In the long and raucous, altogether lively if recently beleaguered history of Chicago newspapers, Monday will rank as a “stop-the-presses” day after it was announced that, in short headline style: “Chicago Tribune Seeks To Buy Chicago Sun-Times.”
Tronc, the parent company of the Tribune, has entered into a nonbinding letter of intent to acquire Wrapports Holdings, which owns the Sun-Times as well other assets such as the Chicago Reader alternative weekly, the Aggrego digital content business and the syndicated column The Straight Dope.
The announcement follows months of discussions between Wrapports and Tronc and after both organizations worked closely with the Department of Justice’s antitrust division.
The tentative deal means Chicago would remain one of the last two-newspaper cities in the country, though those papers would operate under a single corporate owner. Terms of the potential deal were not disclosed.
“There are minor points still to be worked out, but we are confident that we will be able to move forward on this transaction and reach a definitive agreement,” said Tronc CEO Justin Dearborn. “This is generally viewed as good for all Tronc shareholders.”
The Sun-Times is publishing a full-page advertisement in Tuesday’s paper “seeking new ownership that will commit to preserving the Sun-Times as an independent news source in the city of Chicago,” Wrapports officials said in a statement.
After that, the Sun-Times will be sold to Tronc “if no other viable buyer expressing substantial interest” within 15 days, according to the Department of Justice’s Antitrust Division, which investigates newspaper mergers. Tronc also would acquire the alternative weekly Chicago Reader and Wrapports’ stake in Aggrego, a digital content company.
Federal investigators “will closely monitor the sale process for the Chicago Sun-Times, including whether any other viable buyer expresses interest,” according to a Justice Department statement.
In a memo to employees, Sun-Times Publisher and Editor In Chief Jim Kirk said the companies entered discussions several months ago and informed the Justice Department of the “possibility of a transaction.”
* Robert Feder…
Assurances by both companies that the Sun-Times would remain editorially independent did little to quell fears of substantial cutbacks to the city’s No. 2 daily. The Tribune’s own account described the deal as “providing a lifeline to the scrappy but struggling tabloid.” Others viewed it as the beginning of the end.
The man behind all the machinations is Michael Ferro, the Chicago tech entrepreneur who headed Wrapports until 2016 when he switched sides to become chairman of Tribune Publishing, later renamed tronc.
Ferro has never disavowed ambitions to take back the Sun-Times and combine its ownership with the Tribune. In an interview weeks after he took over the Tribune, Ferro said of buying the Sun-Times: “I do see that someday, and why not?”
The structure for the two newspapers will not look like a joint operation venture, a setup that some rival newspapers have used in years past to share costs without blending their newsrooms. Knight didn’t provide details on what exactly the infrastructure would look like, what costs would be shared and whether there would be new management. “We are working through all of that right now,” he said. “The Chicago Sun-Times will continue to be operated as an independent newsroom, and that’s where there’s benefits for the readers and citizens of Chicago.”
If there’s any potential political winner here, it could be Gov. Bruce Rauner. Rauner was an early investor with Ferro when he first bought the paper in 2011. Under Ferro (and Tim Knight, who has now landed back at tronc) the Sun-Times stopped all political endorsements. That is until the governor’s race in 2014, when it suddenly came out and endorsed its former investor, Bruce Rauner, for governor. The Sun-Times editorial board has just reestablished its independence, moving more to the left, recently laying the state’s budget impasse at the governor’s feet. That’s in contrast to the Trib’s editorial board, which is strongly pro-Rauner.
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