Chicago’s brawny tabloid has entered into a merger agreement with the nonprofit organization behind the public radio show “This American Life.”
The Chicago Sun-Times, once home to the film critic Roger Ebert and the columnist Mike Royko, and Chicago Public Media, the owner of the city’s National Public Radio affiliate WBEZ, announced on Wednesday that they had signed a nonbinding letter of intent that would allow the organization to acquire the paper. If the deal goes through, the publication that bills itself as Chicago’s oldest continuously published newspaper would become part of the nonprofit group.
“This would allow us to invest in our people, improve the news products we create, and strengthen our digital future,” Nykia Wright, the Sun-Times chief executive, said in a statement.
The potential deal stands in contrast with the one reached by The Sun-Times’s age-old rival, The Chicago Tribune, whose parent company, Tribune Publishing, was sold this year to the New York hedge fund Alden Global Capital.
The Sun-Times came about with the 1948 merger of The Chicago Sun and The Chicago Daily Times. The tabloid was owned by the extended family of the Chicago department store magnate Marshall Field before it was sold to Rupert Murdoch for $90 million in 1983. Three years later, Mr. Murdoch flipped it to a group of investors for $145 million.
After a series of further ownership changes, and an attempt by Tribune Publishing to buy the paper, a group of local unions and businessmen, including Michael Sacks, an investor, and Rocky Wirtz, the owner of the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team, took ownership of The Sun-Times in 2019.
WBEZ, the noncommercial radio station, might be best known for “This American Life,” the narrative audio show hosted by Ira Glass that has had an outsize influence on podcasting. (Last year, The New York Times announced a partnership with “This American Life,” which is no longer owned by WBEZ.)
Matt Moog, the interim chief executive of Chicago Public Media, said a merger “has the potential to be both a light and a hope for Chicago news.”
Alden Global Capital’s purchase of Tribune Publishing, which owns The Baltimore Sun, The Daily News and several other metropolitan dailies in addition to The Tribune, gained shareholder approval in May. The sale was resisted by many journalists who cited the hedge fund’s penchant for cutting costs at the papers it already owned through a subsidiary, MediaNews Group.
The Sun-Times’s potential move to local nonprofit ownership would mirror the corporate structure of The Philadelphia Inquirer, which in 2016 was donated by its owner, H.F. Lenfest, a cable magnate, to the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, a nonprofit organization he had established.
Jim Friedlich, the chief executive of the Lenfest Institute, said in an email that he had advised Chicago Public Media on its potential acquisition of The Sun-Times.
“The city’s news capacity has been gutted over the years by out-of-town hedge fund owners, the secular decline of print, and a failure to invest in the digital transformation of local news products,” Mr. Friedlich said. “Today’s announcement is wonderful news and a model for other public media and local newspapers to emulate.”
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