OPINION: Sun-Times’ decision to drop paywall is long-awaited

The Chicago Sun-Times, under new ownership by public broadcaster Chicago Public Media, is dropping its website’s subscriber paywall making its news accessible to all readers. The anticipated move by the Chicago Public Media partner will help the financially struggling newspaper, which has been through various ownership changes in recent years, potentially recover from fallouts. 

In the midst of economic and personal business struggles, the Sun-Times intelligently made the move to partner up with a well-established and financially stable company in Chicago Public Media. The merger makes sense on both ends as both companies get to utilize each other’s strengths and grow more popular while maintaining journalistic morals. 

The prestigious newspaper has the second-largest circulation among Chicago newspapers after the Chicago Tribune and claims to be the city’s oldest continuously published day-to-day newspaper. 

“We strongly believe that everyone in the Chicago area should have access to the news, features, and investigations we produce, regardless of their ability to pay,” the newspaper declared in a statement on its website after the announcement. “Instead of a paywall, we are launching a donation-based digital membership program that will allow readers to pay what they can to help us deliver the news you rely on.” 

On Jan. 31, The Sun-Times became a part of NPR’s global news gathering service when Chicago Public Media (WBEZ) acquired them. Under the deal, the Sun-Times, whose financial stability had been questioned for decades, would get a new, long-term lease on life. 

“It is an outstanding decision on the part of The [Chicago] Sun-Times that you want to make your product as available to the public as possible,” award-winning sportswriter and columnist for the Chicago Tribune Fred B. Mitchell said. “You don’t want to have people jumping through hoops to see what you have to offer.”

WBEZ, National Public Radio’s (NPR) non-commercial educational radio station in Chicago looks to capitalize on the newspaper’s more prominent digital and print presence with this acquisition.

“Now they have much greater resources,” DePaul journalism professor Christopher Bury said. “They have not only reporters from the Sun-Times but also [still have] reporters and producers from WBEZ, so that combined staff is much bigger.” 

NPR’s merger with such a historic paper is an addition to its brand that only provides positive connotation.

“This is an important step to grow and strengthen local journalism in Chicago,” CEO of Chicago Public Media, WBEZ and now the Sun-Times Matt Moog said in a statement. 

According to the Medill School of Journalism, 360 newspapers ceased operations in the United States between late 2019 and May 2022. Communities that lose local news coverage see increases in crime, pollution, poverty and a drop in voter turnout. The study also found that two newspapers close weekly, and Illinois has lost the most outlets of any state during this period. 

“The Sun-Times has had many owners, lots of financial problems, and many rounds of layoffs in the past,” said Rachel Hinton, former chief political reporter for the Sun-Times, and now an investigative reporter for the Better Government Association. “CPM/WBEZ is financially stable and will hopefully ensure the paper remains afloat for a long time to come.” 

Reporting the news is expensive, and in the current economic climate, the Sun-Times and other newsrooms fear further financial peril. Rather than turning a blind eye to journalistic ethics and reaching for a broader audience from shock value, the Sun-Times attempts to keep it professional.

The Sun-Times said in the statement about why they took down their paywall, “We know it’s the right thing to do.” 

“I know that money drives all businesses, and particularly in the journalism field, that money has been drying up for the last decade or two,” Mitchell said. “I think it’s incumbent upon them to maintain a standard of objectivity to maintain that reputation of being reliable.” 

Journalistic morals rely on the ability to pursue the truth. The transition into the nonprofit world will amplify the principles this Chicago newspaper exhibits for its large community. 

“A membership program connects our revenue model more closely to how well we serve our community, holding us accountable to you, our readers,” Sun-Times CEO Nykia Wright said regarding the transition to a free-to-read structure.

In a city with as much influence and popularity as Chicago, a paywall restriction should not barricade the ability to serve the community with up-to-date and trustworthy news. The Sun-Times’ disposal of its paywall is a promising step forward for both the city of Chicago and for journalism.