Youth-inized ChiTrib jolts core readers
There is an admitted bias to the critics, as each of the eight members of this impromptu focus group happens to be a journalist old enough to be a fellow alumnus of the Chicago Daily News, which ceased publication in 1978.
But these friends and former colleagues – we stay in touch via a monthly newsletter and a Yahoo group – represent precisely the sort of college-educated, high-income, home-owning professionals that the Tribune touts as its target audience.
While my former colleagues are north of the median age of 35.5 in the Chicago area, so are most newspaper readers. Where only 33% of people between the ages of 18 and 24 read newspapers, 59% of people between 55 and 64 still look at them, according to statistics from Scarborough Research reported at Journalism.Org.
So, the opinions of older consumers do matter, as they are the bedrock of newspaper readership. And this group is not happy with a makeover they believe has drained much of the remaining gravitas from this once-esteemed newspaper.
“The only story on the front page Saturday – one month before the election, while the economy tanks – is a feature about teenage suburban girls going to dances in groups without dates,” said Sandy Pesmen, who recently launched WidowsList.Com. “The story, which runs about 1,000 words with a jump, says the trend started seven years ago. Hello? This is a NEWSpaper?”
While the Trib’s front page did contain a banner over the nameplate referring readers to stories inside about the economic crisis, another Daily News alum noted that the article on the national surge in unemployment – which ran on page one of the New York Times – was relegated to an abbreviated business section tucked behind a local news front.
“The quickest way to tell a real city from a hick town is to time how long it takes to read everything that interests you in the major local daily,” he said. Noting that he spent 40 minutes reading the New York Times but “only two minutes” with the Tribune, he concluded: “By that measure, Chicago is a world-class hick town.”
In a sports-crazed city like Chicago, you had to look twice to find a reference on yesterday’s front page to the fact that both the White Sox and Cubs were in the playoffs. “How could they miss that?” asked a colleague who phoned to express his dismay.
Colleagues were puzzled by the space-hogging graphics that seem to be a hallmark of the new look mandated at each of the Tribune Co. properties. The makeovers coincide with a company-wide cut in the newshole to 50% of the available space from the former 60%.
“Why is the new Tribune using such enormous pictures?” said a former colleague, noting that the slimmed-down paper has less space for stories than ever before. “Who wants to see a picture of Orlando Cabrera covering two-thirds of the front page of the Playoff section and a picture of Aramis Ramirez covering about half of the back page of the same section? Neither of them is doing anything. They're just standing there.”
The gaudy graphics and Eyewitness News approach at the new Tribune appear to be aimed at attracting the sort of younger readers who already consume its sister publication, a free-distribution tabloid called the Red Eye.
Filled with celebrity sightings, snarky articles and beer ads, the Red Eye looks great but is utterly bereft of intellectual heft. It evidently has been sufficiently successful at capturing untapped readers and newfound ad dollars that its editor was promoted to managing editor of the Tribune, where it undoubtedly is hoped she will work her magic again.
The youth-inizing of the Tribune is not lost on my colleagues. “I assume the Tribune really doesn't mind losing dinosaurs like us, since we're not a coveted demographic,” said one. “But I don't understand how they expect young people to shell out for the new Trib when they're already getting the Red Eye for free.”
The strategy for attracting younger readers may or may not work, given the long-running decline in newspaper readership among the least senior cohorts of the population. Where Scarborough found that 54% of people between the ages of 18 and 24 read newspapers in 1999, the number dropped to 34% in 2007.
Meanwhile, the Tribune seems to have alienated some of its best customers.
“I certainly am not opposed to change, but this is very sad,” lamented yet another former colleague. “It feels as though the grown-ups have left the room and the know-nothings are in charge.”
Several of my colleagues are so dismayed by the change that they are switching to the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, saying they will visit the free websites of the Tribune or Chicago Sun-Times to keep up with the local news.
“After looking at the new Tribune for three days,” said another former colleague, “I wrote ‘Cancel,’ on my bill and sent it back.”