The first death throe of the Chicago Sun-Times

Yikes! Thanks to Rob Feder, word just hit the street that the Chicago Tribune is purchasing the entire Sun-Times’ suburban portfolio. That list includes the Beacon-News, Courier-News, Naperville Sun, Southtown Star, Northwest Indiana Post-Tribune, Lake County News, and every last one of the weekly Pioneer Press publications.

According to Feder, the terms of the deal were not disclosed, but the sale will be moving forward on a “very aggressive timeline” with the requisite IT shifts coming as soon as early November.

The sad thing is, this marks the beginning of the end for the Sun-Times which has been far superior to the Tribune for the last 15 years. As once explained by a former managing editor, the only reason they held on to these suburban subsidiaries so long is it allowed their accountants to spread expenses around which propped up the parent paper’s bottom line for a quick sale.

But now the Sun-Times Media Group is so desperate for cash they’re selling off these fiscal albatrosses, most of which haven’t made money for quite some time. The problem is, when you start hemorrhaging assets just to survive, it signals the inevitable end because you eventually run out of things to sell.

I suppose when you’re staring straight down into that deep dark abyss, you do whatever it takes to buy yourself a little more time.

So while I understand that thought process, what I can’t wrap my mind around is what the Tribune has to be thinking, though this certainly isn’t the first time that group has completely confounded me. Having just been spun off of the WGN empire with a $350 million debt parting gift, why on God’s green earth would they pay anything for 38 profitless publications?

Well…the Southtown Star may actually be in the black, but when you consider that entire lineup it’s hardly something to get excited about. With print media fortunes looking as bleak as ever, I can only come up with two possibilities.

The first, and least likely, is the Tribune is actually going to start pumping some real money into these suburban satellites and put them up as the new face of their abjectly mediocre Trib-Local section, which never really caught on. If that is the case, it will mark their admission that relying on Journatics for content just doesn’t work.

But like I said, given the Tribune’s vast debt and the propensity of parent papers to hang their “children” out to dry, that’s about as likely as the Illinois Republicans taking back the General Assembly next month.

So I’m surmising the Tribune will somehow fold their new assets into the existing Trib-Local framework, perhaps going as far as including the appropriate suburban paper with your Tribune subscription. Given there’s virtually nothing to it these days, I could easily see the Beacon-News coming with your Monday, Wednesday and Friday Aurora-area Tribune.

Sun-TimesThey’ll probably keep names like Phil Kadner and Denise Crosby for continuity, but the reporters and background folks who still get paid the old scale wages will slowly be sloughed off. Let’s face it, when it comes to business mergers and the inevitable jealousies involved, the folks being “absorbed” never seem to fare too well.

Aside from any redundant Sun-Times staff, the likely losers in all of this – though there are hardly any print “winners” these days – are Shaw Media and Paddock Publications who simply cannot afford the additional stress of a coherent suburban competition. If the Tribune can come up with a reasonable local paper in your main newspaper model, then it’s going to be very tough for anyone else to stem their subscriber slide.

While it’s certainly sad to see the Sun-Times slowly fade into oblivion, the fact that we’re finally seeing the first hard evidence of that end can’t come as a surprise to anyone. And even though you have to give the Tribune credit for making such a bold move, it would behoove management to pay heed to Danny DeVito’s shareholder speech from the movie, Other People’s Money.

The paragraph I had in mind is this one; “Do you know the surest way to go broke? Keep getting an increasing share of a shrinking market. Down the tubes. Slow, but sure.”

One thought on “The first death throe of the Chicago Sun-Times

  1. A good analysis, Jeff.

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