Sun Setting?

Sun Newspapers Turn To Readers For 'nifty' Content

When Chester Township Clerk Michael Spellman embezzled $4.3 million, Sun Newspapers was there, reporting circles around The Plain Dealer's coverage of the local scandal.

When the Cleveland Division of Water overcharged Solon residents thousands of dollars on their water bills, Sun News was there to right the wrong. When Hunting Valley's tap water took a turn for the worse, the Chagrin Herald Sun backed Larry Sears and his platform of change, and helped him earn a seat on village council.

Sun Newspapers is a chain of 22 weekly community newspapers serving Cuyahoga, Lorain, Medina, Geauga and Summit counties. Sun is one of the largest such chains in the country, with a combined circulation north of 200,000. It's part of an even larger organization: Sun is owned by Advance Publications, a privately held, New York-based company that owns more than 40 other papers, including The Plain Dealer.

Last year was a bad one for newspapers, and 2009 looks like it will be worse. The Plain Dealer cut 50 staffers in December, a full fifth of its editorial work force. The Akron Beacon Journal, once a worthy rival to the PD, made similar cuts at year's end. Over the summer, Cleveland's two alternative newsweeklies merged, effectively halving the city's in-depth feature reporting.

So Sun News is preparing a new game plan. The chain is getting ready to go head-to-head with journalistic giants like Akron's free weekly West Side Leader to dominate the market for news about bridal engagements and youth soccer.

On December 25, the Sun papers carried a letter from Sun Executive Editor Linda Kinsey under the headline "New Year to usher in more local news in Suns." (The Bedford edition's headline read "New Year to usher in more local new [sic] in Suns," suggesting the staffs are already spread perilously thin.) The letter outlined the papers' new direction and promised "big changes":

"We want - more than anything - for you to feel that this is your paper," wrote Kinsey. "You will drive the direction, and we're counting on you to help us make big strides toward becoming a more localized paper. Has your local Cub Scout troop received accolades for a nifty service project? Let us know, and send us some pictures. Have you or a family member received an award or promotion? We want to know about that as well. Do you have a new baby in the family?"

And so on.

The Sun papers were once autonomous and formidable. In recent years, overlapping content has increased, and many papers now share features. Their front pages still run hard news, but now alongside easy-to-generate items like Person of the Week - a glowing profile, complete with a grinning picture, of a local scout leader, outstanding student or swell parent. Not reported in Sun papers was news that many of them - despite the stated intent to become "more localized" or, as Sun CEO Keith Mathis calls it, "hyperlocal" - are moving out of their coverage areas. In January, the chain's three satellite offices are centralizing editorial operations into the Valley View headquarters. The moves continue a trend of belt-tightening.

In October 2007, newspaper veteran John Urbancich stepped down as Sun CEO. Nearly a year later, he was replaced by Keith Mathis, who had been general manager of Car & Truck, Advance's automotive publication. An Oregon native, Mathis has a résumé full of newspaper operations experience (as opposed to editorial experience). Staffers practically sneer when you refer to Mathis as a "newspaper man." One source called him "a hatchet man." Others suggest he wasn't hired to run Sun as a successful newspaper chain; they joke that, in reference to Mathis, "CEO" means "Cut Everything Out." Soon after he took the reins, Sun axed its production and art departments, farming the work to equivalent departments at The Plain Dealer.

The moves haven't surprised Sun staffers, who have watched Advance cannibalize the Sun properties to fatten up the PD. Reportedly, Sun and PD upper brass meet together. Advance scrapped Sun's award-winning website and made the suburban papers' web presence part of the PD's unnavigable, which wouldn't have been considered state-of-the-art a decade ago. Advance merged the circulation and sales staffs.

In recent months, Sun brass have preached a mission of making the papers "hyperlocal" to cover issues and events on a small scale. If the December 25 Suns are any indication, they're looking for cheap, easy and non-controversial filler about hot issues like a high-school Renaissance Christmas Madrigal Dinner and a local deer's struggle to remove a plastic jar from its snout.

After the editorial offices move, jobs could certainly evaporate in the (non-union) newsroom, as a central editorial office would have redundant support staff. The move raises any number of questions: Will the staff shrink? How will it affect coverage? Will the papers run reader-submitted content verbatim or pass it along to writers? Will reporting on, say, Parma suffer if the reporters are working out of a windowless warehouse on a Valley View canal? When the News Sun pulls out of Berea, it will mark the first time in 150 years the city won't be home to a local newspaper. And isn't turning over the front page to community newsletters like getting rid of Brady Quinn - because, you know, the guy makes a lot of money and times are tough - and replacing him with a guy from your softball team who can throw a nice spiral?

For the record, Sun staffers past and present would only offer "no comment," explaining that management has forbidden speaking to the media. So we called the CEO. In December, Mathis denied plans to close offices or centralize locations. Last week, he didn't deny them as strongly; he only explained that he didn't say offices were merging. He was vague regarding whether the call for community events was his idea, but denied that it's a horseshit way to fill a newspaper. After declining to address several issues, he even stopped waiting for questions, offering a smug, "No comment, no comment, no comment, no comment." His only remark regarding Sun's new direction was, "Read the Sun papers and find out."

And the Sun papers deserve reading. There's plenty of action in local news. Cleveland mayor Frank Jackson is under constant scrutiny, but the backwaters are the places where corruption can really run amok. It's where little fiefdoms take root, and half the sheriff's family winds up on the payroll. In the push for cheap content, the Sun editorial shot-callers could be filling their papers with news that's not worth paying for. It seems like a cost-saving measure that could cost the papers everything.


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