Why the Sun-Times has one last chance to get it right
Kevin Allen, a former web editor at the Sun-Times, interviewed me by email recently for a free-lance piece on how the newspaper’s new owner, Wrapports LLC, is trying to adapt to changes in the new media environment. His story, “A daily newspaper vies for relevancy in the social media age,” was posted on Ragan’s PRDaily.com last week.
Here is an unedited transcript of our exchange:
Q. It seems like the Sun-Times may be coming a little late to the party with re-thinking the type of media company it wants to be. Do you think that will hurt its chances of succeeding with the new restructuring/refocus?
Feder: There’s no question they’re late. Maybe too late. One of the reasons I left the Sun-Times in 2008 was because I saw the world passing us by in terms of how people use media. It took me a year living in the “real world” — away from the paper — to understand how dire the situation truly was. The bankruptcy and cutbacks that followed only made matters worse. Now, finally, the transition to a digital culture seems to be under way in earnest. But there’s very little room for error, and they’ve only got one chance to get it right.
Q. What old media organizations have you seen do a good job in making the transition from newspaper company to legitimate success story in new media? New York Times comes to mind, but the Chicago outlets feel like they've fallen flat in many ways.
Feder: Chicago is my only frame of reference, so I may not be qualified to answer that. But a great example of an old-line print product that’s adapted splendidly online is Esquire.
Q. What kind of leadership does [editor-in-chief] Jim Kirk bring to the operation, and do you think he's the right man to usher the company into this new era?
Feder: Hiring Jim Kirk was a grand slam home run for Wrapports and [chairman] Michael Ferro. I can’t think of a smarter, more focused or more capable individual to lead the company’s digital transformation. He seems to have a clear view of what needs to be done while respecting the traditions of Chicago journalism he has known all his life. Still, the challenge is enormous, and his success is by no means assured.
Q. What affect do you think John Barron's departure and Don Hayner's retirement will have on this technology-first move?
Feder: The downside is the loss of two extremely capable and hard working newspapermen who led the staff through the most perilous times in its history. There’s no question that Hayner’s 30 years’ experience and institutional memory are irreplaceable. But given the mission Ferro & Co. set for the company, I believe most people saw the departures of Barron and Hayner as inevitable.
Q. Can this newspaper be a legitimate, profitable media company? It seems like the investment group that took over in December is the first that's been committed in practice (not just in theory) to new media. I'm wondering if this can translate into dollars for the company.
Feder: Legitimate? Yes. Profitable? I couldn’t possibly predict. But remember — we’re talking about guys with very big egos and very deep pockets.
Q. How long do you think the Sun-Times will continue to offer a print product?
Feder: If I had to guess, I’d say five to ten years at the most. It all depends on how quickly the market embraces tablets and other digital technology. That’s the key to the future.