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With two promotions, Chicago Sun-Times returns to its watchdog roots

By Jackie Spinner, CJR

Editor's Note:

This article first ran on October 6, 2016 on the Columbia Journalism Review's website.

After five mystifying (and let’s be honest, pretty wretched) years under the ownership of wannabe journalism mogul and investor Michael Ferro, the city’s No. 2 newspaper signaled a fresh start and a new direction late last month with the promotion of two award-winning investigative journalists to top spots in the newsroom. 

Chris Fusco was named managing editor, a position that had been vacant since Craig Newman was dismissed in August 2015. Steve Warmbir, former assistant managing editor for metro news, was named director of digital and editorial innovation, a new post created to focus on growing the paper’s digital brand and overseeing its social media strategy. 

“I’ve got two of the best people from a journalism standpoint in really key positions,” says Jim Kirk, Sun-Times publisher and editor in chief. 

Both Fusco and Warmbir are Chicago area natives whose careers are deeply rooted in investigative reporting. Fusco, along with Tim Novak and Carol Marin, won a prestigious George Polk Award for Local Reporting last year for an investigation of a 10-year-old homicide caseinvolving a nephew of former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. In 2004, Warmbir and Novak exposed a corrupt program that used private trucks for city work. The scandal ensnared some of the city’s top officials and led to a sweeping federal investigation.

The Sun-Times is the younger of Chicago’s two dailies, a fast, scrappy paper that has relished its role as the underdog, with a smaller staff and fewer resources than the Chicago Tribune. If the Tribune is the choir boy with his shirt neatly tucked in, the Sun-Times is the little rascal with his hair sticking straight up. 

In recent years, both papers have felt the strain of an outdated business model that has walloped the newspaper industry, forcing them to cut staff while trying to grow their digital presence. The company that owned the Sun-Times filed for bankruptcy protection in 2009, the start of a series of ups and downs that defined the paper for the next few years. Later that same year, Chicago financier James C. Tyree and a team of investors bought the paper. After Tyree died suddenly in March 2011, the Sun-Times was sold again, this time to Chicago investment group Wrapports, which supplied the paper with an infusion of cash but little else. The Sun-Times website became a running joke around town. 

The paper is still owned by Wrapports, of which Ferro is a majority owner. Ferro put his shares of Sun-Times stock in a trust when he made a surprise move earlier this year to buy a majority stake in Tribune Publishing, now Tronc, which owns the Chicago Tribune. The effect was immediate for the Sun-Times. The editorial board began to “follow its conscience” again and not Ferro’s, one former employee told me. Reporters reclaimed their beats and focused once again on the core of what has always been the heart of the Sun-Times: city government, Chicago sports, and watchdog reporting.  

The choice to promote two investigative reporters was purposefulKirk says, and reflects where he wants the Sun-Times to focus. “This news organization has had a long history of great investigative work,” he says, noting that this kind of watchdog reporting is what “our audience wants from us and expects from us.”

Fusco, who has been at the Sun-Times for 16 years, says investigative reporting will be the bedrock of the paper’s coverage going forward. “We can apply what we’ve learned filing FOIA and going through court records and unearthing files to the kind of things we do in our everyday reporting,” he says. “This is the kind of paper where everybody is an investigative reporter. We want to continue that tradition.”

Abdon M. Pallasch, a former Sun-Times political reporter, says Fusco is well thought of in the newsroom. “Everyone respects his work ethic,” says Pallasch, who left the paper four years ago and is now director of public affairs for the Cook County Sheriff. “I think he’s a calm, level-headed voice people enjoy working with.”

Fusco and Kirk pointed to a story the paper published this week as an example of the kind of journalism that the Sun-Times wants to make its signature. Veteran reporter Frank Main wrote a gripping account of a public suicide in Chicago that he witnessed, taking readers along as he tracked down the woman’s mother and tried to figure out why she had jumped from a downtown building.

The piece, with an accompanying editor’s note explaining why the paper decided to print the name of a 44-year-old Chicago woman who committed suicide and why Main wrote the story in the first-person, was a richly-reported account not only of one woman’s life of recovery from drug addiction and her estrangement from her family but also of its public ending, which impacted everyone who witnessed it.

“We want to do deeper, more powerful stories that can engage an audience,” Kirk says. “That story was it.”

Deborah Douglas, a former Sun-Times editorial board member and columnist, called Fusco and Warmbir experienced journalists who care deeply about the city and their craft.” But the appointment of two white men to top jobs, along with the paper’s recent hire of veteran Daily Southtown columnist Phil Kadner, who is also white, raises questions about the Sun-Times’ commitment to diversity.

“The Sun-Times over the years has lost a lot of diverse voices,” says Douglas, now a lecturer at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.  Such voices are “critical in telling the stories that they need to  tell in the region. I would hope that they have a commitment to truly reflecting Chicago.”

To that end, the Sun-Times also announced last week that veteran urban affairs reporter Maudlyne Ihejirika will shift into a new role writing about  the city’s Hispanic and African-American communities.

Kirk tells me that the Sun-Times will be a smaller player, more focused on local news. “We believe we are the city’s paper,” he says. “We are focused on those beats that are important to us. We aren’t going to be all things to all people.”

His words were another indication that the Sun-Times has moved beyond Ferro, who wanted the paper to go big, even as it was reducing staff. When we talked last week, Kirk was careful not to mention Ferro by name.

“I bet you’re having fun again,” I told Kirk. “Can I say that?”

He laughed.

“Yes, I am. It’s refreshing. Morale is up. Everyone is working toward the same thing.”

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