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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Questions for Jim Kirk about Sun-Times Media

Posted By on 04.24.12 at 06:51 PM

Jim Kirk
  • Sun-Times Media editor in chief Jim Kirk
Jim Kirk reports for duty Wednesday as editor in chief of Sun-Times Media. His new boss, Timothy Knight, told the Sun-Times's David Roeder, "Under Jim's leadership, we will increase our focus on local news and information."

That gave me question one to Kirk. How can the Sun-Times, and the suburban daily and weekly papers in the Sun-Times Media constellation, possibly increase a local focus that is already just about 100 percent?

His answer, as I understand it, is that local will be more expansively interpreted. "Rahm Emanuel is a very interesting character," he said, and not just to Chicagoans. He's a national figure who grew up in the suburbs and went to New Trier High—of course suburban readers want to read about him! "We have the best City Hall team there is, and we need to get that content out to everyone," Kirk said.

Likewise, "The Sun-Times is still pretty city focused and it's not tapping into as much of its resource base as it could. I think there are probably stories that aren't being used or aren't being covered that readers of the Sun-Times would like to see."

In short, more suburban news in the Sun-Times and more city news in the suburban papers. The Sun-Times is going to need a larger news hole, I said.

"That would be my hope," said Kirk.

Do you have any money to make it bigger?

"I believe we do."

Kirk is nothing if not seasoned. He was the business editor of the Tribune in 2009 when he resigned to coordinate Washington coverage for Bloomberg News. In 2010 he joined the Chicago News Cooperative, now defunct, as managing editor. In February of 2011 Kirk left CNC to become chief of editorial operations at Crain's Chicago Business. Once again, a new year has brought Kirk a new job.

Speaking of local news, on Monday the Tribune announced it was doing a deal with Journatic, an upstart hyperlocal "media content provider" that's taking over the paper's TribLocal operations. Journatic CEO Brian Timpone explained to me that while Tribune Tower's seasoned reporters go after the big stories, Journatic's irregulars will be rounding up real estate transactions and junior high honor rolls and other data of that import—which is to say absolutely no import to almost everyone but riveting reading if you live on the block.

The collection of local investors who now own Sun-Times Media made an aggressive run at Journatic but couldn't sign them. What's your counter? I asked Kirk; or do you need a counter?

"We need to pay attention to that and we have some ideas we just can't share right now," he said. "We need to explore it quickly. The goal is you don't want to have reporters—especially at papers that have diminished staffs [that describes every paper in Sun-Times Media]—to have to spend their time focused on stuff such as police blotters and personnel announcements. You want those reporters focused on bigger, more important stories."

In other words, those reporters need a Journatic to do the scut work. Who will it be?

"I don't know that yet," he said. "We have to figure it out."

Roeder wrote that, according to Kirk, Sun-Times Media papers "must pour their efforts into content that cannot be found elsewhere."

Like what? I asked.

"You can't make money anymore off the commodity news business if you're a metro daily," he explained. The days of going to the mayor's news conference and reporting in the next morning's paper are over. "The news cycle is so quick you can't afford to rely on it. That doesn't mean there's not news value to it, but if it's important enough to be in the paper the next morning you've got to have an angle that nobody else has." Even a bogus new angle takes some thought; a serious new angle that actually deepens and advances the story can take a lot of thought.

"It's harder for sure, but we have to do that," said Kirk. "It means for a lot of reporters using different muscles, and it takes time to think."

This means good reporters, which Kirk rightly insists the Sun-Times still has, though not in the numbers of yesteryear. It means hard choices. "We'll have to be very disciplined in what we cover," said Kirk.

And does it mean a larger staff? "I think it does," said Kirk. "I'm certainly arguing for one. Part of my reason for coming over here is that these guys want to grow it—it's not about sucking money out of it at this point."

With all due respect, I said, the new owners have all done well in life, but there are no vast fortunes now at the disposal of Sun-Times Media. "No, but all bets are off with digital," Kirk replied. "If the shift [to digital] continues, as I think it will, and tablets become much more the norm, the less you'll have to rely on street sales. Suddenly the playing field is level"—because putting out a paper will be so much cheaper—"and I see that as the future."

Finally, the question in the back of my mind the whole time we talked. The Reader is on the block and Sun-Times Media is interested in buying it. A Wrapports spokeswoman was quoted Tuesday by the New York Times as saying the company had plans "to purchase other media companies.” That could mean us.

"I think you keep the publication," said Kirk. In other words, our databases are attractive but they wouldn't be buying us for parts. "The question is," Kirk went on, "what from the Reader can you add to the Sun-Times?"

But Kirk said he knew next to nothing about negotiations between his new bosses and the hedge fund that owns the Reader. We were talking Tuesday evening, and he said he might learn more Wednesday after he reports for work. If you do, I said, please call.

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