Something extraordinary happened in the Chicago media scene on Jan 31, when Chicago Public Media (which owns the popular public radio station WBEZ-FM 91.5) announced that it was buying the Chicago Sun-Times. It’s big deal here. The scrappy tabloid has been a local staple since 1948 and has roots that pre-date the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Though it could survive that tragedy, it’s had a tough go of it since the ascendancy of online journalism.
Though the Sun-Times claims famous alumni such as film critic Roger Ebert, Ruth Crowley (better known as advice columnist Ann Landers) and Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Mike Royko, the paper’s circulation is down to just 120,000. For the better part of a decade, my Chicago journalism colleagues and I have forecast the paper’s death as not a matter of if but when.
But with the Chicago Public Media deal, valued at $61 million, the paper has new life and a renewed commitment to first-class journalism. WBEZ has anchored outstanding news coverage over the last generation and with the deal comes an estimated 50 new jobs at both outlets.
Says Chicago Public Media CEO Matt Moog: “This is an important step to grow and strengthen local journalism in Chicago.” Indeed. I mean, when was the last time you heard an enthusiastic “we’re hiring” in conjunction with a mainstream media outlet?
Maybe those words will be heard more often. At the very least, they should. For the Sun-Times deal signals a growing trend in journalism—with once-private stalwarts and startups alike making the transformative move to become nonprofits.
The Tribune’s Texas success
The motto of the Texas Tribune is “nonprofit, public-service journalism that Texans trust.” It launched in 2009, the same year that another “trib,” the Chicago Tribune, laid off 53 journalists in one day (including yours truly). That made for the biggest single round of media job cuts in the Chicago history outside of those instances where an outlet went full belly-up.
In a state that has seized national headlines lately for its legislation backing voter suppression and severe abortion restrictions, the Texas Tribune has offered a desperately needed tonic, not by way of mouthy, half truth op-ed posing as news but reporting based in legwork and fact. Surf their website and you’ll see stories, for example, that bring to light the efforts by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick to leverage what has been largely a ceremonial office to wield influence for former President Donald Trump.
Such work might be damn well impossible if the Tribune had to rely on a private owner, or a publicly traded shareholder model, to do its work–especially when one takes into account the lopsided power that the Rupert Murdochs of the world wield on media properties. To be sure, nothing stops the Texas Tribune from pursuing an agenda of its own. But given its elemental mission of solid news reporting, and its nonprofit status, the Tribune boasts a level of public service commitment that sets it apart. That similar dynamics will come to define a reimagined Sun-Times, a thoughtful media consumer can only hope.
A course to robust public discourse
Of course, public radio and television have long existed in a nonprofit dynamic. Just days from now, on Feb. 26, National Public Radio will celebrate the 52nd anniversary of its 1970 debut. To understand what separates NPR and other nonprofit news outlets from their private counterparts, consider NPR’s mission statement:
NPR’s mission is to work in partnership with member stations to create a more informed public–one challenged and invigorated by a deeper understanding and appreciation of events, ideas and cultures.
While the newspapers of old, those of highly specialized niches excepted, may be late to the party, there’s a good reason for this: pre-internet profit dynamics. Well into the 1990s, newspapers enjoyed double-digit profit margins, though in the case of the many large papers, those numbers were in part propped by cutting benefits and staff.
At the end of the day, many for-profit media outlets were and are beholden to shareholders; nonprofits are not. Public investors lust after shareholder value uber alles, while nonprofits depend on the largesse of people who choose to vote with their news values. When those big, lusty profit margins disappeared, shareholders ran for the exits. The editors and reporters who remained, meanwhile, began to wonder who would finance their good work.
Nonprofit for profit of the public good
When I think about the excellent investigative journalism ProPublica is doing, or the ultimate impact of the Pandora Papers leaked by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, I feel a tangible sense of hope. Today, the Philadelphia Inquirer (where I cut my teeth as a reporter) is now controlled by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism, after decades of bungling ownership turned the once esteemed “Pulitzer Factory” into a shell of its former self.
Let’s not pretend that this model will cure all the ills that plague journalism today. Years of cost cutting, layoffs and unchecked corporate greed have all but erased institutional memory from the nation’s newsrooms. The cubs who come up today have far less in the way of mentoring and guidance from senior journalists who spent decades honing their craft. In the Inquirer days of old, my bureau of two dozen or so journalists hosted two Pulitzer Prize winners, a Pulitzer finalist, and editors who could take copy from gutter-worthy to gleaming in a pass or two.
But from this kind of rubble, new dynamics and pathways can emerge. And they must. The obstacles I’ve listed above are nothing compared to the state of affairs at Fox News and other organizations that masquerade as legitimate outlets, but have buried in their foundation a flawed agenda that views truth as an inconvenience, and rewriting the narrative as a matter of high ratings.
Public radio and an online media outlet that still exists as a newspaper? It’s a novel partnership and if all goes well, WBEZ will inject the Sun-Times with energy, financial resources and journalistic independence that will deliver it to a new era of excellence. The proof, as all reporters know, will manifest itself in the results.
But at least those results will incorporate a value measure that transcends profit: that of the number of big stories it will break, the positive influence it will exert, the number of injustices brought to light that will make the Windy City a better place. Maybe it’s a Great Chicago Fire of a different sort: one whose heat and light and warmth could provide a beacon for struggling news outlets across the nation and perhaps the world.
Speaking of fire, let’s fire up the presses and get on top of those online deadlines. There’s serious work to do and thank goodness Chicago Public Media and the Chicago Sun-Times know it.