Wednesday, April 27, 2016

How long until Chicago Tribune becomes merely “the newspaper?”

I’m remembering back to an idle conversation I had with one of my colleagues back in the days when I worked for United Press International – we noticed the large number of banks that had merged with one another.
A boast that soon may no longer be possible to make

Would it someday reach the point where only one company would control the industry – and we’d all wind up being consumers at “The Bank?”

I COULDN’T HELP but remember that moment when I learned this week of the fact that Gannett newspapers (the founder of USA Today and gobble up-er of many local papers across the nation) is interested in buying Tribune Publishing.

Particularly the Chicago Tribune itself. The newspaper that long-time Gannett boss Al Neuharth praised as one of the nation’s best could someday wind up as a part of the company.

A cog in the overall machine that gives news and information to people across the country. Because I suspect if current ownership tries to resist a sale, stockholders interested only in the financial bottom line will wind up stringing them up outside of Tribune Tower, and dumping their carcasses in the heavily-polluted Chicago River.

Yet the image of a Gannett-owned Chicago Tribune bothers me in particular, even though I realize that modern-day newspapers are nowhere near as individualistic as they were in past generations.

PARTICULARLY WHEN ONE ventures outside of Chicago or metropolitan areas, there is a tendency for the “local” papers to carry the same stories – usually written by the Associated Press (and I don’t want to hear from any current or former AP snobs about how the “t” in ‘the’ is capitalized; the one-time Unipresser in me says “Shove it!”).

Even the larger metros are losing their character and becoming merely bigger (and more costly, which cuts into the financial bottom line) versions of ink-on-paper distribution of information.

Which is a medium I am going to prefer until the day I die – reading off a screen gives me a headache after too long a time.

But back to the future of newspapers, particularly the Chicago Tribune – which in the interest of disclosure I should admit I do some work for on a freelance basis. I have an interest in what becomes of Tribune Publishing, because I think about the only other newspaper in the Chicago area left that I could write for would be the Herald-News of Joliet (Shaw Media).

EVERYTHING ELSE IS gobbled up, and now someone else wants to gobble up the Chicago Tribune – which historically wanted to think of itself as the high-and-mighty voice of the Midwestern U.S. But if it becomes a part of Gannett, it would be a sister paper to the metro dailies in Indianapolis, Detroit, Des Moines and Milwaukee.

With the St. Louis Post-Dispatch owned by Quad Cities-based Lee Enterprises, it could very well wind up that the Chicago Sun-Times becomes the lone independent voice. Either that, or an isolated voice that nobody listens to.

Because the strategy behind all this consolidation is that newspapers have to grow into as large of groups as possible so they can consolidate as many of their costs as possible.

The idea that the Chicago Tribune would remain significantly different from the Indianapolis Star, the Detroit News, the Des Moines Register or Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel would be laughable. It would defeat the purpose of combining into one large company, which would require the publications to become mere versions of one another.

THE SCARY THING (to me, at least) is that I don’t think many people would notice a difference. Particularly because television news already shares so much from city to city and there often is little to distinguish (one male news anchor has a particularly ridiculous-looking toupee, while another station’s meteorologist likes to show more cleavage) one television station from another.

For all I know, there may be people who think the idea of “the newspaper” that provides the same product regardless of what city it’s being purchased in is something good.

Just like how they think being able to get the identical product from a Subway sandwich franchise regardless of where one is makes for a good business plan.

I honestly think this viewpoint is something we won’t appreciate the flaws of until it’s too late to do anything about it.


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