CHICAGO — The way The Rev. Issac Whittmon sees it, a vital piece of his city was saved Thursday when a bankruptcy judge approved the sale of the Chicago Sun-Times, a newspaper he's been reading since he was a child.
"If we lost Wrigley Field, that's the way I would feel if we'd lost the Sun-Times," the 67-year-old minister said, after hearing on the radio that the newspaper's parent company can be sold to Chicago businessman Jim Tyree.
Without a deal, the Sun-Times, whose roots date to 1844, could have faced a shutdown, following a path already taken by other No. 2 publications in two-newspaper towns such as Seattle and Denver.
Tyree, who heads a financial services firm, offered to pay $5 million for the assets of the Sun-Times Media Group Inc., which includes the Chicago tabloid and more than 50 suburban publications. The investors also plan to assume about $22 million in liabilities.
The deal could close by the end of this month.
A major hurdle was cleared the day before the hearing. Leaders of five unions that had initially balked at pay cuts and other concessions demanded by Tyree tentatively agreed to change their contracts. Members of four of the unions voted Wednesday night to accept the changes, while the fifth, representing editorial workers at the Post-Tribune of Northwest Indiana, was expected to vote Friday.
"We are confident that they will vote in favor of this deal by the end of this week," Sun-Times attorney David Agay told Judge Christopher Sontchi at Thursday's hearing.
Agay said that members of 10 other trade unions also have approved amended contracts with the Sun-Times Media Group, and that the remaining union, which represents a small group of typographical workers, was expected to give its consent soon.
"We're close. We're very close, your honor," Agay said.
That was good news to readers in a city where Tribune Co., the parent of the other major daily, is also operating under bankruptcy protection, and there was widespread speculation that the Sun-Times might not survive.
"That's where I get my news most of my life," said Dorothy Owens, 70, who brought a copy to the beauty parlor on the city's South Side on Thursday. "I just like reading it (and) enjoy reading all the different columns."
Lynise Stove, a 46-year-old home care provider, said that without the Sun-Times, "You wouldn't be educated about the things going on right in the city."
Over the years the newspaper has been owned by department store heir Marshall Field III and news baron Rupert Murdoch. It has been a platform for prized columnists such as Mike Royko and movie critic Roger Ebert. And it has enjoyed acclaim for rooting out civic corruption.
But the bleak state of the Sun-Times' business has itself been in the news recently.
In 2007, the troubles of the newspaper played out in a federal courtroom during a trial of Lord Conrad Black, the CEO of the Sun-Times' former owner, Hollinger International. Black was convicted of siphoning millions of dollars from the company.
In March, the Sun-Times Media Group filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, becoming one of at least 10 newspaper companies to take that route since December. It cited plunging advertising revenues and $801 million in debt, with $479 million in assets.
The biggest creditor is the Internal Revenue Service, because the Sun-Times company owes as much as $608 million in back taxes and penalties related to Black's dealings. It's unclear how little of that the IRS will now get. But Agay noted that the IRS did not object to the sale.
Sun-Times stockholders are already wiped out.
The Sun-Times' chairman and interim CEO, Jeremy Halbreich, expressed confidence in Tyree's group.
"These new owners will work hard to establish a wonderful, long future for our publications and for our employees, and finally, all of the legacy issues and distractions that have followed and negatively affected our products will be put to rest," he said in a statement.
The owners will still have to deal with challenges facing newspapers in general. Many readers have been turning to free news and information online, where advertisers also have found cheaper ways to place classifieds and other ads.
For the six months ending March 31, average daily circulation at the Sun-Times was flat from a year before at 312,000. Ten years ago, average daily circulation was around 470,000.
Abdon Pallasch, a Sun-Times political reporter, said he was optimistic about the sale to Tyree, saying it buys the newspaper time. He also said staffers were encouraged by the fact that Tyree would be the first Chicagoan to own the newspaper since Marshall Field.
"We are almost alone among major newspapers holding our own and not losing circulation," he said. "Once the economy comes back ... hopefully we will start hiring again."
The judge in Delaware approved the sale after overruling objections by the Sun-Times' committee of unsecured creditors and a pension plan for the Communications Workers of America. Both groups figure to get nothing more than pennies on the dollar.
AP Business Writer Randall Chase in Wilmington, Del., contributed to this report.