When the news goes public
On WBEZ's decision to grow from public radio station to newspaper publisher
The National Public Radio affiliate in Chicago, WBEZ, has sealed a deal first rumored in September 2021: It's buying the Chicago Sun-Times. It's not exactly a full-circle development, but it is a close cousin.
■ As the third-largest media market in the country, Chicago has more active print and broadcast outlets than most places. For decades, one of them was extra-special: The Chicago Tribune company owned the city's largest newspaper, a legendary 50,000-watt radio station, and a television station with a nationwide reach thanks to cable retransmission. This kind of cross-ownership was an exception to the rules enforced by the FCC. The company's reach went even further, since they also bought the Chicago Cubs in 1981.
■ The Tribune and its broadcast outlets (named WGN, for "World's Greatest Newspaper") had been grandfathered in when the FCC implemented the cross-ownership restrictions in the 1970s, and that cross-ownership was thought to be pretty valuable -- enough so that the company fought to keep its exemption in place when it changed ownership in 2007. Yet ultimately the newspaper company sold off the Cubs (in 2009) and the radio and television outlets (in 2019).
■ Subsequent to the breakup, both halves of the original Tribune Co. went through significant shakeups and downsizings -- the radio station cut loose long-time hosts (including one who had been there for 35 years), and the newspaper let loose dozens of its most recognizable names in a 2021 mass exodus (including a columnist who had been there for 32 years).
■ Thus the incarnation of a whole new cross-ownership entity in the city is fascinating. Legally, it runs into none of the old obstacles -- the FCC eliminated its newspaper/broadcasting restrictions in 2017 (in recognition that times have changed dramatically for both industries due to competitive pressures from digital outlets). But it's also significant to see that an outlet like WBEZ -- which, though non-profit, still has a duty to remain solvent -- sees enough value in a merger to proceed with creating something that one of its main rivals saw fit to simply give away only a couple of years ago. It would be like seeing Honda spin off a division for its hybrid and electric vehicles, only for Tesla to acquire General Motors two or three years later.
■ But it's also especially interesting because WBEZ is a non-profit public media outlet. After the combination, the Sun-Times will have to give up on endorsing political candidates (non-profits can't do that). Alone, that's interesting even if not groundbreaking. But public broadcasters have been expanding their reach in other markets, too: WAMU, the NPR affiliate in Washington, DC, bought the DCist "neighborhood news" website in 2018, at the same time as its partners in New York and Los Angeles bought their respective "-ist" sites.
■ Perhaps there is something unique to the circumstances of these public broadcasters that makes them eager to reach beyond the footprint of terrestrial broadcasting alone. But it's surprising that commercial broadcasters haven't shown the same kind of taste for invigorating cross-ownership, either by acquiring outlets that already have a notable presence in another medium or by spinning them up on their own.
■ It seems like an utter dereliction of duty for radio and television stations that already spend the money to staff newsrooms not to publish electronic periodicals containing the news they're already gathering. Sure, most of them try to mark their territory on social media, and many put out email newsletters, but those efforts are almost always promotional in nature -- too often, little more than digital junk mail.
■ In Chicago, a radio station is acquiring a whole newspaper -- along with the institutional cachet that goes with it. WBEZ and the Sun-Times say they will "continue as independent operations", but the whole point of such a tie-up is that their leadership expects them to be stronger as a team than as lone operations.
■ The merger isn't a sign that every local radio station ought to be out looking for a newspaper to buy (the economics of both sectors have been under severe stress for more than a decade) -- but any incumbent brand of either type of outlet needs to look at how it could and should stretch itself into the adjacent markets. If the barriers between them have fallen enough that the FCC no longer considers that kind of duality a threat, then it ought to be a bright warning sign that thinking beyond the old channels may be the only sustainable path to survival.