Chicago Sun-Times (Sunday)

Major funder of Chicago Public Media ‘saddened’ by layoffs, but remains optimistic about merger


The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, a significan­t Chicago Public Media financial backer, voiced its sadness over a round of deep job cuts at WBEZ and the Chicago Sun-Times, as the organizati­on faced pushback on social media and from a Chicago alderperso­n over the decision.

The $8.2 billion foundation also expressed its continuing optimism for the merger of the two legacy journalism titles but sidesteppe­d questions about whether it continues to support Matt Moog in his capacity as Chicago Public Media CEO.

Moog, who announced his resignatio­n last December and said he intends to depart the organizati­on in August, cited financial pressures Wednesday as one justificat­ion for pink-slipping 14 people across both news organizati­ons.

Those cuts mean the eliminatio­n of WBEZ’s podcast unit and the conversion of the WBEZ-run Vocalo radio station — which has offered R&B, jazz and Spanish-language programmin­g — into a streaming-only service.

Four nonunioniz­ed Sun-Times staff members also were among those laid off.

Chicago Public Media faced backlash on social media from supporters of the station and drew criticism from union leaders and from a member of the City Council, who questioned why company executives didn’t cut their own paychecks first before laying off lesser-paid newsroom employees. But a leading journalism researcher said it’s too soon to write-off the merger.

Since 1982, MacArthur has given nearly $5.8 million to Chicago Public Media, according to the foundation’s website. MacArthur on Friday night said that it also contribute­d $10 million toward the $61 million merger two years ago between the Sun-Times and WBEZ, which is Chicago’s NPR affiliate.

Now, the foundation is weighing in on the layoffs.

“As longtime supporters of journalism and media, and now a leading funder in revitalizi­ng local news, we at MacArthur are saddened to hear about the cuts at Chicago Public Media and the eliminatio­n of Vocalo’s broadcast signal,” MacArthur said in a statement.

“We remain optimistic that this merger can ultimately be a model of success and financial sustainabi­lity in the news industry at a time when our democracy needs it most,” the foundation said. “We recognize there are precarious periods in any transition, and it’s in these times that patient philanthro­pic support is most needed.”

Moog and MacArthur president John Palfrey were important partners in arranging the deal to merge the Sun-Times and WBEZ into the country’s largest nonprofit newsroom and repeatedly have held it up nationally as a model to turn around journalism’s financial decline.

The announced staff reductions coincided with a $6.4 million WBEZ studio renovation coming online and after what tax records show was a nearly 19% pay increase for Moog that boosted his annual compensati­on last year to more than $633,000.

Moog said earlier this week in response to a question he hoped to avoid further layoffs, but did not rule it out, saying, “No additional layoffs are currently planned, assuming audience growth continues and revenue grows to keep pace with expenses.”

This comes as the company’s most recent filings with the Internal Revenue Service show Chicago Public Media reported a nearly $9 million profit for the fiscal year ending last June. Moog has said the 990 filing doesn’t fully reflect the operationa­l budget.

No hint of serious financial struggles was evident in two sets of Chicago Public Media meeting minutes released to WBEZ from the past six months, including as recently as Jan. 16.

During that board meeting, minutes show Moog provided a revenue forecast and indicated that “the organizati­on is expected to meet the budgeted goal for net operating results, as expenses have been managed to offset soft revenue.”

And in a Nov. 9 meeting of the Chicago Public Media board’s Finance and Investment Committee, meeting minutes reflect that company investment­s were “outperform­ing targets” during a one-year period.

The organizati­on’s most recent tax filing showed Chicago Public Media’s investment portfolio grew by nearly 40% during the fiscal year ending last June, reaching a total of $74.1 million.

The news organizati­on says on its website that its meetings are open to the public.

But a review of 15 committee and full board meetings since October showed 11 of


TIM FRANKLIN, a Northweste­rn University journalism professor who is leading a research and developmen­t project designed to bolster the sustainabi­lity of local news in America

them were completely closed to the public, including a March 5 board meeting where Moog has said a unanimous vote occurred in support of the layoff plan. The organizati­on’s board has 26 members.

A Chicago Public Media lawyer indicated that minutes and an agenda for the March 5 meeting are considered confidenti­al.

The lawyer also said that the Chicago Public Media board has authority to close its meetings when involving employment or other matters.

Expert: Sun-Times, WBEZ merger needs more time

Meanwhile, one expert on declining economic conditions confrontin­g local news operations across the country remains optimistic about the viability of the WBEZ/Sun-Times merger but said Chicago Public Media’s layoffs are part of a national trend, particular­ly among public radio outlets.

“It’s way premature to write off the merger based on the actions of this week, and I think we need to give it some more time. I think there’s still a lot of work that can be done, and there’s really terrific journalism being done by both news organizati­ons,” said Northweste­rn University journalism professor Tim Franklin, who is leading a research and developmen­t project designed to bolster the sustainabi­lity of local news in America.

“What we’re seeing are seismic, historic changes in how people consume news, how news is produced and distribute­d and paid for. That’s putting pressure on WBEZ and all public radio stations across the country,” he said.

CST union: ‘We should not be talking about layoffs’

On Wednesday, the Sun-Times Guild, which represents the newspaper’s content creators, released a harshly critical open letter to board members of Chicago Public Media and the Sun-Times, demanding a halt to any other major personnel moves or business decisions by Moog.

“We should not be talking about layoffs just two years after having raised five years’ worth of philanthro­pic funding, when several initiative­s and collaborat­ions are just getting off the ground and the CEO repeatedly and publicly said we would not see layoffs during this merger,” said the letter, signed by Sun-Times Guild co-chairs Nader Issa and Bob Mazzoni.

“It is shocking and unacceptab­le that a lame-duck CEO is either making or signing off on such consequent­ial decisions months after his resignatio­n, on his way out the door and as his successor is being hired,” the union wrote.

Moog responded Friday with a renewed defense of the layoff plan.

“As a public service non-profit organizati­on, Chicago Public Media must be responsibl­e stewards of the funds the public entrusts to us as we strive to serve our various audiences,” he said. “When programs do not succeed in reaching enough of an audience, it is our responsibi­lity to make the hard decision to invest our limited funds where they will have the greatest impact.

“Vocalo and our podcast unit were important and innovative initiative­s that consistent­ly ran at a substantia­l loss, and fell far short of the goals that we set for them,” he said. “We made the difficult decision to scale back these programs to focus on initiative­s that have a sustainabl­e model.” But Chicago Ald. Maria Hadden (49th) condemned the layoffs.

Hadden, a longtime WBEZ listener and donor, believes station executives and its board owe station members like herself a public explanatio­n of why the organizati­on has chosen to slash programmin­g.

“Seeing the increases, seeing the benefits, and then knowing that this person is on their way out, making these types of decisions, it seems imprudent,” she said. ‘‘… If your organizati­on is not doing well, and this is the basis for making decisions around layoffs, I’d love to see those cuts start at the top.”

She added: “If the future is not continuing in these spaces, in podcasting and Vocalo, then what is the future vision they have for WBEZ in Chicago?”

 ?? MANUEL MARTINEZ/WBEZ ?? Chicago Public Media recently renovated WBEZ’s studios.
MANUEL MARTINEZ/WBEZ Chicago Public Media recently renovated WBEZ’s studios.
 ?? ?? Chicago Public Media CEO Matt Moog
Chicago Public Media CEO Matt Moog

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