New Sun-Times takes Chicago to a different place

In case you have any doubt that the Chicago Sun-Times is becoming the New York Post, you might want to pick up Monday’s edition.

The paper of Roger Ebert and five other Pulitzer Prize winners is morphing into a garish, down-market tabloid that seems to be edited for people with teeny-tiny attention spans who prefer headlines to be written IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS.

Monday brings a redesign and extensive reorganization of the product that longtime readers may find disorienting and even off-putting, based on conversations with Sun-Times insiders and a memo to editors outlining the changes.

The new direction has been evident in recent weeks with the makeover of the paper’s gossip pages, an emphasis on not-necessarily-local celebrity news, and a rigid, sophomoric formula for page one that harkens to the disastrous, short-lived era of Rupert Murdoch, who owned the Sun-Times in the mid-1980s (and still owns the New York Post).

Almost the entire front page of Friday’s Sun-Times consisted of a photo of Kanye West and Kim Kardashian together in New York under the headline LOVE SONG. Other front-page headlines last week screamed: MOB SCENE, GRANDPA WANTS NEW GUN, FACE OF HOPE, SHE’S A WINNER and LET’S GO!

Inside pages featured more shouting headlines (‘OH, MY GOD!’ ‘UNSURVIVABLE!’ and TRAIN PAIN), many headlines without verbs (“Unholy act,” “The flying car” and — my personal favorite — “Cheerleader child-sex charge”), and multiple stories about Donald Trump on everything from his new cologne to his opinion of a transgender contestant in a Canadian beauty pageant.

Who’s responsible for all this? Don Hayner is still the editor-in-chief, and John Barron is still the publisher of the Sun-Times. Tim Knight, a veteran of the Chicago Tribune and Newsday, is the CEO of Wrapports LLC, the company that took over Sun-Times Media Holdings late last year. (Joe Mansueto, owner of Time Out Chicago, has an ownership stake in Wrapports LLC.) But make no mistake: The man calling the shots today is Michael Ferro, the wealthy entrepreneur who heads the Sun-Times’ parent company with ambitions of becoming a modern-day press baron.

Ferro, 45, telegraphed his plans in February to Lynne Marek of Crain’s Chicago Business, who reported that he envisioned “a credible, colorful and charitable paper” that focused on “the good, the bad and the beautiful” of Chicago. But few could have known that Ferro would exert such a heavy hand on the product, despite his utter lack of experience in journalism, publishing or media.

Ferro appears intent on using the Sun-Times to promote his pet charities and the many nonprofit organizations on whose boards he serves. How such coverage of black-tie fund-raisers will mesh with the paper’s decidedly down-market move remains a mystery. In any case, look for more society news when the Sun-Times launches a new Sunday supplement in the coming months.

With an eye on rolling out a new tablet application, the Sun-Times also is expected to transform its three weekly broadsheet sections — Sunday Show, Food and Movies — into the more iPad-friendly tabloid format as well.

None of these changes sits well with Sun-Times veterans who were around when mercurial bosses like Robert Page or David Radler used the paper to promote their personal agendas. (Or who saw the toxic effect that Sam Zell and his henchmen have had on the Chicago Tribune.) As financially difficult as things were during the Sun-Times’ prior regime, they recalled, the late Jim Tyree never meddled in editorial matters.

But the optimists on staff prefer to see the bright side: At least Ferro is keeping the Sun-Times alive — and keeping them employed.


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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)