[Editor’s note: This post was taken off-line shortly after it was originally published on May 17. It has been amended and republished to correct factual errors and to include additional information, sourcing, and reporting.]
It is an odd thing to find Chicago’s award-winning alternative weekly now contemplating the business end of a Tronc content funnel since it was announced Monday that the media company formerly known as Tribune Publishing has entered talks with Wrapports to buy the Sun-Times and “related assets.”
The Reader, after all, is one of those assets, having been purchased by Wrapports in May 2013 for slightly less than $3 million. If Tronc—publisher of the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, among other newspapers—ends up owning the city’s alt weekly, it remains to be seen whether the Reader will live to even blog the tale.
An e-mail on Thursday to Tronc’s executive director of corporate communications, Dana Meyer, requesting comment on what the company’s interest in the Reader might be, went unanswered.
Asked about the fate of the Reader on Thursday, Sun-Times editor and publisher Jim Kirk offered the following statement via e-mail:
In the age of the challenging environment of print we are seeking partners who will keep alive important brands in our community. Under Justice Department regulations we are in the process of trying to find who is interested and have the resources to protect these journalism entities. We are pleased to say there are people calling us and we are meeting with them. It’s a little early to say definitively what will happen with the Chicago Sun-Times or Reader.
A deal with Tronc, if it happens, will give the Sun-Times and Reader brands access to digital resources beyond our present capacity.
That access would only be possible, of course, if Tronc opted to keep the Reader going, making it another cog in its self-described “content monetization engine.” It could fold the Reader into the Tronc-owned (and recently gutted) RedEye (ReaderEye, anyone?). Pity to think Tronc would turn the staff into “content specialists” supervising the “content-harvesting robots” that sent journalists on Twitter into a premature tizzy last July.
As far out as some of those hypotheticals may seem, it’s not advisable to rule out any possibility when Michael Ferro could be in charge. Retracing the technology entrepreneur’s path through the Chicago media landscape over the last few years offers a glimpse into what could be in store for the Reader were it to once again come under his ownership.
Back in 2012, Ferro-chaired Wrapports took control of the Sun-Times, and he quickly began making changes as if he were the kid stuck in Tom Hanks’s body in the movie Big. As Bryan Smith recounted in a fascinating 2013 Chicago magazine profile of Ferro, the chairman installed a candy room in the company break room and opened an adjacent arcade game lounge for employees. He launched the bubbly lifestyle magazine Splash and gave columns to celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy and rapper Lupe Fiasco. But the scrim of start-up culture pizzazz couldn’t chase away the dark clouds of the newspaper business, which became even gloomier when the Sun-Times laid off all of its staff photographers in May 2013.
While Ferro has a history of investing in media properties the way other wealthy men splurge on expensive sports cars, staying committed to his toys doesn’t appear to be a strong suit. “Detractors say he has a scattered, almost manic energy,” Smith wrote in Chicago, “an impatience that prevents ideas from blossoming.” Indeed, during his tenure at Wrapports, Ferro diverted precious resources to a number of projects—the compelling business publication Grid, the “generic” Sun-Times Network, the what-is-it-exactly? Chicago.com—that either floundered or weren’t given a chance to grow.
In February 2016, Ferro left the Sun-Times to oversee the company that publishes its longtime competitor. In short order, as the Tribune Company split its broadcast and publishing divisions into separate entities, he rebranded the city’s most storied newspaper publisher with a name that, as John Oliver of Last Week Tonight put it, “sounds like the noise an ejaculating elephant makes.” He acquired Splash from Wrapports and added it to the Tronc portfolio—and now, by the looks of it, he wants to buy back the daily newspaper to which he not long ago relinquished control when he donated his stake to a charitable trust to avoid conflicts of interest.
Is there a method to all the madness? Poynter Institute media writer Jim Warren, a former employee of the Sun-Times and Tribune, recently speculated in an interview with WBEZ, that Ferro’s objectives aren’t exactly virtuous:
The Sun-Times deal is very small potatoes for him. This is someone who has set his sites on gobbling up other big companies. One reason why he spurned the entreaties over that year and a half by a major, major newspaper company, Gannett, which wanted to buy what we now know as Tronc—and why he would love to somehow turn the tables by buying them or buying one of the several ailing media companies such as McClatchy—he wants to be a big shot.
Ferro himself seemed to reveal the tenuousness of his business philosophy during a March 2016 interview with the Tribune in which he parroted an oft-heard Silicon Valley maxim:
You’ve got to try a lot of things to make something work. I’m not afraid of failure. I like to fail fast, though. I believe you try something that doesn’t work, you move on. You never stop trying. We’re going to fail on a bunch of initiatives. It’s OK. Some of the greatest stuff I’ve ever done, and most of my friends who have built great companies, came not from what they were trying to do, but when it didn’t work out and they went the other direction was when the magic happens.
Throw ideas against a wall until something sticks. It’s a well-worn entrepreneurial notion. Still, the question goes unanswered: Will the Reader have even so much as an opportunity to be thrown against the wall at Tronc HQ?