Chicago Sun-Times digital strategy is very modern… for 2010
Newspaper changes app strategy about as often as it changes ownership, all the while readership falls as single copy sales evaporate
The Chicago Sun-Times is that other newspaper in town, the one that is not the Chicago Tribune. It may actually be the oldest paper in town, but it has been through more ownership than your kids first car. That Rupert Murdoch once owned it but then got rid of it after only two years probably says everything you need to know about the paper: no one can make a success of it.
Yet it continues on, sometimes liberal, sometimes conservative, always sensational, and usually irrelevant. Now it is owned by Wrapports LLC, a cure little name that has some meaning, though no one outside of the management group really cares to know the story. Its two owners – one from the private equity firm Merrick Ventures and the other from Newsday – bought the paper for peanuts appear to only desire that their new play thing not cost them much pain.
Circulation at the Sun-Times is woeful: less than 150K in print now. Their digital replica circulation would make most wince: according to their latest publisher’s statement less than a thousand readers subscribe.
(In the past decade, the paper has lost 60 percent of its print readers, falling from 382,796 in total circulation. But the paper has always depended on single copy sales. In 2005, the paper sold 223,740 single copies each morning, today it sells around 65K. Less than 100,000 readers actually subscribe to the Sun-Times and get it home delivered. Meanwhile, 22nd Century Media is expanding its reach into the lucrative and conservative north suburbs market, the area both the Tribune and Sun-Times seem to care most about.)
Off and on the paper has gotten serious about digital publishing for tablets, launching several native iPad apps for local sports teams. But the paper has the attention span of a fly: first launching individual tablet magazine apps, then an app for sports, in general, then pulling them all out of the App Store.
When things don’t go as planned the paper appears to do what many PE firms prefer: admit defeat and order cuts. Today, the paper has whittled its iPad apps down to two: one for the website, one for the paper. Both are outsourced: the replica edition comes from PressReader (formerly NewspaperDirect), which the news app was built by Inergize Digital.
One might call it the 2010 strategy: what many papers did at the dawn of the iPad – launch replica editions for the newspaper and a news app that replicated the website. To get down to two apps the paper had to abandon not only those sports apps but its main Newsstand app, a native edition that was very readable, but required more production work each day.
Now the paper has two apps that are built off of either RSS feeds or a PDF and so require no, or little, labor. That probably fits its owners just fine.
At this point, the paper’s strategy, if it can be understood, seems to be to depend on its suburban editions to boost its overall circulation numbers. To do this, the paper recently decided to… close its suburban offices. (Really, you can make this stuff up.)
At this point, knowing that the paper’s owners are really only in this to have a little fun and do something that they can talk about at the country club, I suggest getting a little radical.
The paper has always depended on single copy sales, and the only one’s subscribing to the print editions are receiving suburban papers… so why not get the Sun-Times out of home delivery altogether? If the paper’s digital strategy has gone back four years, why not take the print strategy back 100 years? If the new owners don’t know what someone in their shoes would have done in, say, 1914, then read a few books, it might provide some inspiration. Meanwhile, stop killing off apps!