I cancelled my subscription to the Chicago Sun-Times this morning. There was no cataclysmic event that triggered this, no outrage, no protest I wanted to lodge, only the slow realization that the newspaper I once worked for and have read religiously for 40 years is crumbling in my hands like the slow burning ash of a spent cigar.
Dropping the Sun-Times after so many years is like putting down your dog. You put it off from one day to the next, hoping to see the spark in her eye that once captivated your attention, but ultimately realizing that even the dog doesn’t believe it will ever come back.
In saying goodbye to the Sun-Times, I leave behind a host of journalists for whom I have only the highest regard: Fran Spielman, Mark Brown, Lynn Sweet, Mary Mitchell, Natasha Korecki, Dave McKinney, Chris Fusco and Mike Novak, Mike Thomas, Dave Hoekstra, Tom McNamee, Laura Washington, Rick Telander, Rick Morrissey, David Roeder, Bill Zwecker, Heddy Weiss, and many others. But in a more promising journalistic climate, I suspect that they too would jump ship because the signs of the Sun-Times decline are everywhere.
Since its takeover by Internet entrepreneur Michael Ferro in 2011, the Sun-Times has suffered one indignity after another: the imposition of a new style section Splash fronted by a bubble-headed advice column from Jenny McCarthy; the end of a Sun-Times book review section; the consolidation of business news into a Grid magazine that came and went, leaving only skeletal business coverage in the news pages; a superfluous video feature (that recently featured a 24-second pan of an empty lot slated for construction); the firing of the newspaper’s 28-member photography staff; and the gradual shrinking of the news hole to the point where storm door replacement companies now get more space than the decision to bomb Syria––and better placement.
By The Numbers
How are readers responding? Average weekday print circulation for the Sun-Times fell 7.8 percent (to 184,801) over the six months ending last March 31, according to the Alliance for Audited Media, compared to other circulation losses of 4.9 percent for the Chicago Tribune, 5.4 percent for the Wall Street Journal and 6.2 percent for the New York Times.
These are tough times for print journalism. The drift of readers from newspapers to online news has been well documented and represents a seismic shift in how people gather their news. But some papers have aggressively moved into the digital space. The Tribune, Wall Street Journal and New York Times reported digital subscription gains of 41 to 71 percent in the period. The Sun-Times digital readership, by contrast, gained only 13; and even that was spread across a smattering of sites that have little cohesion among themselves.
The Wrapports Experience
What is happening to the Sun-Times is taking place at a level above the newsroom. A little history helps explain it. When Ferro purchased the Sun-Times, he did so in the name of an investor group called Wrapports LLC. What he purchased for $20 million was actually the Sun Times Media Holding Company, which included not only the Sun-Times but seven suburban dailies and the Pioneer Press chain of 31 weekly community newspapers. A year later, Wrapports also acquired the Chicago Reader, consolidating all the news operations in a central headquarters at the 350 N. Orleans.
The name “Wrapports” is meant to signify the “rapport” of new technology and the “wrapping” of a traditional print newspaper delivering news as “a true multi-media experience for our users –– how they want it, where they want it, when they want it.”
The Wrapports experience, as result, is a series of digital portals you can access not only through Sun-Times.com, but separate websites for The Reader, Splash, Grid, Cecil Adam’s Straight Dope, @chicago.com, high school Cube, and suburban news sites fed by Aggrego, a “Wrapports News Service” that generates broad content stories (by non-union freelancers and staffers).
When Ferro bought the Sun-Times, this didn’t look like a far-fetched strategy. Roger Ebert’s independent rogerebert.com was drawing more hits than the rest of the suntimes.com site combined. After Ebert’s death last Spring, however, none of the daffy new digital portals have come close to replicating his numbers––and suntimes.com has languished in a kind of digital limbo.
Meanwhile, the daily newspaper pages are dwindling with much of that space devoted to pushing readers toward the suntimes.com digital offerings. Some columnists like Neil Steinberg are testing out their own blogs (“Every goddamn day”) while others are being pushed to fill an online section called “Voices” that reads more like an index of throwaway news items. It’s all kind of a big mess. (Or small one. Saturday’s tabloid size paper had only 7 pages of news and 18 of sports in a 48-page edition.)
Why I’m Leaving
I’m not cancelling the Sun-Times because technology has left print in the dust. Yes, I have my twitter feeds and favorite online news sources, but I like the experience of waking up in the morning and finding on my doorstep a paper full of news, organized and presented by editors who have made judgments about what’s important to know that day. So I was happy to turn around and subscribe to the Tribune because it’s a newspaper you want to spend time with.
Saying nice things about the Tribune doesn’t come easy, especially after the fiasco years of Sam Zell. But they are doing a lot of things right these days. Long and interesting features, investigative reports, in-depth coverage of breaking news. Real photographers taking pictures that tell real stories. Video stories that put the Sun-Times to shame. A weekend “Printers Row” insert that is a valiant attempt to salvage the newspaper book section. And what seems to be a coherent strategy to do what Wrapport can only promise: make the content available anytime, anywhere, in any format. I even love Redeye, the free street newspaper that is both smart and smartass (especially the iPad version).
All of this activity over at the Tribune Tower may just be a way to pretty up the Tribune for sale now that the parent company has emerged from bankruptcy. Many are solid steps into a digital world and there’s no turning back. But what distinguishes the Tribune effort from the Sun-Times is a clear recognition its core value is built around reporters, editors, producers, photographers and videographers who work to make sense of the world.
A Reason To Be Optimistic
Ferro’s effort to take the Sun-Times digital comes at a time when there are reasons to be optimistic about digital journalism. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal appear to have turned the corner on digital profits; Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has pledged to put his digital experience to work on the Washington Post; Warren Buffett is acquiring regional newspapers; and Joseph Albritton, the Washington media mogul behind Politico, sold off eight television stations and is investing in a New York version of his popular political website. They are betting readers will pay to support a staff of professional journalists who are devoted to ferreting out the news and presenting it in a way that sets the civic agenda.
When we invest our pittance in a newspaper subscription, we are not buying tangible goods, or discount coupons, or “information,” as people so popularly refer to news these days. We are expressing our confidence in a news organization that does its best every day to get it right. The Sun-Times I remember always tried to do that (even with the scant resources available). It often failed, but the reporters never lost sight of the mission. Now, the best reporters are considered brands and the paper itself is just another portal that delivers to its advertisers the eyeballs of people who are just passing through on their way to their favorite social media sites.
That may be the way of the world, but it’s not the dog I knew and loved, so I’m taking her in to the vet. Goodbye, old friend. See you in the next life.