Chicago Sun-Times files for bankruptcy

by James P. Miller, Chicago Tribune

[RTM note: see also May Conrad Black and David Radler Rot In Hell.]

Sun-Times Media Group Inc., reeling from a painful revenue decline and tax liabilities that date back to the looting of the company during the tenure of former CEO Conrad Black, disclosed Tuesday that it has filed for protection from creditors under Chapter 11 of the federal bankruptcy code.

The publisher of the Chicago Sun-Times and other Chicago-area papers emphasized that it will continue to operate its newspapers and online sites as usual "while it focuses on further improving its cost structure and stabilizing operations" during the Chapter 11 financial reorganization.

Tuesday's filing can't be characterized as a surprise. Many observers have marveled that the company has been able to stay on its feet as long as it has, given the pressures it faces.

The bankruptcy comes on the heels of a proxy fight that led to the ouster earlier this year of almost all of Sun-Times Media's former board members, and the subsequent exit of CEO Cyrus Freidheim, the turnaround expert brought in two years earlier to revive the company's fortunes.

Freidheim had been given the unenviable job of cleaning up the mess left after Conrad Black and his lieutenant, David Radler, diverted millions of dollars' in company revenue into their own pockets. Sun-Times' fortunes were also damaged by an embarassing and costly circulation-overstatement scandal that occurred when Radler was publisher of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Black and Radler were eventually convicted on criminal fraud charges and jailed, but the financial fallout from their actions has been an additional burden as Sun-Times Media fought to stay viable in a newspaper industry that has seen its century-old financial model upended.

Like other newspaper companies, Sun-Times has slashed repeatedly at its staffing levels in order to reduce costs, as ad revenues continued to dwindle because of recessionary pressures and an ongoing migration of advertisers' spending to less-costly Internet platforms.

Left-over issues from the Black era also played a role. Sun-Times Media recently paid $21 million to settle a lawsuit filed by a Canadian company that claimed Black deceived it when it purchased Canadian newspapers from the Chicago holding company several years ago. And although some tax claims from the company's financial footwork during the Black era have been resolved, others linger.

"Unfortunately," said Jeremy Halbreich, Chairman and interm CEO of the company, the "deteriorating economic climate, coupled with a significant pending IRS tax liability dating back to previous management, has led us to today's difficult action."

Sun-Times executives, he added, "firmly believe that filing for Chapter 11 protection and exploring the potential sale of assets or new investment in the company offers us the best opportunity to protect our respected media properties for the long term."

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