If Bruce Sagan has anything to do with it, the Sun-Times and the Reader will be around for a long time.
Sagan started in journalism in 1951. He bought the Hyde Park Herald in 1953 for $2,500. He is still, 63 years later, its publisher. During his career, he has been something of a tech entrepreneur, being among the first to incorporate lithography into his printing process, import images using facsimile, and help create the national distribution infrastructure for the New York Times.
Today, in his 87th year, he’s been called upon to head the new Board that operates the Sun-Times and the Reader.
We spent an hour talking journalism, distribution methods and the future. Especially the future of the Sun-Times.
And that’s the big news. Bruce Sagan believe there is a future for the Sun-Times.
“What we have to do is we have to make the Sun-Times viable in the present economic circumstance,” he explains. “We have to figure out how it moves over the 10 or 20 years from print to the web, and we have to find out how you keep second voices. Because the funny part about it is that if you think about where the web is going and that you can get paid on the web the way the New York Times is, conceivably second voices are easier to maintain than they are now in a circumstance in which the economic model is dying. And if we can figure that out and survive the transition, you know 25 years from now there will still be a journalism portal called the Sun-Times and it will still be turning City Hall over.”
Sagan says the economics for a brand like the Sun-Times look better and better as the company moves away from print. Journalism, he says, was never the big cost.
“The average American daily newspaper budget, when it was in the best of times – the 1980s – (journalism) was 20% of the newspaper’s budget. 80% was spent on manufacturing and distribution and selling,” he claims.
Guess what number that 20% is close to, he asks. “The amount of money you paid at the newsstand. In other words, if you would pay on the web a dollar to some branded good newspaper site like the Sun-Times, if you would pay that dollar a day that you now spend on the newsstand you would give us the best newsroom we’ve ever had. That’s all we need is your dollar. We don’t even need the advertising.”
Well, you got me at the 20%, we tell him, but how realistic is it to expect people to pay that dollar?
“Very,” he replies.
It’s a matter of convincing the public that they should support the actual creators of content, he says, and he remains confident that, with the passage of time, consumers will be increasingly willing to pay for quality content digitally as they do now at the newspaper box.
“Somebody is going to figure it out,” he insists. “The issue obviously is that you could support an editorial department from the pennies for a single story to the annual subscription at $500 without any difficulty, if the reader wants you.”
We ask Sagan about the Reader, which also falls under his purview at the new holding company. We tell him we’re worried about them.
“We’re worried about them too, like we’re worried about the Sun-Times,” he responds.
He says he’s known the Reader’s staff from the very beginning. “The Hyde Park Herald office was down the street from Bob Roth’s apartment,” he laughs.
“The Reader problem is exactly the same as all the other newspapers in the country, including the weeklies, including the Hyde Park Herald,” he continues. ” I mean everybody has got the same problem, which is that the electronics and the change in retailing together are having an impact on the economic models of all kinds. You know, take the classifieds. Well, granted the Reader gave a lot of it away free, but they made a lot of money from the business stuff.”
He says he meets regularly with the Reader staff and the Board is “revising the work on the staff on the sales end of it.”
But To Sagan, the bottom line is, “We intend to keep it. We intend to make it run.”
That being said, the life-long Hyde Parker sighs as he tells a story. “My granddaughter came to the University of Chicago to go to graduate school in history, and she found her apartment on Craigslist.”
We ask Sagan about the account of a staff meeting at the Sun Times documented by Neil Steinberg. At that meeting, Sagan said of the Sun-Times, “If I have my way it will be here forever.”
“Right,” he responds.
We ask, Do you base that on anything other than just wishing?
“At the moment, basically no. I mean tell me what the circumstances are ten years from now. If you said to me what do you see in the future, where I’m describing an internet circumstance where everything is on the internet and there’s no print, okay. But there’s a brand called the Sun-Times and they are still writing for it, and there’s a newsroom called the Sun-Times and they are the second voice in the community and people trust them.”
“What I’m saying to you is that what’s now in the Sun-Times is terrific. They wrote an editorial on Rauner last week which was devastating. I don’t think anybody else has done that and said really out front what’s happening down there in Springfield? That’s the Sun-Times.”
Which brings up editorializing in political campaigns.
You know very well, we ask, that there was a day when the editorial staff was ordered to write an editorial in favor of Bruce Rauner at a time when the paper was operating under a Board mandate not to write editorials endorsing any candidates.
“Yeah,” he replies. “That was a learning experience for someone who suddenly discovered that doing endorsements was important, important for the newspaper and its position in the community.” He was obviously referring to investor Michael Ferro, who at that time played an active role in directing the paper.
Sagan regrets that the company had to divest itself of all its community and suburban papers, especially since community newspapering is his background. But he says the past few years of cuts have been necessary to get to a debt-free situation.
“The truth of the matter is that we didn’t have enough resources to do all of that. We were doing everything badly, and now I think that we’re concentrating on the Sun-Times and we’re doing a better job,” he insists. “So what we’re saying is we are specializing in these areas of sports, of government, of politics. Clearly that’s where our direction is and we’re good at that.”
Finally, we ask about the Sun-Times’ Web site, which is criticized by almost everyone who uses it. Here’s his response.
There will be a new site in March.
Ken: That soon?
Bruce: Yes. It won’t be perfect, but it will be good and it will get better and we will grow to do all of the things a site can do.
Meanwhile, Bruce Sagan has been in his role for about two weeks, and he says he’s having lots of meetings. But the meetings are about finances, not journalism.
“The journalism of that institution is pretty good. They don’t need me. They need me to see to it that it’s viable and continues.”
A full transcript of the show is here: CN transcript Feb 25 2016