Saturday, September 5, 2009

Is the Sun-Times’ future becoming evident in their suburban sister papers?

It is classic newspaper news dissemination – to learn something about a newspaper’s business operation, one has to read the competition.

So it only figures that the Chicago Tribune has been giving us the details about how there might be a buyer for the Chicago Sun-Times after all, and it turns out to be one of the business executives whose name came up in talks previously.

JAMES TYREE SUPPOSEDLY is trying to put together a bid that will be used by the Bankruptcy courts as a base by which all other would-be bidders will be required to compare to, if they’re serious about wanting to take on the company that publishes the Sun-Times and all those other suburban daily papers that probably would not have severe financial problems if they were to exist on their own.

Of course, the word about the Sun-Times is that the company’s cash flow is so tight these days that they may soon not have enough money to pay off all their obligations should they have to shut down.

So this could very well be a race to see if someone is willing to buy these newspapers for something other than a complete fire sale price before they run out of cash.

In short, be sold or crash!

NOW I’M NOT about to think that the people whose names have come up as possible buyers know all that much about the news business. In fact, much of the speculation has centered around how much in concessions they could get the labor unions affiliated with the Sun-Times to make.

As though that company hasn’t already been run on the cheap for decades. That is the true legacy of the Conrad Black years in Chicago, the Number Two newspaper in town tried to operate so skimpily as though it were more like Number Four or Five.

Yet through it all, the newspaper continues to come up with stories. Just on Friday, we get the interview with the one-time gubernatorial brother, claiming he didn’t do anything wrong.

It generated talk and buzz. Any publication that can come up with stories that get people talking deserves to have a life (just as papers that fill their pages with vacuous crud to surround the little bit of space around the advertisements won’t be missed in the least if they die off).

BUT WHAT IS the future? I’m not claiming to have any inside knowledge.

I just have my belief that the Sun-Times probably is best thinking of itself as being something along the lines of a neighborhood paper, rather than a major metro daily like the Chicago Tribune, which in its own right has scaled back its ambitions in recent months from thinking it impacts Congress to trying to pressure Crestwood to clean up its water and get the University of Illinois to have an honest board of trustees.

Personally, when I hear those stories, they have the feel of the types of copy that the Sun-Times has tried to generate for years.

If the Sun-Times were to become the neighborhood paper, it’s neighborhood would be Chicago proper. Which I think makes it pair up well with all those suburban daily papers they own throughout the rest of the Chicago area.

WHICH IS WHY it is with interest that I see the changes that have been made in recent weeks to the Tinley Park-based SouthtownStar newspaper and that are being proposed for the one-time Gary Post-Tribune (which now likes to think of itself as the voice of Merrillville, Ind.)

The SouthtownStar of the South Side and suburban Cook County went tabloid (although some people who hate that word because of its modern-day connotations prefer to call it “compact”). The Post-Tribune plans to make the same change.

The Sun-Times has been a tabloid for decades, so that change in page size is not something they can adjust to.

But the SouthtownStar has taken on a change that catches my attention – no more Saturday paper. To tell you the truth, I don’t miss it much.

THE NEWSPAPER THAT comes out on Friday is labeled the “weekend edition,” and the thicker Sunday paper with a few extra feature sections has an early edition on Saturday for those people who are determined to plunk down some money to pick up a piece of newsprint (personally, I can wait until the final edition on Sunday for the late sports scores) on that day – instead of using it to catch up on errands and personal business.

I must admit that in recent years, about the only reason I felt compelled to read most Saturday editions of newspapers was because I was writing for them, and I wanted to make sure that the copy editors didn’t mangle my prose in the stories that were published on Saturday, rather than held for Sunday.

If making this change were to enable a little more resources to be thrown into improving the Sunday product, it would be one change I would not mind seeing come to the Sun-Times.

It would be a change that I would hope new ownership would consider, because the bottom line is that it is stupid to buy a newspaper company these days purely as a financial investment (which is what ultimately was Sam Zell’s downfall with Tribune Co.)

IN THINKING ABOUT who is crazy enough to want to buy the Sun-Times and its legacy, one must figure out what they would want to do with it.

At the very least, that is more interesting than speculating about how much more in concessions union workers can be pressured into giving up.


EDITOR’S NOTES: Will the Chicago Sun-Times soon have new ownership, or will it (,0,4021947.story) run out of cash first? And how many changes to the nearly seven-decade old newspaper ( can be seen in the changes being made these days to the company’s sister newspapers throughout the suburbs?

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