Coming soon to the Sun-Times—the Reader | Bleader

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Coming soon to the Sun-Times—the Reader

Posted By on 05.07.13 at 11:51 AM

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Last weekends Weekend section
It was a year ago this month that Wrapports LLC bought the Reader and this paper became part of the Sun-Times Media constellation of titles. In August the Reader moved into the Sun-Times Media suite in the Apparel Center. On Friday the Reader moves into the Sun-Times.

The Sun-Times's Weekend section will disappear. In its place will be Agenda, a 20-page insert filled with listings, reviews, recommendations, and culture features—most of it culled from the pages of that week's Reader and clearly labeled Reader material. The Reader isn't changing—its content, press run, and circulation will stay the same. The Friday Sun-Times will change conspicuously.

Mara Shalhoup, editor of the Reader, told her staff last month that the concept, which they'd first heard about months earlier, was a go. Jim Kirk, editor in chief of Sun-Times Media, met with the Sun-Times staff Thursday. I asked him afterward how the meeting went. "You know, they had lots of questions, good questions," Kirk said. "I think they understand this makes sense. The Weekend section had a great run—17 years. But we need to evolve."

A need, I guessed, that was clearer to Kirk than to the Sun-Times staff. "That's probably an accurate statement," he said.

When Wrapports bought the Reader, its staff was told that the new owners were interested in publishing some of the paper's content in the Sun-Times. Understandably, the first, worst thought was that we'd been bought to be cannibalized; but that fear subsided. Editorially, the paper's been left alone by its new owners, who have let us know that the Reader is a rare paper of theirs that turns a profit. Hearing this is a rough approximation of feeling the love.

"Everybody knows the Reader's listings are the best in the city," Kirk tells me. "As a company we see great value in that, and we want to make it bigger." What concerns me is the possibility that under the new conditions—Reader editors creating content every week that they know will wind up in the Sun-Times, and Sun-Times editors depending on it—eventually the Sun-Times will influence what the Reader publishes even if no one wants that to happen. At the very least, the Reader's roots are being given a yank. Anyone who still thinks of the Reader as an alternative to the dailies will have to strain hard to think it when some of the Reader shows up each week in one of them. About a quarter of the editorial content in Agenda will originate with the Sun-Times. These stories will be marked "Sun-Times" so no one will confuse them with Reader material.

The clear benefit to the Reader is that a large new audience is about to get a taste of the Reader's product, and if they like what they read they'll know there's much more to be found in the print Reader and on our website.

But try to think about this change from the point of view of someone in the features department of the Sun-Times. Your section is now disappearing out from under you. The paper you work for (Kirk tells me there will be no layoffs) has decided the way to go is to put another group in charge, a brand—if you will—that your owners appear to value more than your own. Critics who don't work at the Sun-Times will now be showing up in the same pages as the critics who do, possibly even reviewing the same show! Does this make sense?

Kirk thinks it does. "I look at it this way," he said. "With the ability to have multiple voices, especially on big entertainment properties here, we now have a distinct advantage over our competitors." He goes on, "This is a huge step for this company. As you see the media landscape consolidating more and more, this is one of the benefits of having two great entities under one roof. We're giving—not cannibalizing, we're making sure of that—giving people more and more without having to staff up and spend millions of dollars that aren't there to re-create a new staff."

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