Friday, June 6, 2008

“Right-sizing” news means “scrawny”

There are people who, when they think of Chicago’s newspapers, talk of the Chicago Tribune as the “high-minded” serious publication devoted to a thorough presentation of the world’s news, while the competing Chicago Sun-Times is the scrawny “rag” that behaves like it is still owned by Rupert Murdoch.

Yet to listen to the rhetoric emanating this week from the corporate executives who ultimately run the two papers, the reality gets reversed.

IT IS DOWNRIVER at the Sun-Times where corporate CEO Cyrus Friedheim wonders if Democracy in our country is significantly weakened because financially strapped newspapers are not providing as detailed of coverage of civic life as they would want to.

“The free press really is the newsroom,” Friedheim told a gathering at Columbia College. “It is not technology. It really is the newsroom.”

Of course, some of the most intense cuts in the news business have taken place at the Sun-Times, where the legacy of the ownership of Conrad Black and the minions of Hollinger Inc. is a scrawny publication (some days, the newspaper doesn’t even have 60 pages, compared to the old days where it would routinely exceed 100).

“With the shrinking of newsrooms, the way it’s going, we’re going to have a free press, but it’s not going to be as robust a press as it has been,” Friedheim said.

SO FOR THE newspaper that some believe has deteriorated into insignificance (I’m not willing to go that far, yet), there is hope that the officials in charge see they are making a mistake.

But when one goes to Tribune Tower, the reaction is just the opposite.

The corporate officials who have inherited the 24th floor office of Col. Robert McCormick are convinced the problem with their newspaper is that it is too fat.

After years of seriously believing they were publishing the “World’s Greatest Newspaper,” they now believe they are offering too much.

HENCE, THE LATEST corporate memoradums speak of “right-sizing” the Tribune and other newspapers owned by Tribune Co.

Now there’s one good aspect to the Tribune-speak contained in the memo. Officials say that the decision for each newspaper will not be made in Chicago. In theory, local officials will decide for themselves how big their papers ought to be.

They speak of having newspapers that are half editorial content and half advertising, complaining that all too often, there is too much content.

That’s the part that bothers me – the concept of “too much content.”

I KNOW MANY people who say they are giving up their newspaper reading habit because they believe the publications have too little content – or at least too little of any significance to be worth taking the time to read on a regular basis.

In his speech at Columbia (the Chicago version, not the one in New York’s “Morningside Heights” neighborhood), Friedheim characterized the newspaper industry’s problems as being caused by advertising revenues – or a lack thereof.

“Somebody turned off the oxygen on the newspaper industry, and that oxygen is advertising revenues,” he said.

Tribune officials would agree. That’s why they’re looking at the idea of smaller newspapers. They go so far as to note the Wall Street Journal can average 48 broadsheet pages, compared to up to 80 for the Chicago Tribune.

NOW PEOPLE WHO were serious about using newspapers to put together a quality news product that could inspire readership and make money would view those extra pages as an advantage. They would want to ensure that all that extra space was being used for interesting content that people would actually want to read.

Extra readership means extra circulation, which means more money that can be squeezed from advertisers.

Instead, our Tribune corporate types seem more interested in viewing those extra pages as wasted space. It almost gives me the impression they have been reading the Sun-Times in recent months and drooling with envy at the lack of space that newspaper offers for stories.

Another factor that amazes me was talk from Tribune COO Randy Michaels, who said the company is going to start factoring in estimates of a journalist’s productivity. How that is calculated, I don’t know.

BUT HE TOLD the “Editor & Publisher” newspaper industry magazine that the average journalist of the Los Angeles Times produces enough copy to fill 51 newspaper pages per year.

That would sound impressive to anyone who writes for a living, until they learn that the same formulas show reporters for the Hartford Courant produce 300 pages of copy per year. That is a difference of producing about three-quarters of a newspaper by yourself (L.A.) compared to producing about six whole papers (Hartford).

Somehow, reality makes me question that statistic, wondering if it is as relevant as figures showing that a particular major league batter has a .249 batting average when facing left-handed pitchers with blue eyes on a Sunday.

One of the truisms of reporter-types is the notion that only an amateur (or a college kid intern trying to suck up and get hired) thinks you judge a reporter’s productivity solely on a “byline count” (the number of stories in the paper).

I REMEMBER A reporter at the Bloomington (Ill.) Pantagraph (a newspaper where I was once a college kid intern) once telling me the only difference between him and a Tribune reporter was that while both wrote 12-inch stories (about 400 words), he had to write several a day while the Tribune was adequately staffed that a reporter could devote his entire day to a single 12-inch story.

Now I know that’s not literally true, but time and staffing do increase quality. It appears that Tribune people now view their greatest potential advantage in ensuring their continued existence as their biggest drawback.

Some people reading this commentary already are preparing to lambaste me as some sort of idealist who can’t appreciate the reality of the business world as it relates to the newspaper industry – no profits means no paper.

But I am amazed these people, many of whom have been successful financially in other industries, can’t appreciate the bottom line of the news business – content comes first. Without it, there’s no reason for anybody to pay attention to you. No readership (or viewership for television news) means no reason for anyone to advertise in you.

NO ADVERTISING MEANS no profit. Simply stated, no worthwhile content ultimately means no profit.

And the scary thing about the newsgathering industry is that we are rapidly approaching the point where the content is reaching dangerously low levels so that people will quit reading altogether.

There really is a point when a newspaper becomes so scrawny that it would be better off dead. There’s no point to having a publication filled with trivial tidbits that no one cares about.

I can’t help but wonder if the Tribune Co., with its memorandum, is moving its newspapers dangerously closer to that point.


EDITOR’S NOTES: He’s sorry. He’s really, really sorry. But all the cuts in staff and content made by the Chicago Sun-Times in recent years are not about to be undone ( anytime soon.

“Right-sizing” replaces “synergy” as the corporate-speak phrase of choice ( for Tribune Co. executives.

Thanks to Jim Romenesko’s media industry news website, we can all read ( the Tribune Co. memorandum concerning “right-sizing.”

No comments: