction.

“They are making investments in the things they think have a chance to grow,” he said. “In things they think aren’t going to grow, which includes the Sun-Times newspaper, they aren’t putting any more money in than they have to. Just look at it from cold hard business eyes. Why would you invest?” 

As we were talking, Gordon tried to load the Sun-Times website.

“I’m trying to bring it up and can’t,” he said. “That’s really bad.”

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.