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Amid Seismic Tronc Merger, The Reader Is At Risk. Here's How To Help

By Stephen Gossett in News on May 26, 2017 4:30PM

Even though it has long been speculated that tronc, the publisher of the Chicago Tribune, could purchase Wrapports LLC, the publisher of the Sun-Times and the Chicago Reader, the news last Monday that a merger was already in the works hit us like a bombshell. The Tribune Editorial board tried to grit out a smile, casting the deal as a preservation lifeline for news competition, but it was hard to see such a framing as anything but Pollyannaish-ness: media consolidation is bad news for the Chicago news consumer. Writ large, it's bad for democracy.

If the deal goes through, tronc would own the Chicago Tribune, the Sun-Times, the Reader, eight suburban newspapers and magazines, Hoy, Chicago Now, RedEye Chicago and Chicago Magazine—and that's just the local landscape. The deal still has to be approved by the Department of Justice, but as we noted during what was then the most recent media mega-merger, Trump-cozy Sinclair's purchase of the separate Tribune Media's dozens of broadcast stations, the current administration hasn't been exactly quick to thrust up regulatory roadblocks. As of Friday, the 15-day window in which another potential buyer has been allowed to emerge has now narrowed to five days—and people are justly concerned.

Now, a new petition from the Chicago Newspaper Guild addressing these concerns is making the rounds. Addressed to the DOJ's Antitrust Division, it asks the department for close scrutiny and a guarantee of autonomy.

The letter reads in part:

"We also urge the department to ensure that any deal will preserve journalistic independence for the Reader and the Sun-Times and position these vitally important community institutions for long-term survival.

Each publication serves unique audiences within the city's diverse communities, and sustaining multiple, independent voices in Chicago journalism should be a greater priority than maximizing returns for investors in Tronc, Wrapports or any other potential owner."

There's obviously never a good time for such upheaval, but the timing seems particularly worrying for the folks at the Reader. Just three days prior to the tronc announcement, unionized staff unanimously voted to authorize a strike. (Workers have not yet gone on strike and consider it "an absolute last resort," Philip Montoro, the paper's longtime music editor, told Chicagoist at the time.) They're looking to make sure management doesn't have unrestricted authority to lay off unionized staff and are looking to increase salaries—which, as the Save the Reader campaign publicized early this month, showed some gobsmacking disparities between experience and pay.

As South Side Weekly noted earlier this week, tronc hasn't exactly welcomed unions with open arms in the past, which could spell trouble for negotiations if not recognition of the union itself. And as Reader columnist Michael Miner mentioned the day of the sale announcement, some players seemed to treat the venerable alt-weekly—whose too-numerous-to-list notable stories include everything from exposing Jon Burge's torture ring to last year's seismic Profiles Theater reveal—as something of an afterthought.

Miner wrote, "The Sun-Times is "seeking new ownership that will commit to preserving the Sun-Times as an independent news source," says the paper. No similar commitment to preserve the Reader was mentioned, and Reader staffers were unable to get intramural assurances their paper would go on."

A follow-up a few days later was no more reassuring.

With that as prologue, Reader staff writer Maya Dukmasova on Thursday delivered a "Hail Mary" plea on social media. The thread is worth reading in full. See it below, and find the petition here.