Peek-a-boo: Sun-Times shrinks behind online paywall

It might have been nice if someone had told Roger Ebert about the Chicago Sun-Times online paywall, since he happens to be the newspaper’s No. 1 star and top draw for its website. But when I reached out to the esteemed movie critic late Tuesday, it was the first he’d heard about the plan, which goes into effect Thursday.

“As of now I don’t know how it will affect or, for that matter, my blog,” he told me in an email exchange. A few minutes later, he followed up: “I’ve been informed by [publisher] John Barron that my site and blog will not be part of the online subscription plan.”

(Update: On Wednesday, Ebert wrote to say that he was informed months ago — "so long ago that I had forgotten" — and that he supports the newspaper's paywall plan. "I wish the Sun-Times well in this venture." See comment below.)

So at least Ebert’s fans can relax.

One day after another wave of cuts swept through the Sun-Times editorial department — and a week after reports surfaced of the newspaper’s possible sale — its parent company announced plans to begin charging for access to content on and affiliated sites. After the first 20 page views every 30 days, readers will be required to pay $6.99 a month (or $77.87 a year) for continued access. Home delivery subscribers will be charged $1.99 a month.

“We think the time is long overdue for us to begin charging for our content,” said Sun-Times Media chairman and CEO Jeremy Halbreich, who first floated the idea publicly more than two years ago. “It is certainly award-winning content and we need to find new ways to support it.”

Since September, the suburban Daily Herald has been charging a toll for its online product after 15 page views a month, but this marks the first time a Chicago metropolitan daily has erected a paywall. Also included in the Sun-Times Media group are the SouthtownStar, Aurora Beacon-News, Elgin Courier-News, Joliet Herald-News, Lake County News-Sun, Post-Tribune of Merrillville, Indiana, and more than 30 area weeklies.

Will readers be willing to pay for the digital Sun-Times and its suburban siblings as they continue to shrink in size and scope? Especially as long as the Chicago Tribune and other news sites still offer their online content for free?

“I would hate for my reviews to go behind a paywall,” Ebert wrote in an impassioned blog post in March 2010. “I have around 10,000 of them . . . Now here they all are online, being read every day from virtually everyplace in earth. One in Yemen, one in Pago Pago, it adds up. Daniel from Pago Pago is a valued commenter on the blog. Think how great that makes me feel. If I go behind a paywall, however, and a high school student in Mexico is doing some research, there are lots of other excellent critics on the web, and everybody knows it.” (Thanks to Huffington Post for the reference.)

You have to wonder about the timing of all this, too. Five more newsroom veterans just joined dozens of other recent exiles from the Sun-Times editorial ranks. Features writer Mary Houlihan, photographer Jean Lachat and graphic artist Greg Good were laid off Monday. They closely followed the voluntary departures of food editor Janet Rausa Fuller and copy editor Frank Sugano. All of them I knew to be top-notch professionals. None of their positions will be filled.

The dean of the Post-Tribune’s newsroom, editorial page editor Rich James, also was laid off this week. The total number of layoffs companywide was not disclosed, but Halbreich told Crain’s Chicago Business that they were the “final piece” of 18 months of reductions.

“We’re still waiting for word on how many 10th floor manager types were axed,” one Sun-Times insider quipped as the firings were being carried out. “Might be waiting quite a while.”

Halbreich won’t say whether the company is profitable and insists that there are no discussions to sell it, although reports persists that at least one investor group is preparing to make an offer. The group, led by Michael Ferro Jr.’s Chicago-based Merrick Ventures, already has a stake in the Chicago News Cooperative.

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)