Sun-Times ownership of Chicago Reader would be unusual in alt-weekly world

Wrapports LLC, the Chicago Sun-Times' parent company, may buy the Chicago Reader soon, Lynne Marek reported Wednesday in Crain's Chicago Business. That would be a seismic change for a newspaper that's always operated in opposition to the city's big dailies, doing vital reporting on Chicago as well as covering the stuffing out of its arts and music scenes. (The Reader also owns the Straight Dope message board, which has a large and loyal community.)

One of the draws, according to Marek's story, is the Reader's arts and entertainment listings; another is its advertising relationships with A&E businesses. "Music and entertainment is pretty sticky content online," marketing consultant Mark Roth told Crain's.

There aren't many examples of companies owning dailies and alts in the same town. Times-Shamrock Communications owns alt-weeklies in Baltimore, Orlando, San Antonio and Detroit, but only in Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, Pa., does it own weeklies that compete with its dailies. Both of those weeklies, electric city (I immediately thought of the rap video from The Office, too) and diamond city, are A&E-focused.

The Columbus Dispatch's parent company has owned Columbus Alive, another entertainment-focused alt, since 2006; in 2011 it bought The Other Paper, which covers politics, news and A&E.

And the San Francisco Examiner bought the San Francisco Bay Guardian in April, pledging not to futz with the editorial voice of the scrappy paper, which covers politics and news as well as A&E. "We have no intention of changing the editorial voice of the Guardian. If anything, a refreshed progressive voice is needed in the city," Examiner president Todd Vogt told the San Francisco Chronicle.

In 2000, Cox Enterprises, which owns The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, bought a large stake in Creative Loafing, owner of alt weeklies in Atlanta, Charlotte, Tampa and Sarasota. Things went south, so to speak, when the AJC launched its own entertainment weekly, Access Atlanta. Eventually Creative Loafing's management bought Cox's share back.

Thanks to commenters Joshua Benton and Scott Dickensheets, I know of a few more alts that share ownership with their hometown dailies: The Hartford Advocate is owned by Tribune, which also owns the Hartford Courant. Stephens Media owns both the Las Vegas Review-Journal and Las Vegas CityLife. The Las Vegas Sun is owned by the Greenspun family, whose Greenspun Media Group also has Las Vegas Weekly. And the Times of Acadiana in Lafayette, La., is owned by The Daily Advertiser, which is in turn owned by Gannett.

In Chicago, the Reader would bristle at being characterized as an entertainment paper. One of its primary roles, as at many alt-weeklies, is reporting on the city's media, including the Sun-Times. But A&E is an important part of its mission, as it is for Time Out Chicago, which is partly owned by Wrapports investor Joe Mansueto. It, too, has an extensive listings shop. "Puritans would blink at Mansueto owning most of one magazine and a piece of its chief rival," Reader media reporter Michael Miner wrote Wednesday, "but everyone's too busy these days dreaming dreams and trying to survive to worry much about appearances."

Surviving has been the Reader's mission since Craigslist T-boned its fabled classifieds section. Creative Loafing bought the Reader and Washington City Paper, where I used to work, for $40 million in 2007.

Creative Loafing went bankrupt after that acquisition, and the Reader, Washington City Paper and Creative Loafing Atlanta are all still owned by Atalaya, a hedge fund that helped finance the original purchase. It bought the papers for $5 million at a bankruptcy auction; the reported price for the Reader at the Sun-Times is $3 million. In March, the papers announced they'd look for individual owners and that staffers would have to take a 5 percent pay cut.

Last month Miner interviewed Jim Kirk, Sun-Times Media's new editor-in-chief. Kirk said he believed the company's papers would have more money to work with, which has got to be welcome news for the Reader's staff, especially if it has to start figuring out its place in the Sun-Times' solar system.

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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