Chris Fusco, the top editor at the Chicago Sun-Times for the past three years, said Wednesday he is leaving the publication to begin work at a media startup in California that aims to rejuvenate local news.
Fusco will become the founding executive editor at Lookout Local, a venture of media analyst and writer Ken Doctor. Starting in October, he will work in Santa Cruz, California, where Doctor is testing a digital model for journalism he hopes to bring to markets lacking traditional news sources.
A 20-year veteran of the Sun-Times, Fusco has led the publication since 2017, when it transitioned to a new ownership group with a significant presence of organized labor. The group’s successful bid foiled a takeover attempt by owners of the Chicago Tribune that media experts believed would have led to the demise of the Sun-Times. Fusco was elevated to executive editor this year in recognition of an increased role in business operations.
In a message to staffers, Fusco, 47, said the paper will continue in capable hands and with owners committed to independent journalism, despite business challenges that have cost media outlets their longstanding sources of revenue.
He recalled his nervousness when he first joined a staff of storied names. “I trusted so many of you, and you trusted me back, first as a co-worker, then as a manager,” Fusco said. “Working together, our newspaper has turned the corner, looming as large as ever in the competition’s rearview mirror.
“Which is why I need you to trust me again when I say this: I’m leaving the Sun-Times — and we’re all going to be OK. I’m not running from this place. I’m choosing to take everything I’ve learned here, move to the West Coast and join a startup whose mission is to irrigate the growing number of news deserts across America.”
Managing Editor Steve Warmbir will be interim editor-in-chief of the Sun-Times. “Like me, he’s a firm believer in building a more diverse newsroom that creates opportunities and paths forward for people of color and young journalists. I am eager to see how all your fine work continues to develop under his watch and know he’ll bring a fresh perspective to the company leadership team,” Fusco said.
Among those he thanked were Jorge Ramirez, board chairman of Sun-Times Media; lead investor Michael Sacks, and Robert Reiter Jr., president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, who has been a top adviser in business matters. “All three get that this institution is bigger than all of us, and I’m as grateful to have worked alongside their talented teams as I am with all of you,” Fusco said.
He also praised company CEO Nykia Wright. “In the past two years, Nykia has put us on a path toward sustainability, building systems that allow us to amass real-time data that will result in sound decisions going forward. We’ve been a great team,” he said.
Fusco said his last day at the Sun-Times will be Oct. 2. The next day, he and his wife, Lori Rackl, former travel editor at the Tribune, plan to start the drive to Santa Cruz. Rackl previously wrote for the Sun-Times, where her jobs included TV critic.
Wright said, “Every person, no matter who they are and what organization they work for, assumes an implicit oath to leave the organization stronger than they found it. Chris has done that; he deserves high marks and high praise. His staying in the field of journalism is testament that there is still work to be done. I wish Chris and Lori much success in this new chapter.”
Ramirez, during a digital meeting with Sun-Times staff, said a search firm will be used to find a successor. Concerning the business outlook, Ramirez said, “I think the investor group and the board feel real confident about where we’re headed.”
Wright said that despite the continued economic slump from the pandemic, advertising is starting to rebound.
Doctor said Fusco will be the “ideal editorial leader” to build an operation that provides trusted, nonpartisan news. “Chris’ work at the Sun-Times has justly earned national recognition. His ability to both deliver the goods every day to readers, while building and mentoring a staff, matches the ambition of Lookout,” Doctor said.
Lookout Local will launch with an initial editorial staff of 10. It is organized as a for-profit but public-benefit company, and it has drawn support from the Knight Foundation and Google News Innovation Challenge, among other sources.
Its Lookout Santa Cruz web site will compete with the Santa Cruz Sentinel, owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, which also has a controlling stake in Tribune Publishing. Alden has attracted intense criticism for buying newspapers across the U.S. and drastically reducing their reporting staffs.
At the Sun-Times, Fusco has been state government reporter, a reporter for the Watchdogs investigative team and managing editor. A native of Alsip, he started his career in Chicago’s northwest suburbs, covering towns and schools for the Northwest Herald and the Daily Herald.
In 2014, Fusco shared in the Sun-Times’ George Polk Award for its coverage of the death of David Koschman, for which a nephew of former Mayor Richard M. Daley pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter.
Under his leadership, the paper in 2020 was named among the “10 That Do It Right” by Editor & Publisher is recognition of its move to digital journalism.