The Chicago Sun-Times website is finally getting a more than a Botox injection.
The Sun-Times is the first legacy print newspaper to partner with Vox Media’s Chorus, a publishing platform that runs slick websites like SB Nation.
Readers should be able to see the revamped website sometime next year.
It is long in coming and a lesson in how legacy newspapers are still struggling with creating digital experiences that best deliver their content and do so in a way that can be profitable–or at least not a giant money dump.
The biggest problems with the Sun-Times website started in 2014 when Wrapports LLC, the former owner and publisher of the newspaper, revamped the site in an effort to make it a national brand, the Sun Times Network.
“It was terrible,” said Craig Newman, managing editor for the Chicago Sun-Times from 2012 to 2015. “It was slow to load, it was loaded up with adware and malware. It was a terrible user experience.” But at the time, fixing it was beyond the authority of newsroom leaders, he said. “Corporate parent told us use it, so we had to use it,” he said.
Newman said since he left in 2015, the Chicago Sun-Times has made several more changes as the paper tries to find something that works. “They’ve only been on the current one for about six months, maybe a year,” he added.
Newman said he has never worked on the Vox Media platform but has heard it described as an industry standard.
“Chorus would be great, but I don’t know their ability to serve print,” Newman said.
Visitors to the Sun-Times website currently can view 10 articles a month for free or pay $7.49 a month for complete access. Print subscribers do not pay an additional fee.
The resignation of the Sun-Times chief executive last month will not affect the roll-out of the new website, company officials said.
Edwin Eisendrath resigned in late November after 16 months at the company.
In July, Eisendrath led a group of investors to buy the Sun-Times and stop its sale to Tribune Publishing, the parent company of the Chicago Tribune.
“Now that path ahead is clear,” Eisendrath said in a statement announcing his departure. “It is time for me to move on.”
Nykia Wright was named interim chief executive by the company a day after Eisendrath’s resignation.
Wright joined the Sun-Times last October as chief operating officer. “While we are sad to see Edwin go, we are excited to continue building upon the foundation he helped us lay here at the Sun-Times,” Wright said in an email.
She said the company is moving ahead with the new publishing platform.
“We expect the transition to Vox Media’s Chorus platform to be an integral part of the Sun-Times’ continued growth,” she said
The Chicago Sun Times and Vox Media announced their new partnership in early 2019.
In an interview in late October, Eisendrath told GJR that he had recruited Matt Watson from Vox Media a year ago to be part of the senior management team. Eisendrath wanted to grow the audience and through Watson, reached out to Vox Media management.
The new website will use Chorus, Vox Media’s internal publishing platform, which has been around for a decade. Vox started to license the platform this summer after a test run with sports website The Ringer, an affiliate of SB Nation, and Funny or Die, a comedy studio. The Sun-Times and Vox both declined to discuss the financial arrangement.
“We felt like it was a good opportunity to test out a partner that was not in our brand and that went pretty well,” said Trei Brundrett, chief operating officer of Vox Media. “I think we knew our platform was really good for launching a digital media brand because we’ve done it to ourselves. Those first couple of partners [taught us] how well we could be valuable for other publishers and partner.”
Eisendrath said the Sun-Times settled on Chorus after looking at a host of content-management systems.
“We think that they have the best product, one that most suits our needs,” Eisendrath said. Those needs includes being a good experience for readers and having the website be clean and load quickly.
But then the Chicago paper also needs to deliver its journalism content. “We want the tool set for our journalists to be able to tell the stories they need to tell in the most engaging way possible,” he said. “Those tools have to be easy to use…to their ability to tell stories. And…a set of technologies that would allow us to give better value to our advertising sponsorship partners. All three of those measures in the Vox product did well.”
He said the newspaper hopes to avoid the mistakes it made in the past when it switched content management systems.
“Normally, when you buy a management content-system it is very hard to change,” he said. “Because the last time, the Sun-Times changed, and I wasn’t here, but a whole…many years of Sun-Times content did not make the migration to the platform we are on now. It was lost. That’s what I mean by switching costs. Things happen when you change technologies…In fact, during this move we will be able to restore content that it was lost in a prior migration.”
Brundrett said it won’t be easy but he is hopeful that the archived content can be restored.
We’re going to be exploring how much of the archives can we bring online,” he said. “We have some work to do to figure out the challenge that will be. But, we are committed to getting their archives online.”
Newman said he hopes Chorus will be a long-term solution for the Sun-Times.
“Hopefully they have the freedom to kind of run with this for a little bit at least to try and make it work, to try and really think about how they are using technology and audience habits and desires to really make something effective,” he said. “In the past, the time was not spent to make sure those things work. So, I hope it works this time.”