2 neighborhood news sources, the Hyde Park Herald and the South Side Weekly, team up
The merger under nonprofit ownership marks the retirement of the Herald’s longtime owner, Bruce Sagan, a leading figure in Chicago publishing.
Two standard-bearers of community journalism, the Hyde Park Herald and the South Side Weekly, are combining under nonprofit ownership in a venture that will test whether enough readers will pay for local news and features.
Both papers will continue publishing separate editions in print and online. Their combination, announced Thursday, marks the retirement of the Herald’s longtime publisher, Bruce Sagan, a major figure in the Chicago newspaper business for decades.
Sagan, 93, agreed to hand over the Herald in a noncash sale to the organization that owns the Weekly. While he’s retiring, he continues to closely watch the economics of news, a business precarious in a digital age that has diverted advertising and readership in countless directions.
“It’s an interesting moment in journalism,” Sagan said. “I hope I’m around when we work out some of these problems.”
The two publications share office space and have cooperated in other functions for a couple years, a trial run of the joint operation. “We have done a lot of legwork to make sure the partnership makes sense,” said Jason Schumer, managing director of the Weekly.
On a smaller scale, the deal can be compared with the Sun-Times’ conversion to nonprofit status in a combination with public radio station WBEZ. Executed last January, the noncash sale brought with it pledges of $61 million in contributions to support both organizations’ reporting.
There is no fresh philanthropic infusion promised to the community papers, although the Weekly has gotten donations. It was founded in 2013 with a mission to train community volunteers to produce articles that are vetted by the Weekly’s staff.
The Herald, in existence since 1882, is a more traditional paper, with staff-written stories focusing on Hyde Park and Kenwood.
Schumer said the combined operations have an annual revenue of about $750,000 and nine full- or part-time employees. He said no staffing changes are planned. While reader funding is encouraged, Schumer said neither publication will have an online paywall.
“Accessibility is super important,” Schumer said. He said a survey for the Weekly last year by Northwestern University’s journalism school found that two-thirds of the audience favored a membership program.
Sagan said the Herald went into the red in 2018 and didn’t turn a profit until last year. But even with that turnaround, he said the paper’s revenue is about 25% of its total before the internet, when newspapers could rely on fat sections for classified ads and home sales.
“I believe that journalism is going to be supported by its reader,” Sagan said. But he said the situation may differ depending on the tiers of the market.
Papers with a national and international reach are getting substantially more online readers than they ever had in print alone. Sagan noted that the Financial Times, based in London, now makes more money from readers than from advertising, an important change.
But it’s not known whether that trend can be repeated on a metropolitan or local level, he said.
Sagan started his career as a 22-year-old copy boy for Hearst International News Service and later joined Chicago’s boot camp for journalists, City News Bureau. He bought the Herald when it was having trouble in 1953, borrowing $2,500 from friends and family.
He went on to publish community papers in the Chicago area, the flagship being the Southtown Economist, now called the Daily Southtown. He converted the paper to a daily in 1978, publishing it at a large printing plant on Chicago’s Southwest Side that eventually handled the New York Times and other jobs.
Sagan said his operation was a pioneer in the move toward offset printing, with computer hookups that allowed a reporter’s typewritten copy to be scanned directly into newspaper columns. The technology eliminated linotype operators and sped the production of news. He sold that operation to Pulitzer Publishing in 1986 for $40 million.
A member of the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame, Sagan formerly headed the management committee at the Sun-Times and has been a consultant to other major papers. He has served on the boards of the Joffrey Ballet, the Chicago Public Library, the Chicago Housing Authority, the Illinois Arts Council and other organizations.
Under Sagan, the Herald covered its communities thoroughly, with attention to long-term issues of racial relations and urban renewal, Schumer said. “Community journalism can be a powerful agent for change,” he said. “What we’re doing with this merger and what the Weekly’s model has always tried to do is distribute that power within the community.”