This is an odd thing to do in the pages of the Chicago Sun-Times, but I’m asking someone to buy the Chicago Tribune.
No, don’t rush to a news rack or start a subscription. Buy the entire newspaper, lock, stock and ink barrels.
The Tribune is for sale, and on May 21, shareholders of the Tribune’s parent company, Tribune Publishing, will vote on a proposed takeover by a hedge fund named Alden Global Capital.
This is a bad deal for our city. I’m a Sun-Times reporter and a Chicagoan, but I’m speaking here as president of the Chicago News Guild, the union local that represents journalists at the Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune and most of the other newspapers in our area.
Alden is widely regarded as the worst of a class of owners who regard newspapers as assets to be stripped, with profits put ahead of providing readers with the news and information a community needs to function. Alden cuts staff, on average, by about 75% within a few years of taking over a newspaper. As bad as things get around Chicago, does anyone think we’d be better off with fewer reporters walking the streets and corridors of power in this city?
Fortunately, Baltimore billionaire Stewart Bainum has stepped up with $300 million to put toward out-bidding Alden for Tribune Publishing, with a goal of taking ownership of the Tribune-owned Baltimore Sun and other Maryland papers so he can donate them to a non-profit that will run them as a community trust. Then Bainum intends to sell off Tribune papers in Virginia, Allentown, Pa., Florida and Hartford, Conn., to other civic-minded investors in those cities.
But, so far, he has found no one in Chicago willing to take the Tribune off his hands.
I can understand why Chicago’s ample collection of billionaires and millionaires might be gun-shy. Several members of their tax bracket have dabbled in Tribune ownership, and either lost money or damaged their reputations.
With all due respect to those former Tribune owners, you did it wrong. Sam Zell and Michael Ferro thought they would revamp the Tribune properties into a continent-straddling, content churning money machine. That’s all fine and good, but someone willing to take up Stewart Bainum’s challenge will have a much better chance of success, measured by the not-unambitious goal of sustaining a vibrant local newspaper.
You are looking at an example of the principle at work as you read this: A collection of local investors and labor unions have owned the Sun-Times since 2017, and they have empowered talented editors, executives and journalists to do the grinding work of putting out a paper that teaches our community something they didn’t know about the city every day.
The Sun-Times is no cash machine, but it is growing its audience and staff, and things have been trending up recently.
There are other examples of civic-minded owners putting their local papers on the path to sustainability: John Henry has owned the Boston Globe since 2013; Glen Taylor bought the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in 2014; Patrick Soon-Shiong bought the Los Angeles Times in 2017; Gerry Lenfest donated the Philadelphia Inquirer to a foundation in 2017; the Hunstman family turned the Salt Lake City Tribune into a 501(C)3 charity last year.
And the Chicago Reader also went non-profit in 2020.
If you’re worried about the public scrutiny that Zell and Ferro endured after taking over the Chicago Tribune, you can do what this recent crop of newspaper owners have done: buy the paper and let a foundation, and skilled professionals, run it.
The Chicago Tribune today is in much better shape than any of those papers before they were saved by local owners. The Trib still has the largest newsroom in the city, and Tribune Publishing is a profitable company, with no debt and some $200 million in the bank. The newspaper business is tough, but that’s a lot of cushion for a well-intentioned owner to figure out a business model that works.
Not that this is purely a financial decision. Newspapers are critical local institutions. Research shows that when a community loses a newspaper, the cost of government borrowing goes up, corruption increases, fewer people run for elected office, fewer people vote and partisan divisions increase. For a philanthropist, no good cause is served when a local news source collapses.
As the clock ticks down on this shareholder vote, the silence from Chicago’s business class has been deafening. Their peers in other Tribune Publishing cities are staring down the destruction of their local paper and raising the alarm and reaching for their wallets. It’s time for somebody to buy the Chicago Tribune.
Will it be someone who cares about our city?
Andy Grimm, a Chicago Sun-Times reporter, is president of the Chicago News Guild. The views he expresses here are his own, not those of the Sun-Times.
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