The hard-hitting tone of tabloid journalism and the measured voice of public radio make for an unlikely combination, but the two are coming together in a novel media deal that is likely to shape how news is covered in Chicago for years to come.
On Tuesday night, the board of Chicago Public Media, the nonprofit organization behind the noncommercial radio station WBEZ, moved significantly closer to acquiring the Chicago Sun-Times, the tabloid that was once home to film critic Roger Ebert and columnist Mike Royko.
In a special meeting, the board voted to go forward with its planned acquisition of the Sun-Times, a deal that would make Chicago Public Media into one of the largest nonprofit news organizations in the nation. It is expected to close by Jan. 31.
“This is an important step to grow and strengthen local journalism in Chicago,” Matt Moog, the chief executive of Chicago Public Media, said in a statement.
WBEZ, a station that carries National Public Radio shows and co-produces “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me,” and the Sun-Times will share some content while working in separate newsrooms under the Chicago Public Media banner. Together, they will reach an audience of more than 2 million people a week, the organizations said in a news release.
A merger between two nonprofit news organizations happened in Seattle in 2015 when public television station KCTS 9 merged with the online news site Crosscut. The two operations operate as part of Cascade Public Media.
The Sun-Times, which has changed hands numerous times in recent years, is owned by a patchwork group of unions, philanthropists and business people, including Rocky Wirtz, the owner of the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team, and Michael Sacks, an investor. The coalition came about to block a bid from Tribune Publishing, the company that operates the tabloid’s broadsheet rival, the Chicago Tribune.
Struggling papers these days face a range of options: Hope for a billionaire to swoop in, as Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong and his family did for the Los Angeles Times and other California papers in 2018; await the arrival of hedge fund-backed ownership, as happened with the Chicago Tribune, when its parent company became the property of Alden Global Capital last year; or try a fresh approach, like the nonprofit route.
Nykia Wright, the chief executive of the Sun-Times, said she was enthusiastic about the Chicago Public Media plan.
“We are excited about the possibilities that lie ahead for this unique model of nonprofit news and raising the bar for supporting, preserving, and strengthening local journalism,” she said in a statement.
If the deal is completed, the ownership structure would be similar to that of The Philadelphia Inquirer, a big-city paper that has been run by the nonprofit Lenfest Institute for Journalism since 2016.