Insert tab here: Sun-Times brings Reader into the fold

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It just got harder to call the Chicago Reader an “alternative weekly.” Alternative to what?


Now that the paper and its digital assets have been acquired by Wrapports LCC, parent company of the Sun-Times and 38 other mainstream dailies and weeklies in the Chicago area, the alternative label seems as outdated for the Reader as it has been for WXRT since it became a radio line-item for CBS in the ’90s. Even the Reader’s editor calls the word “all but meaningless” these days.


The sale by Reader owner Atalaya Capital Management LP closed late Tuesday and was announced Wednesday. Terms were not disclosed, but insiders said the $3 million reported price tag was higher than the actual figure, which was closer to $2 million. The deal had been widely expected since Lynne Marek nailed it for Crain’s Chicago Business on May 9.


Joe Mansueto, owner of Time Out Chicago, also is an investor in Wrapports. At one point, sources said, Mansueto was preparing to make an independent bid for the Reader, but withdrew in order to clear the way for Wrapports.


How the venerable weekly will change under the control of Wrapports toppers Michael Ferro and Tim Knight should be fascinating to follow. Even as Knight vowed to the staff that "what we won't do is change who you are or what you do," there’s already talk of sharing content, merging resources and relocating the staff to Sun-Times editorial offices at 350 North Orleans Street. He also floated the possibility of inserting a smaller version of the Reader in the Sun-Times on a weekly basis.


Under the grand vision of Jim Kirk, the recently installed senior vice president and editor-in-chief of Sun-Times Media, the Reader acquisition will provide numerous opportunities to shore up a Sun-Times features department that’s been decimated by cutbacks and layoffs. Dance, dining and visual arts are among areas likely to benefit from Reader content.


Knight confirmed to staffers that Alison Draper is out as publisher of the Reader at the end of June. There’s no plan to replace her since Sun-Times executive editor (and former Sun-Times publisher) John Barron turned down the job last week, according to insiders. For the foreseeable future, the business side of the Reader will report to Tim O’Neil, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Sun-Times Media, while editorial will report to Kirk.


It’s good news for all that Mara Shalhoup is staying on as editor of the Reader. Since she took over in February 2011, Shalhoup supervised a dynamic redesign of both the print and digital products, and she’s brought a new vitality and bold sense of style to the operation.


“The marriage of the traditional and alternative press might seem jarring, but from what I can tell, Sun-Times Media aims to be less ‘traditional’ — and these days, ‘alternative’ is all but meaningless,” Shalhoup told me. “The Reader will continue to have a distinct editorial mission, and it will share with its new owners a common goal to innovate in print and online, and tell stories that matter. I’m impressed with the energy Jim Kirk and Tim Knight bring to Sun-Times Media — and with their dedication to preserving what the Reader stands for: gutsy reporting, incisive criticism, and a personality all its own. I’m pretty sure that they won’t require us to wear suits to work, either.”


Reader media critic Michael Miner acknowledged the irony in his report on the sale: “If the concept of an alternative newspaper means anything at all four decades after the Reader was founded, it means that the employees of one define themselves by what they’re not — they’re not churning out stories for an old-line daily newspaper,” he wrote. “And in the case of Wrapports, the daily paper was its dolefully diminished flagship, the Sun-Times, a troubling advertisement for the company.”


Then he added: “For all its alternative airs, the Reader culture is deeply old school, and it helped matters that a month ago technology entrepreneur Michael Ferro, chairman of Wrapports, hired Kirk, one of Chicago’s best-credentialed old-school journalists, to be editor in chief of Sun-Times Media.”


As relieved as Miner must feel that the Reader will survive and that he still has a job, it has to be galling to be back on the payroll of a newspaper company that fired him in 1978.


 



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