Given that he has talked about hastening newspapers' transition from print to digital practically from the moment he got the keys to the Chicago Sun-Times and its sister publications almost three years ago, no one should be surprised Wrapports Chairman Michael Ferro would be willing to shed the company's suburban weeklies and dailies.
We don't know a lot about the negotiations that, if completed, would give Chicago Tribune parent Tribune Publishing all those suburban titles.
Robert Feder, whose blog is licensed by Chicago Tribune Media Group, broke the story of the Sun-Times' talks with Tribune Publishing on Tuesday. But his reporting and that of others have yet to yield the would-be transaction's terms, whether personnel would be included, what Ferro's strategy is for making a smaller, more concentrated Sun-Times pay and whether he can execute it.
We also don't know if these titles, once seen as propping up the city paper, are profitable, even accounting for the bump in circulation they give the Sun-Times since being realigned as "branded editions" of the flagship paper.
These titles account for a little less than a third of the Sun-Times' total circulation on Sunday and about half of its Monday through Saturday average. Without them, the Sun-Times' average circulation in the most recent six-month period available through the Alliance for Audited Media comes to less than 233,000 on weekdays and 234,000 on Sundays, figures that included digital editions.
But circulation only means something to the extent that advertising and subscriber revenue come with it. Sometimes, given the expense of distribution and publication of a print product, greater circulation is a cash drain.
And Wrapports, which asked out of its current deal with Tribune to print and deliver its paper, effective this spring, is acutely aware of the expense.
What we do know is Timothy Knight, Wrapports' CEO, sent a note to staff that acknowledged but didn't deny Feder's report. "We don't comment on rumors but I want to assure you that everything we do is to strengthen the company," he wrote.
We know that Ferro only has seen the suburban papers, and the main title for that matter, as a means to an end. All media are pushing to a digital future. Those who haven't been able to profit from traditional platforms such as print have been in a bigger hurry than most.
This is the guy who had the Sun-Times' entire photo staff lined up and whacked at once, then later said he wished he had done it sooner. Ferro is not exactly a sentimentalist.
"I believe there's a way to use these traditional print assets to build new digital properties, and leverage the distribution and the eyeballs, the readership, to launch those properties," Ferro, in a rare interview, told Bryan Smith of Tribune Publishing's Chicago magazine a year ago.
Jack Griffin, chief executive of Tribune Publishing — the company that emerged earlier this year from a division of the old Tribune Co., separating it from the broadcasting-oriented Tribune Media — shares that vision to an extent. He has made no secret of his ambition to position the newspaper company for an increasingly digital marketplace. But he also has pointed to the continued role of established print titles and their standing in their respective communities in doing so.
Although the suburban titles increase the Chicago Tribune's already substantial footprint in the Chicago area, combined with RedEye and Hoy and other print-digital brands, Wrapports' shedding them would leave its suburban readers with no choice but to connect digitally.
It's a risky gambit at this time, the kind no business makes when it's rolling in dough.
But Wrapports' thinking may be that it has gotten all from the weeklies and suburban papers that it will get, so it's time to cut the tether whether in exchange for cash or other considerations.
Outside Ferro's office, Chicago magazine's Smith noted an unusual piece of art in a rectangular glass case. It was life-size mummy made from folded dollar bills.
"I thought it would be funny," Ferro told Smith. "Everyone else thinks that it used to be full of money and we've been carving it out to pay for everything and this is what's left: the carcass. To me, it means either you can't take it with you or the death of paper."
It may mean all of that, or something else altogether.
Going back to ancient times, some pharaohs built great things, like pyramids. Others mistook wealth and power for wisdom.