Chicago Public Media approves ‘historic partnership’ for WBEZ, Sun-Times

Chicago Sun-Times/WBEZ Chicago

The parent company of public radio station WBEZ 91.5-FM is moving forward on plans to acquire the Chicago Sun-Times — a merger designed to assure survival of the money-losing newspaper while creating one of the nation’s largest nonprofit local news organizations.

The board of Chicago Public Media voted Tuesday to approve the deal, which was first disclosed here in September. The merger is expected to be finalized by January 31.

Financial terms were not disclosed, but major funding is expected from Michael Sacks, lead investor in the Sun-Times, along with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Pritzker Traubert Foundation.

“I’m deeply grateful to the Chicago Public Media board of directors for their work in leading us to this milestone,” board chair Piyush Chaudhari said in a statement. “This new venture will be on its best path forward as we bring together two of Chicago’s most respected news organizations in our city and our region.”

According to the announcement, WBEZ and the Sun-Times “will continue to serve their respective audiences, and the newsrooms will operate separately with their own editors and maintain their editorial independence.”

As a nonprofit subsidiary of Chicago Public Media, the Sun-Times will be governed by its own nonprofit board. In order to comply with IRS regulations, the newspaper will no longer endorse political candidates, but “news coverage and investigations of public officials would be unaffected,” the Sun-Times reported.

Here is the text of the joint announcement released Tuesday:

Chicago Public Media Board of Directors Votes to Move Forward with Chicago Sun-Times’ Acquisition

Chicago Public Media and Chicago Sun-Times reach milestone in plans to join together as one local nonprofit news organization

CHICAGO (January 18, 2022) – In a special board meeting held this evening, the Chicago Public Media Board of Directors voted to move forward with the acquisition of the Chicago Sun-Times. The organizations expect to close the transaction by January 31.

This news follows a fall 2021 announcement that the organizations had signed a non-binding letter of intent for the Chicago Sun-Times to become a subsidiary of Chicago Public Media, creating one of the largest local nonprofit news organizations in the nation and emerging as a national model for the future of local journalism.

“I’m deeply grateful to the Chicago Public Media Board of Directors for their work in leading us to this milestone. This new venture will be on its best path forward as we bring together two of Chicago’s most respected news organizations in our city and our region,” said Chicago Public Media Board Chair Piyush Chaudhari.

Under the banner of Chicago Public Media, WBEZ and the Chicago Sun-Times will reach more than 2 million people a week in the Chicago area across broadcast, print, and digital channels.

“This is an important step to grow and strengthen local journalism in Chicago,” said Matt Moog, CEO of Chicago Public Media. “A vibrant local news ecosystem is fundamental to a healthy democracy, informed citizens, and engaged communities. Together WBEZ and the Chicago Sun-Times aim to tell the stories that matter, serve more Chicagoans with our unbiased, fact-based journalism, and connect Chicagoans more deeply to each other and to their communities.”

“This is an extraordinary opportunity for our collective news community and for the future of the hardest working paper in America, which counts some of the best storytellers in Chicago among its ranks,” said Nykia Wright, CEO of the Chicago Sun-Times. “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.”

As a subsidiary of Chicago Public Media, Moog will continue to lead Chicago Public Media as CEO, and Wright will remain CEO of the Chicago Sun-Times, reporting to Moog and joining the Chicago Public Media executive leadership team.

Chicago Public Media will establish a nonprofit board for the Chicago Sun-Times with a slate of directors including Moog, current Chicago Public Media Board directors Adrienne King of Bain & Company and Lerry Knox of Sovereign Infrastructure Group (SIG), and Kristen Mack of the John D. and Catherine A. MacArthur Foundation and Aretae Ortiz Wyler of The Atlantic as independent board members.

Both WBEZ and the Chicago Sun-Times will continue to serve their respective audiences, and the newsrooms will operate separately with their own editors and maintain their editorial independence. Tracy Brown continues as Chicago Public Media’s Chief Content Officer. And, in collaboration with Koya Partners, an executive search firm focused exclusively on mission-driven leadership, WBEZ and the Chicago Sun-Times each will launch a nationwide search for an Executive Editor to lead their respective newsrooms.

Today’s milestone is a recognition of the leadership, vision, and investments made in recent years under the Sun-Times’ current ownership to stabilize and improve the once-struggling newspaper.

“I am extremely proud of the work that the Chicago Sun-Times’ team has done to make the paper an attractive partner to Chicago Public Media,” said Jorge Ramirez, Chair of the Chicago Sun-Times’ Board under its current ownership. “Today’s milestone is a testament to their work and how far the business has come. We should all be grateful to the paper’s current investors for finding the best path forward from the perspective of all of the constituents of the Sun-Times. This innovative partnership honors the valuable and important role the paper has played and ensures a bright future for the paper and the Sun-Times’ team.”

Community support of local nonprofit news organizations, whether through individual memberships or philanthropy, will help local journalism grow and thrive amid changing media habits, misinformation, and changes in commercial media that can limit access to unbiased, non-partisan quality news and information.

As was shared in fall 2021, Chicago Public Media has sought significant philanthropic support for this historic partnership with the Chicago Sun-Times. Sun-Times’ investor Michael Sacks helped secure the agreement to transfer the Sun-Times’ assets and resources to Chicago Public Media, while also committing significant future financial support. Early leading funders also include the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Pritzker Traubert Foundation; additional donors will be announced upon closing.

“We are extraordinarily grateful to the foundations and individuals who have shown their support, especially at this urgent time for local journalism,” said Moog. “Their investment will enable us to develop a sustainable digital news membership model of community-supported local news.”

Together Chicago Public Media and the Chicago Sun-Times will connect with new and diverse audiences throughout the region. They will invest in digital capabilities to deliver a compelling experience across platforms and reach audiences where they are.

Also, as leading news brands in Chicago with dedicated and loyal audiences, WBEZ and the Chicago Sun-Times will broaden their impact by sharing content from both newsrooms across more platforms – broadcast, print, websites, podcasts, newsletters, mobile apps, social media, and community engagement and live events. 

Moog noted that WBEZ and Sun-Times’ partnership complements Chicago’s thriving culture of editorial collaboration, innovation, and cooperation.

“We hope to nurture and expand partnerships and collaborations with many of the other news outlets in Chicago, especially other independent, local news organizations that serve Chicago’s diverse communities,” he said. “Moving forward with a spirit of collaboration will allow us to share and amplify our city’s journalism on behalf of the Chicago residents we all serve.”