40-50 new hires ‘expected’ after WBEZ’s merger with Chicago Sun-Times

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This interview was originally published on the website of the Medill Local News Initiative and is republished here with permission.

Chicago Public Media, parent of one of the most prominent public radio stations in the country, WBEZ, has signed a letter of intent to acquire a legacy newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times. The move would further transform the city’s news environment, recently shaken by a hedge fund’s acquisition of the Chicago Tribune and buyouts that dramatically cut staffing there.

The Medill Local News Initiative’s Mark Jacob interviewed Chicago Public Media CEO Matt Moog and WBEZ’s Chief Content Officer, Tracy Brown, on Oct. 7. Among their statements: WBEZ will remain an active collaborator with many other outlets, not just the Sun-Times; there are no plans to cut the number of print days at the Sun-Times; it’s “understandable” that WBEZ staff were upset over how the merger announcement was handled; and there’s an “expectation” of 40–50 new hires after the deal closes. Here’s an edited transcript:

Mark Jacob: What are the advantages of the proposed merger for WBEZ, the Sun-Times and the public?

Matt Moog: This is an investment in journalism — doubling our capacity for journalism by putting the two organizations together and doubling the size of the audience. Reaching across print, broadcast and digital will give both of the newsrooms a larger audience and give us the ability to cover more topics more broadly and go deeper with enterprise journalism.

Mark Jacob: How close do you expect the WBEZ and Sun-Times newsrooms to work together?

Tracy Brown: That’s something we will figure out over time and probably end up doing a phased-in approach. I would expect that we will be working pretty closely together. Now, what that looks like is still to be determined. But there is a lot of talent in both newsrooms. Our missions may be a little different, but in terms of serving the community in some different and transformational ways, this is an opportunity for us. So I see us pretty much working very closely together. It’s just a matter of figuring out what that looks like.

Mark Jacob: Some people think the Sun-Times might be able to help WBEZ on breaking news, for example.

Tracy Brown: I think that is certainly an opportunity for us. At ’BEZ, we focus less on breaking news. We call them “big news moments,” whereas the Sun-Times does do a pretty good job on breaking news. We have our audio team, so for us breaking news looks more like the stuff we do on our newscasts at 91.5. I think that’s an opportunity for us to think about how the two of those can work well together, on the audio and digital and print sides.

Mark Jacob: WBEZ has worked to broaden its audience, diversity-wise, but it still has a reputation as a predominantly white audience. Do you think bringing aboard the Sun-Times, which has a very strong audience of people of color, might broaden the audience for Chicago Public Media?

Matt Moog: One thing about that — you said ‘BEZ has a reputation for, something like that. All the survey research that we’ve done on audience indicates that it’s much more representative of the city than most people imagine. But that being said, we do really value the Sun-Times’ reach into a broader cross-section of the community. When you look at the map of their coverage and audience area and ours, it’s extremely complementary.

Mark Jacob: In this merger deal, has there been any discussion about print frequency at the Sun-Times and whether it would remain a 7-day-a-week newspaper? As you know, some newspapers nationwide are reducing print frequency.

Matt Moog: Our goal is to keep the paper as healthy and with as broad a circulation as many days a week as possible for as long as possible. We view it as an important part of the mix, and there’s certainly many households in Chicago who value the role that it plays. We are well aware that other newspapers are experimenting with other schedules. But we don’t have any specific plans to reduce the schedule.

Mark Jacob: Have you talked about it?

Matt Moog: Other than saying we’re not planning on it, that’s been it. It’s not been a deep exploration.

Mark Jacob: You’ve been known as a news outlet that collaborated with other outlets on big projects. You’ve worked with the Tribune, ProPublica and others. Will a partnership with the Sun-Times change that? Will WBEZ continue to work with outlets that have been seen as the Sun-Times’ competitors?

Tracy Brown: I can assure you we will. Editorial partnerships are really important to us. Just as we partnered with the Tribune and the Sun-Times and we’re part of the “Solving for Chicago” collaborative. We’ve done ProPublica. In fact, I think there will be more opportunities for that, not fewer.

Mark Jacob: Just practically speaking in the newsroom, if you’ve got a lot of projects and you’re really close with the Sun-Times, will they get first choice of what they work with you on? Seems to me you’ll have to make an effort to collaborate with people other than the Sun-Times.

Tracy Brown: Just as we do now. One thing I want to clarify: For the most part, the two news brands will continue to serve the respective audiences. We have not yet started conversations with the Sun-Times about what that actually looks like for us. When you asked earlier about breaking news, we have not decided and had any conversations in terms of, like, “Is Sun-Times the breaking news and ’BEZ is this?” We will continue to serve our respective audience and look for opportunities to share content for both newsrooms across all of our platforms. And that does include the stuff we both do our websites. We have newsletters, they have newsletters. Mobile apps, social media. I think there are going to be lots of different ways that we can collaborate with each other but also with other news organizations as well.

Matt Moog: I view us as having a special opportunity and responsibility to be very, very open and collaborative with the larger media ecosystem, in particular other nonprofit journalism outlets that we can help amplify their work and expose it to the audience. There’s a really rich ecosystem here of those kind of organizations. We’re looking forward to doing more with them.

Mark Jacob: WBEZ has been at the forefront of what I view as a transformation from a mostly competitive ecosystem to a mostly collaborative ecosystem, especially on big projects. Do you want to talk just a little, Tracy, about how that’s worked out?

Tracy Brown: I would say it’s worked out pretty well. During COVID, the beginning of the pandemic, we worked with the Reader and the Reporter. We’ve done investigative projects with the Better Government Association. We’ve done projects with ProPublica. We have learned how to have meaningful relationships and how to partner and really serve the communities in some pretty meaningful ways that we couldn’t necessarily do on our own. It’s allowed us to think about not just serving the WBEZ audience but serving the audience of Chicago and beyond. I’ve been proud of the work that we have done. We’ve done some stuff even nationally with the Pulitzer Center that has not just given us more resources but given us more exposure and given us the opportunity to really serve Chicago on issues that are important to Chicago in a much bigger and more meaningful way.

Mark Jacob: Matt, you’ve said you’ll receive major funding from Sun-Times investor Michael Sacks, the MacArthur Foundation and the Pritzker Traubert Foundation. Do you expect any other foundations to get involved in a big way, and will fundraising from members be stepped up?

Matt Moog: We are out right now talking to major donors and foundations, and are asking for additional funding. We’ve got big plans and we see this as a transformative opportunity, and I think a lot of major donors and foundations across the country are excited about it and want to be a part of it, which is great.

Mark Jacob: Now, for the public at large, do you have any plans to step up outreach for membership?

Matt Moog: Nothing specific right now that’s in the works, but we would like to message to all of Chicago that this is nonprofit public service journalism, and to the extent that they want to see a healthy journalism ecosystem in Chicago, this is a great way to get behind that and make sure we’re covering as much of Chicago as possible.

Mark Jacob: I’ve read that you’ve said there are no plans for any layoffs. Does that include the whole Chicago Public Media group?

Matt Moog: That includes both organizations. In fact, my expectation is, by the time we get ready to close [the deal], we’re probably going to have in the neighborhood of 40 or 50 open positions that we need to fill. This is emphatically, without reservation, this is investment in growth. If we look forward years in the future, I am very optimistic that the newsroom will be larger than it is today and that we’ll continue to be able to hire more staff across the organization.

Mark Jacob: You’re planning to close the deal, if everything works out, by the end of the year, is that correct?

“It really is an opportunity for us to think differently, particularly in how we serve younger and more diverse communities.”

Tracy Brown, CCO, Chicago Public Media

Matt Moog: That’s the plan, yes.

Mark Jacob: You’re saying there will be 40 or 50 positions open by that time, or at that time?

Matt Moog: Yes.

Mark Jacob: Is it spread around or is it likely to be at WBEZ?

Matt Moog: It’s spread around.

Mark Jacob: That’s a lot. So there’s no buyout program planned? I just want to nail down that when you say no layoffs, you’re talking about growth. You’re not talking about reducing staff any other way.

Matt Moog: Like I said, emphatically, without reservation.

Mark Jacob: Well, the Tribune didn’t do layoffs recently either, but they’ve certainly lost a lot of staff. That’s what I was getting at.

Matt Moog: This is like a George Bush “read my lips” moment.

Mark Jacob: At a time when some legacy news outlets in Chicago seem to be receding, WBEZ seems to be advancing and gaining firepower. This move is another eye-opening development. Do you feel like it could be applicable to other markets, to other news organizations elsewhere outside Chicago?

Matt Moog: Yes. That’s one of the things that’s exciting about this, is that we plan to be as open-book and as collaborative as possible, not just with the other journalism players in Chicago but really with local journalism around the country. I’ve already reached out to some of your colleagues about how we can work better with Medill and many of the initiatives that you have ongoing. I’m part of a group of the larger public radio stations around the country. There are many, many people interested in finding a sustainable path forward for local journalism. Although I think for some people this combination was unexpected, when they get a chance to think about it, they get really excited, like this could really work. There’s a lot of strengths and assets coming together in a way that could really transform things. Frankly, we’re the third-largest city in the country. We deserve a strong, growing and vibrant voice in journalism, and we’re potentially at a risk of losing that. That’s why we’re doing this.

Tracy Brown: I think that this really is an important opportunity for the news community. If we just only thought of ourselves as “oh, we’ve got more reporters and editors,” it really is an opportunity for us to think differently, particularly in how we serve younger and more diverse communities. And so it’s not just about having more resources to do more breaking news, to do more investigations, but it really is an opportunity for us to think innovatively about how we collaborate and how we serve those audiences that neither of us may reach.

Mark Jacob: When the proposed merger came together, the news was broken by media writer Robert Feder rather than in a general announcement to staff. Some ‘BEZ staffers — I don’t know about Sun-Times staffers — didn’t like that. They would’ve rather heard about it from you guys. What is the general staff tone and reception for this idea?

Tracy Brown: I will say this: That is not the way ideally that any of us would have wanted that to happen. And the staff was disappointed and a little upset about it, and that’s very understandable. That is not the way we would have wanted it to happen. I understand, having been a journalist for 30-plus years, I understand about leaks and getting scooped and all those things that don’t often line up the way that you want them to. We have received really good feedback from the staff on both sides of that over the past few days as we have been able to talk more about it, talk with the staff about our role in all that. I think people are understanding a little bit more. So I feel real good about where we’re headed in terms of the staff understanding the position that we were in and how that happened.

Matt Moog: I sat down one-on-one with probably close to 10 individual people from the newsroom yesterday just to hear directly what they were thinking. And every single person was positive and excited about it. Everybody needs time to adjust to change and big ideas, and this one was definitely a surprise. But the more people think about it, in terms of Chicago, in terms of journalism, in terms of collaboration, in terms of the strengths and weaknesses, it is clearly a good fit. We’re going to double the audience overnight, and we’re going to do so much more collaboration with the newsrooms. I think that stuff is really exciting to people.

Mark Jacob: Where does this leave Chicago Public Media in the Chicago journalism ecosystem? Does it means that, unlike most metro areas, the public radio station is in effect top dog in Chicago media?

Matt Moog: “Top dog” implies sort of a competitive dynamic. Let’s take more of a collaborative approach. To me it’s notable that I do think we’ll have the largest newsroom in the city. But if we do this right, that newsroom will be very open and collaborative with many other newsrooms as well so that we can build together and represent the community correctly. It is an interesting spot for public media and public radio to become sort of the news source of record over time. The way I look at it is, for a long time we were able to complement other sources that had more reporters, more coverage, etc. And as those sources declined, as a nonprofit, as a mission-driven organization, if the stories aren’t being told, we need to step up and tell them. And that’s exactly what we’re doing through this combination.

A former Metro Editor at the Chicago Tribune and Sunday Editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, Jacob is chronicling the Local News Initiative’s progress for the project’s website. He is the co-author of eight books on history and photography.

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