Jocks plan shock for Trib Co. readers
Not because it represents an abrupt change, though it does. And not because it is unconventional, though it is. But because the combination of abrupt and unconventional change is almost certain to unsettle the valuable core of loyal subscribers who obviously think their newspapers are just fine.
While there are few absolute rules in the wild-and-crazy realm of marketing, one of them, to paraphrase Hippocrates, is to do no harm. Based on some direct experience discussed below, I fear the inelegant introduction of the radical new format evidently planned by Tribune Co. may do more far more harm than good.
The purported new look for the Orlando Sentinel, the first of the Tribune properties scheduled for an extreme makeover, was previewed this weekend by TellZell.Com, a blog published by someone who has taken the clever nom de Net of Sam Izdat. (Samizdats were hand-typed, underground missives surreptitiously shared among dissidents during the Cold War repression in the Soviet-bloc countries. To get around the modern repression of the Russian media, dissidents today can blog, but only at considerable personal peril.)
As you can see from the “before” and “after” images below, the purported prototype for the Orlando Sentinel will look nothing like its conventionally formatted predecessor. And that’s just the idea, from the standpoint of Sam Zell and the aging shock jocks leading his turnaround team.
“We are going to roll out a different look and feel in each market, emphasizing what people are telling us they want in the research – charts, graphs, maps, lists,” said Randy Michaels, the former radio personality who is the company’s chief operating officer. “The first paper is the Orlando Sentinel on June 22nd. All will be rolled out by the end of September.”
As part of their research, the Zellistas would be well advised to look into what happened after the radical revamp of the late Chicago Daily News in the mid-1970s, a misadventure I witnessed first hand as a young journalist.
In what proved to be a fruitless effort to save a distinguished publication that folded after running out of readers, revenues and ideas in 1978, a nationally renowned designer was brought in to shake up the look of the newspaper, which he most assuredly did by imposing an imponderable design grid that rigidly bisected and trisected and quadrisected each page with half-inch thick black rules. (Owing to technical limitations, the comic color evidently in store for Orlando was not an option in those days.)
When the new design was sprung on the readers with no advance market testing and no prior warning, they went berserk, phoning and writing to ask what the hell we had done to their newspaper. The actual number of canceled subscriptions has been lost to mists of time, but, rest assured, there were plenty. Even worse, the redesign didn’t attract enough new readers or advertisers to save the publication, as the audience for afternoon newspapers melted away.
Why would the 30-year-old tale of a failed redesign be relevant? Because modern consumers have even more alternatives to newspapers today than they did back then.
If readers in Orlando, Baltimore, Chicago or Los Angeles wake up one morning to find a radically different creature on their doorstep than the newspaper they know and love, they are going to give strong consideration to making some radical changes of their own – as is giving up on it. This goes double, if the Zellistas follow through on their un-plan to reduce content by trimming staff and squeezing the newshole.
This is not to argue against significantly changing newspapers to make them more relevant and more compelling in an era when Wikipedia is scooping (see also here) the Associated Press on major breaking stories. Sam Z is right that newspapers need to profoundly change. And his co-owners would be wrong to stubbornly resist progress for the sake of resisting change.
But changes in products as personal and familiar as a newspaper should be undertaken slowly, cautiously, incrementally and thoughtfully. In other words, a shock-jock approach to newspaper marketing is almost certain to backfire.
Discerning readers – and most of the remaining readers are discerning – will be quick to detect any false and cynical moves. If they don’t like what they see, they will vote with their mouses. And they won’t look back.