A bid to save newspaper competition in Chicago – Chicago Tribune
A history of Chicago newspapers — it’s a sprawl of names, dates and time line — hangs from a bulletin board in the Tribune’s newsroom. Since the 1830s, more than 60 general-circulation dailies have served Chicagoans. Some of those news organizations survived less than a year, some merged with others, some were bought out by competitors. Today there are two survivors, furiously competing on an array of print and digital formats: the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune. That’s good for this city.
On Monday came surprising news that stands to put the newspapers in a new relationship: They would be co-owned yet journalistically independent. Wrapports Holdings LLC, which owns the Sun-Times, has put that paper up for sale. What’s more, Wrapports has signed a non-binding letter of intent to sell the Sun-Times to the Tribune’s parent company, Tronc. That Chicago-based company, formerly called Tribune Publishing, would operate the Chicago Sun-Times. Tronc says Wrapports made the initial outreach to Tronc early this year.
Other bidders could emerge. They will have a 15-day window to come forward, under a request from the U.S. Department of Justice. Wrapports could close the sale of the Sun-Times to Tronc as early as June 1.
Before we explore what would happen next, savor the importance of preserving what metropolitan Chicago now enjoys: thriving competition between two large news organizations that know they serve readers best by trying to outdo each other. Whether a story is breaking or waiting to be discovered, neither Sun-Times nor Tribune journalists want to finish second — in accuracy, in timeliness, in impact on readers’ lives. When news is happening, each of those rival tribes wants you to turn to its coverage first. Same for opinion pieces on how Chicagoans should react to the news. The same for sports stories, the same for business or jobs developments, the same for arts coverage — the same, even, for comics.
Today’s rivalry isn’t as ruthless as when hired thugs were dumping other papers’ delivery trucks in the Chicago River. Many of us at either organization also have worked at the other. We are, in many cases, personal friends — even marriage partners — careful not to share much about what’s happening at work. But that institutional rivalry is intense. And surely it provokes the Sun-Times and the Tribune to serve this metropolis better.
Big news operations are driven by the imagination and toil of hundreds of employees. That makes them expensive to run. Nationwide, the list of companies and individuals willing to accept the risk of owning them has dwindled.
But Tronc Chairman Michael Ferro and the company’s executive leaders have stepped up, providing more certainty that the Sun-Times will continue to compete and publish. That’s excellent news. Closure of the Sun-Times would profoundly weaken news and opinion journalism in Chicago. It would undercut the competitive atmosphere that we embrace — and that every Chicagoan should want to nourish.
But wait, wouldn’t joint ownership of both dailies kill that competitive environment?
In a word, no. Not if the rival newsrooms and editorial boards remain independent, as we trust they would. For several years the Sun-Times has contracted with the Tribune to manufacture and distribute Sun-Times papers from Freedom Center, the massive Tribune printing plant that also produces Midwest editions of The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and other publications. Industry economics have driven all sorts of operational consolidations without endangering the independence of the respective news organizations.
In this case we’re similarly confident that co-ownership could preserve the tussle between the news and opinion staffs of the Sun-Times and the Tribune. The former sprang from the merger of two other papers in 1948, the latter was founded in 1847 and approaches its 170th birthday. And as long as both fiercely co-exist, so does a rich legacy now completing its second century: robust newspaper competition in Chicago.
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