by Sam Stecklow
Sometime between early February and late May, the proprietor of a yoga studio read a “Best Yoga Studios” list that I had compiled as an intern at the Sun Times Network. Apoplectic that her business wasn’t included, she rooted out the email address of Chicago Sun-Times editor-in-chief and publisher Jim Kirk and chewed his ear off. The email made its way down the chain to me, but I suffered no repercussions. After all, I had just been doing my job: Sitting at a communal desk in a glass box in the corner of the Sun-Times office, writing “local” content for cities around America, most of which I had never even visited.
The Sun Times Network, which launched a year ago with a “presence” in seventy cities (now thirty-six) around the U.S., is part of a company called Aggrego, which is a part of Wrapports, LLC, a holding company that was created by a group of wealthy businessmen in late 2011 to buy the Sun-Times and its associated properties. (It is named as such because, according to a 2013 Chicago profile of Wrapports’s chairman and lead investor, Michael Ferro, it “signifies a merging of the ‘wrap’ of a traditional print publication with the ‘ports’ of tech ventures.”) When it was founded, Aggrego focused on creating “niche content” — mostly advertorial-type things — before transitioning into an ad-hoc wire service for the Sun-Times’ suburban papers, covering “high school sports, for example, and weddings,” according to an interview with its CEO, Tim Landon. (In the same interview, Landon said, “We do do school lunch menus, but you’re not going to build a big audience and engagement around school lunch menus. We want it to be almost Facebook-like.”) When covering weddings in the Chicagoland suburbs didn’t make enough money, after about a year, the plan was shelved and the suburban newspapers sold off to the Tribune Company.
The October 2014 press release announcing the launch of the Sun Times Network said that it was “designed to offer content in a manner similar to websites such as Deadspin and BuzzFeed, which aggregate news stories while offering additional commentary.” In an interview with Nieman Lab, Landon, who spent twenty-two years at the Tribune Company working on ad sales and classified services like Cars.com and CareerBuilder before being replaced during the disastrous Sam Zell era, said, “If I can take $10,000 a month, am I better off putting two or three kids against and creating lots of content? Am I better off hiring a known political writer that is controversial? Am I better off doing Facebook advertising? That’s the way you have to think about it.”
The Sun Times Network is broken up into a loose hierarchy. There are some fifteen-odd editors, and six-odd “interns,” who are assigned to two editors each. Both editors and interns have similar daily tasks: Scraping Twitter, Google News, and Reddit for trending stories in the cities they are assigned to — each editor has three to five, and each intern had six to ten — and writing short aggregations of news stories and social media posts that mostly consist of two short paragraphs of original work, with a big blockquote from the source story in between. Every editor and intern has a daily post quota ranging from twelve to sixteen. Multiple sources pointed out the futility of hitting a quota for each city. “The quota made it impossible to put any serious thought into any single post,” a former Network intern told me.
The “internship” is, like many in media, one in name only. I was one for four months. No current or former “intern” I spoke to for this story felt that the “intern” title adequately described the job they were doing, since Wrapports insisted that the “interns,” who were either just out of — or still completing — college, work at least forty hours a week, for which they are paid ten dollars an hour. (Editors make around thirty thousand dollars a year. Unsurprisingly, a former Network editor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told me he quit due to “overwork and little pay.”)
The lack of formalized structure at the Network is a constant source of consternation for Sun-Times reporters and editors, who worry that the shoddy work of the Network is affecting what little is left of the Sun-Times brand. A former Sun-Times employee of over a decade, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told me, “It’s incredibly harmful [to the Sun-Times] to have the Network stories diluting the content. The Sun-Times tells its staffers, ‘We break news, we investigate stories, we look at political corruption.’ Those things take weeks and months of reporting, of original reporting, and constantly being on the phone, and dealing with sources, and if that’s what you’re trying to sell, then having a group of people who are writing snarky posts about tweets and memes that they’re seeing online makes the product worse. From a Network perspective, if that’s where they’re going, they could almost argue that having all this investigative watchdog stuff is making it worse, because people aren’t clicking on it as much as they’re clicking on the Steph Curry mom thing, or the Gronkowski did cocaine in a Las Vegas bathroom story.” Some employees openly complained, like former managing editor Craig Newman did in multiple tweets.
— Craig Newman (@craignewman) December 24, 2014
In one sense, these complaints aren’t new: During the year that Aggrego operated as a wire service for the company’s suburban papers, including the Pioneer Press chain of weeklies, it was vehemently opposed by the Newspaper Guild — to the point that the union filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. Aggrego staffers were calling veteran reporters’ sources, identifying themselves as Pioneer Press staff, and “asking about random stuff,” according to a reporter’s email that the Guild provided to Chicago Reader media columnist Michael Miner. In another email, the reporter followed up: “He must be one of those $9 an hour guys who will eventually take the union jobs over. Can he be a non-Guild eligible Wrapports employee and still publicly call himself a Pioneer person?”
Network staffers were concerned with the quality of work they were being asked to do, too. Marty Arneberg, a former intern, told me, “When I was applying to jobs, I would send very few Sun Times Network articles. I would mention in my résumé, forty hours a week I worked here, but I would not send them any examples. Because it was such a content factory, you just had to pump stuff out all the time. It was just like, get it out there, we need some pageviews now.” A former editor told me, “I wouldn’t read most of what I wrote if given the choice.” He added, “Spending more than thirty minutes on any article was generally frowned upon.” Arneberg told me that a “post got me the most pageviews of any post that I wrote and it was complete bullshit. It was a total hoax,” he said. “The weird thing is, when it came out that that was a hoax, nobody spoke to me. Nobody said anything, like, ‘Hey, you gotta watch out for that.’ It was just ignored.”
The question of whom, exactly, Sun Times Network is supposed to be for is one I asked everyone I interviewed for this story, and none of them could provide a good answer. I can’t either. It was assumed in the office we were writing for people who lived in Dallas or San Jose or Fargo or wherever, but we knew that there was negligible readership for each of the individual sites, with little of it even coming from the cities they were targeted at. Arneberg told me, “They had a few workshops on Facebook and Twitter, how to maximize likes or whatever. But nothing ever came of that. It was a totally failed mission. Our strategy was to get social traffic, and that never happened. It was just all Yahoo!,” which was most sites’ only significant source of traffic. If Yahoo! News didn’t pick up a story on its homepage, a site could be left with pageviews in the low hundreds for days on end.
So Network staffers, lured by the promise of bonuses for the top pageview-getters for the month, relied on keyword abuse. “It really depended on what sports and pop culture content the writers had,” a former Network editor told me. “Cleveland got very high traffic because of Lebron and Ohio State. Denver because Peyton Manning. Seattle because Russell Wilson. Milwaukee with Aaron Rodgers. Any city with a semi-lively sports beat. A few times when celebrities passed through and did something newsworthy, a single article could reach into the upper 100Ks of pageviews. Think Kim Kardashian, Duck Dynasty-type shit.” But mostly, they told me, “These poor editors are happy if ten people click on one of their social links.” According to a current Network employee, Yahoo! stopped picking up those stories in July, and without a strong social media following to bolster the Network up, it is flailing, only hitting around three hundred concurrent visitors an hour.
The Sun-Times’ social media accounts are now working overtime to promote Network stories, and they are slotted in right alongside Sun-Times stories on the Chicago Sun-Times homepage. “When the national stuff started being put onto the Sun-Times site, there was a lot of displeasure,” a former staffer told me. “One I specifically remember, the entire story was basically, ‘Caller to local sports radio show, says, “The Bulls could win if they get more alley-oops.” Radio hosts make fun of them.’ That was it. Those were the type of stories that reporters and editors got upset about when they would show up high up on the Sun-Times homepage, because there were actual news stories that reporters had been working on that were bumped down for that story to come in.” It’s extremely easy to tell which is which. Just skim to see if there’s any original reporting in the piece. If there’s not — and if the article is just a collection of tweets, or adheres to the “short intro, big block quote, short conclusion” formula I was taught on my first day — it is probably not from the Chicago Sun-Times.
This seems as good a place as any for this disclosure: I was fired by the Sun Times Network, so if you feel like you are reading a tell-all from a disgruntled former employee, well. On May 28th, I had handed in my two weeks’ notice after securing an internship at another news outlet in town. Later that day, I was struck by the utter fucking inanity of the post I happened to be working on — a “what to do this weekend” list for atlanta.suntimes.com, culled entirely from the local alt-weekly’s events calendar (sorry, Creative Loafing) — so I tweeted this:
anyway let me get back to my very important job pic.twitter.com/32PpPZsdR8
— europe stecklow (@samstecky) May 28, 2015
I had tweeted much harsher (albeit more veiled) critiques of the job before, but the next day, I was called into a meeting with the managing editor and an HR person for a one-minute meeting, in which the managing editor — the author of almost every Sun Times Network post linked to in this piece — told me it wasn’t “very smart” to tweet that and I was let go, two weeks and eight hundred dollars early.
The Sun-Times’ website has undergone four redesigns in the last two years (and one very talked-up political redesign), each less popular with the newsroom than the last. “[When the Sun-Times site] changed over from the newest of the redesigns to what it is now, to match the Network site, there was a lot of displeasure in the newsroom about that,” a former longtime Sun-Times staffer said. “I think a lot of employees were confused as to why so much time, and I assume money, to do three or four website redesigns, only to scrap the whole thing and go with this national Network, and then be told we don’t have any money. Well, you had enough money to do four website redesigns that you didn’t want, but you’re laying off employees. The money was just spent in a different place.”
When the Sun Times Network was launched, the Sun-Times newsroom was at once surprised and skeptical. A former Sun-Times employee told me that reporters and editors were asking amongst themselves whether Wrapports higher-ups (chairman Michael Ferro, CEO Tim Knight, and Aggrego CEO Tim Landon) had even thought this thing through properly. “This sort of rewriting existing content into a bloggy national format was sort of an oversaturated market to begin with,” they continued. “Once we sort of figured out what this was, a lot of people asked, ‘How did this cost fourteen million dollars?’ To hire interns and build essentially one website? It wasn’t 70-something websites, it was one website that was poorly done.”
The most recent redesign of the website now features a robust, entirely automated aggregation system that shows up below every post and even on the homepage, if you scroll for half a second. (It resembles a less-disgusting chumbox.) As more than one person has noted, oftentimes, the aggregations come from other local news sites — and in Chicago’s case, the Sun-Times’ direct competitor, the Tribune. Maybe, Wrapports doesn’t consider the Tribune to be a competitor on the online market anymore. And if the Tribune isn’t, who is? Landon threw the names of BuzzFeed, Deadspin, and even MailOnline around a lot in all-hands Network staff meetings. I don’t know if he’s noticed that all three of those sites are markedly different from the Sun Times Network in that they employ reporters who report and editors who edit.
The Sun-Times was never the best paper in Chicago, but it was one that, for most of its recent history, served an area that is often ignored or wildly sensationalized by Chicago media: the South Side. When the previous owner, James Tyree, bought the paper out of bankruptcy from convicted felon Conrad Black’s Hollinger International, he did it because he’s from the outskirts of Beverly, a neighborhood on the Far Southwest Side, and he wanted to preserve a South Side institution, according to a former Sun-Times employee. By contrast, the same employee said that Michael Ferro, who functions as the de facto owner of the Sun-Times, spent his teenage years in the wealthy suburb of Naperville and lives in the expensive and lifeless Gold Coast neighborhood, so he doesn’t care. “I think he’s been embarrassed by the Sun-Times, without really understanding what it is. He’s got a bunch of North Shore friends who don’t read it. It’s not important in the business world. It’s a gritty, urban, crime and fire and investigation daily newspaper. And that’s absolutely a hundred and eighty degrees from where his mindset’s at.”
In September 2012, the Sun-Times launched Splash, a glossy entertainment brainchild of Ferro’s, headed by a former PR executive. It hired as columnists such luminaries as Jenny McCarthy, who wrote a column claiming that she had never been “anti-vaccine” after using her celebrity to espouse anti-vaccine views for years; Lupe Fiasco, who was paid a thousand dollars for a sub-three-hundred-word column about how his father once said he could put all of Chicago’s skyscrapers together into a big robot; and possibly the most-hated man in Chicago, Jim Belushi. Of Splash, which is still around, a former Sun-Times employee told me, “There was still hope in the newsroom that well, not everything he’s done has been a bust.”
Four months after Splash, the Sun-Times launched Grid, a Sunday business magazine and vertical on the website seemingly targeted at young people; its content was mostly short and bloggy. Sun-Times editor-in-chief Jim Kirk, who had been the business editor at the Tribune, informed longtime business reporter (and union negotiator) David Roeder, along with the paper’s two other business reporters, that they would now be working at Grid, and as a result, losing their union status. Ferro’s original name for Grid was Plaid, a name he was convinced was “hip,” before lieutenants convinced him otherwise. (Never mind the already-existing publication Chicago Grid, whose owner accused Wrapports of trademark infringement.) The grand plan for Grid was not dissimilar to the original Aggrego and then Sun Times Network models: a national content agency, providing local audiences and publications with specialty business content. How Grid actually manifested, briefly and only in Chicago, was as a publication that, in addition to quick aggregated content and a number of features, gave Michael Ferro’s rich friends cover stories, according to a former Wrapports employee who worked on it.
After the Newspaper Guild filed charges, the three original Sun-Times reporters were given general assignment beats and shifted back to the Sun-Times. The remaining editor and staffers continued to produce the much-diminished Grid — a vertical on the website and two pages in the weekday paper consisting mostly of aggregated wire stories — until the end, in January 2014. Former Sun-Times media business columnist Lewis Lazare wrote in an obituary that it was in trouble from “almost the moment it debuted.” Ferro had told Crain’s in 2012, “We’re going to be increasing the business section exponentially.” Roeder left the paper to work for the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Activity, and there is no longer a business section in the Sun-Times.
Last October, the Sun-Times and NBC Chicago co-published a story about now-Governor Bruce Rauner, who was then on the campaign trail, allegedly telling the CEO of a company that he sat on the board of and which was funded by his private equity firm that he would “hurt [her] and [her] family.” He allegedly continued to another board member, “I will make her radioactive. She will never get another job anywhere, ever. I will bankrupt her with legal fees. I don’t know if she has a family or not, but if she does, she better think twice about this.” The Rauner campaign shot back at one of the story’s reporters, longtime Sun-Times political reporter and then-Springfield bureau chief, Dave McKinney, whose wife is a Democratic political consultant, something which the Sun-Times knew and had no issue with. The Rauner campaign sent a long document to McKinney’s editors, culminating in a demand for a disclaimer at the bottom of the story regarding McKinney’s wife.
Editor-in-chief Jim Kirk responded immediately, calling the efforts of the Rauner campaign a “sexist,” “spurious” “attack.” Yet McKinney was pulled from his beat, and a story he’d written about Pat Quinn’s Neighborhood Recovery program was yanked from the Sun-Times website. McKinney was put on leave for almost a week, something he described as “a kind of house arrest” and “pure hell.” Kirk began trying to convince McKinney to give up his political beat — one he’d been on for almost twenty years — and move him somewhere else in the paper, something McKinney refused. After he got a lawyer involved, he was reinstated, but was immediately told by his editors that he shouldn’t have a byline on a follow-up story to the original one, after which he quit the paper.
McKinney detailed all of this in a public open letter to Ferro. McKinney was very popular in the Sun-Times newsroom, according to a former employee, and the whole situation, combined with the fact that shortly after McKinney left, the Sun-Times reversed a three-year-old policy to not endorse political candidates and endorsed Rauner (without even meeting with Pat Quinn) further soured the relationship between Sun-Times management and the newsroom. The former employee told me, “There was definitely a perception [in the newsroom] that Ferro, most likely, was trying to get his buddy Rauner elected.” Bruce Rauner owned ten percent of Wrapports until he divested in April 2013, and, as of November 2013, owned at least nine hundred thousand shares of Merge Healthcare, a struggling health care IT firm that Ferro was the chairman of from 2008 to August 2013. Ferro stepped down as chairman after apologizing to shareholders for “very disappointing second quarter results”; he made almost two hundred million dollars after IBM purchased Merge for a billion dollars earlier this year.
According to a former Sun-Times employee, Ferro has become uninterested in the newspaper, and is looking to sell it. Notably, the name “Wrapports” has been completely removed from the print newspaper. But who does that leave the paper to? “I don’t think Tim Knight has any fucking clue what he’s doing, and I’m not saying he’s stupid, but maybe he’s not CEO material?” a former employee told me. “Maybe he doesn’t really understand how a media business works. Over at the Tribune, he was a lawyer, a mergers & acquisitions guy. Then he goes to Newsday, and just starts cutting. And then he comes here, but what does that mean for a media executive? He basically shot to the top as a guy who doesn’t understand newspapers. You can lay everything at the feet of Tim Knight. I think he’s skirted a lot of bullshit over the last few years.”
Tim Knight resigned earlier this week as the CEO of Wrapports to become the president of the Northeast Ohio Media Group, which publishes the Cleveland Plain Dealer, cleveland.com, and the suburban Sun News papers. NEOMG is owned by Advance Publications, the owner of Condé Nast, American City Business Journals (the ubiquitous bizjournals.com/[city] publications), and sixty-odd local newspapers around the country. Its local newspaper arm is most notable for layoffs and cutting the number of days many of the previously-daily newspapers publish on.
According to Michael Miner, Knight will not be replaced. Jim Kirk, Tim Landon, and Paul Pham, who runs the business side of things, will all report directly to Ferro. Miner tried to spin the news with a positive light. He credited Knight with bringing twelve pages of national USA Today content to the print paper, of which a former Sun-Times employee said, “I don’t think they care about having national content. They just want more pages, they wanted to be thicker, because they probably heard some feedback saying the paper’s too small. It came right on the heels of us cutting a bunch of people, and then you expand the newshole. They’re trying to do the same thing with the Network, which is demand that everybody write a billion stories a day because that’s the panacea. That’s how we’re gonna get pageviews, that’s how we’re gonna get cheap CPM ads, that’s how we’re gonna fix everything, right?”
Former managing editor Craig Newman told me, “I hope that this is good news for the Sun-Times and an end to the failed mishmosh of an experiment that is the Wrapports/Aggrego/Sun Times Network. However, coming on the heels of recent staff departures and continued gutting of the core of the company, the Chicago Sun-Times, it seems more like a rat fleeing a sinking ship — a ship sinking in no small part because of the rat.”
Wrapports seems to be running out of options. Ken Doctor speculated to the Tribune that the Sun-Times is “winding itself down as a paper,” even though this is where almost all of the revenue comes from. Additionally, the only newspaper Wrapports owns that makes money is the Reader, the once-legendary alternative weekly that, too, has been slashed and burned. It has largely shifted longer features to web* from the print paper, making it little more than a glorified events calendar with a few columns, two of them syndicated.
Wrapports netted a little over $23 million from selling the suburban papers to the Tribune company, about $20 million of which covered outstanding debts, leaving the company with about $3 million in cash from the deal. “The board is basically done, and has been done for a while,” a source said. “They’re not shutting it down yet, but whatever money they’re able to scrape together around there is… that’s it.”
People have been saying that the Sun-Times wouldn’t make it another year since time immemorial — through the ownerships of Rupert Murdoch, Conrad Black, and the rest — but this time, it feels real. It would be a pity if it is. The Sun-Times still has the strongest reporting on City Hall, the South Side, education, and crime of any daily news operation in Chicago, and there are a lot of talented people still clinging on. It just needs a rich benefactor who isn’t, in the word of a former Sun-Times employee, a “fuckwad.”
Photo by David Ohmer
*This piece originally stated that the Reader no longer runs features in print; that was a slight mischaracterization; additionally, it should be mentioned that Grid staff published a number of quality in-depth stories alongside its aggregation and nepotistic cover stories. An earlier version stated that Wrapports was paid $3 million for the suburban papers, when that number is how much cash they were left with from the deal. We regret the errors!!!