Sunday, October 05, 2008

Youth-inized ChiTrib jolts core readers

The new Chicago Tribune is a dumbed-down dud in the opinion of a passionate and dedicated group of core newspaper readers back in my hometown.

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.”

21 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh so true.

3:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm surprised the newshole is 50%. It looks much less than that. I suppose it fits in well with the reduced news staff.

Apparently ink is cheaper than paper. And reporters.

The Trib's general appearance reminds me more and more of the Sun-Times: cut-out photo graphics, huge all-caps heads, short and shallow news stories, sections that blend into each other. I might as well read the Sun-Times then.

Mainly, the pages are so busy my eyes don't know where to look.

4:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting that there is no mention here of moving to the print version of the Sun-Times. I have often heard Chicago still referred to as a "two-newspaper" town. Maybe most often, that comes from the Sun-Times side.

8:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sad, but not surprising, desperate people do desperate/dumb things. What are they thinking? Younger people would be attracted to this type of journalism? The smarter play would have been developing a true digital paper, something the 18-34 and educated 45+ set would embrace. But I guess the powers that be were hoping to hang on for another 5 years and ride into the sunset. Never ceases to amaze me; arrogance on the part of newsppaer publishers. A real shame and sad commentary on the Sam Zell 50/50 "solution".

5:37 AM  
Blogger Stan F. said...

As a former newspaper reporter and editor, I am disgusted with the new design. Far less news. My wife noted that in this Sunday's "Entertainment" section there were four stories, not one that could even charitably be called in-depth.

With all the graphics, I'm not sure what I'm supposed to be looking at much of the time. I was surprised, too, at the choice of photos. On two facing sports pages were pictures of pitchers basically looking at the ball they had tossed in the air.

The only reason I continue to subscribe is the coupons we use from the Sunday paper cover the cost. How sad.

6:26 AM  
Anonymous Mark said...

The Tribune has the right idea - be bold, be innovative, try to capture new readers. But this strategy misses the mark in its choice of medium. Why not leave print alone and channel all of your energy into bold new online initiatives? That way you keep as much as you can of your steady revenue stream (print) while swinging for the fences online.

7:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The stunning amount of condescension from Alan and his friends about what constitutes a "real" newspaper leaves little doubt to me as to why newspaper trend lines have been declining for years . . . they and their ilk have been in charge of them.

10:57 AM  
Blogger Jim Bouman said...

Travel 90 miles north of Chicago and find the same sorry mess in Milwaukee. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is the pitiable/laughable spoor of two once-excellent newspapers, now merged.

The result is a great deal less than the sum of its parts. Not a shred of institutional or community memory left in its staff of demoralized hangers-on.

Not worth buying. Not worth looking at on-line.

Waukesha, Wisconsin

10:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

They have made the paper unreadable -- quite an amazing feat. From a design standpoint, the lumping together of huge blocks of text against a giant photo appears to go against every tenet of graphic design in the last quarter century. I am further surprised by the "process" by which this was done; literally dumping a wholesale change in our laps. Did they really focus group? Did they believe enough in their strategy to test small parts (e.g. the Sports Section) before they gummed up the entire newspaper?

11:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is incredibly sad to watch unfold. As a former employee of Tribune before and after the ESOP, it is painful to see this once proud company stumble through these changes. You are spot on with the RedEye comment. Why buy the Trib when you can pick up the morning commuter paper for free?

11:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

lovers of the "gravitas" Trib seem quick to overlook the fact that "gravitas" - at least partly - has contributed to a steady, quarterly freefall decline in readership, advertising, circulation and classifieds. something had to be done - why not offer up some alternatives? more long stories? more dense pages? smaller or no photos? uh, no. get real, people.

12:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's possible the design is as bad as they say (I haven't seen a print Tribune), but you can't miss the disapproving, sleeper-hold, newsroom tone in their voices -- and you have to wonder if that's not the real problem.

Quick test for Alan's friends: Do these comments bear any resemblance to the things you said when USA Today was launched?

Just asking.

1:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

(long-time Trib print subscriber)


Another problem with the re-design is that typefaces are being used that are the same as those used in the advertising.

So it's often difficult to distinguish the news from the ads.

Moving the editorials pages to the business section is well into "Say what?" territory.

Actually, the whole paper seems to have moved there ...

2:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Stan F. wrote:

"The only reason I continue to subscribe is the coupons we use from the Sunday paper cover the cost."

The same coupons are in the Sunday Sun-Times ...

5:37 PM  
Blogger Midwest Reader said...

Four thoughts about the Trib redesign:

Newspapers are read primarily by the older generation, the group least willing to accept change. Yet newspapers have to change or they will die out, with that older generation. That's a tough challenge for the Trib. What surprised me was not the turn to brighter graphics and bigger pictures but the unwillingness to offset the losses of familiar design with better content, like returning Griesing to his role as business columnist.

The redesign has buried Metro news into the main section, downplaying a major resaon to buy the Trib compared to the Times or WSJ. I thought research showed that local news was what people wanted in a newspaper.

The new Trib seems to be designed to deemphasize the columnists, in both graphics and regular locations, except for John Kass. Again a major point of product differentaition is lost among all the big pictures and larger headlines.

Innovation often results from economic pressure, witness what came from the old NY Trib in its last years (New York magazine, Jimmy Breslin, Dick Schapp, Robert Novak, et. al.) While it is too early to tell, the Chicago Trib's new content is unimpressive, including the Smart section on Sunday and the Kayce Ataiyero and Jason George column. The Crime and the Courts page may appeal to those core suburban readers.

6:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What amazes me is that papers everywhere continue to stereotype a single group of readers when, in fact, the Boomers are a huge, heterogeneuos bulge. We are redefining retirement, just like we strained and challeneged ever other sytem. Now, I would agree that newspapers needed to change, but I certainly don't think a change that involved insulting a huge bulge of people in that change process di anyone any good.

4:47 AM  
Anonymous Randy Craig said...

The Tribune redesign is far from perfect. But some of the comments ignore key points. Obviously, advertisers are still willing to pump money into newspapers--perhaps not to the degree they once were, but the money is there and the Trib needs cash flow. Otherwise, yes, they would have invested more in digital media, which attracts a lot of readers, but, let's remember, barely any money. I don't agree with everything the Trib does or has done with this redesign, but it's quite arrogant for anyone to think the management is stupid and would invest so foolishly and illogically.

I don't see the new design as an inflated RedEye at all. RedEye is what it is...its a quick-read commuter-oriented piece. And it is read. That's the key. It IS read. No, it doesn't have Pulitzer-level journalism in it, but it is not meant to...that's the role of the Trib and it still does perform exceptional journalism.

To keep saying that people of my generation (X) and later genrations don't read newspapers misses the point. The more accurate statement is that they don't consume information the same way that previous generations did. Newspapers are not the familiar medium (to most of us). They are not a priority. The newspaper has not been a medium for breaking news for decades, yet some critics of today's newspapers still have it in their minds that newspapers are a medium for breaking news. I agree they should break news through watchdog journalism, but I and those in my generation do not look to the newspaper for baseball scores. If we look to the newspaper at all, We look to the newspaper for analysis--why the Cubs lost; not the fact that they did.

We do still read and we do still respond to well-written, informative stories that educate us, inform us, entertain us, move us. For me, even though I still subscribe to the Trib, I had not been reading it. I have a demanding job, I have two kids, I have obligations now in my 30s that I did not have in my freewheeling 20s. It did not help that the design was painfully unimaginative and downright dull. I'm all for major papers like the Trib and New York Times sustaining a level of gravitas, but that generally just means loads of dull, gray text, photos with no impact or detail, boring graphics (if there even are any), and a story after story devoid of any context or reason I should care. I like big pictures. I like bold color. I like sharp graphics. I like alternative story forms that I don't see every day. And I'm not going to apologize for any of it.

The Tribune's new design has flaws and the journalism does need to be pushed through some of the flash. But I have faith it will. I might be proven wrong in six months, but in the meantime, I'll be enjoying my Trib more than I have in years.

7:54 AM  
Anonymous lauren said...

"Another problem with the re-design is that typefaces are being used that are the same as those used in the advertising.

So it's often difficult to distinguish the news from the ads."

Exactly what I thought too. Whole thing looks like an ad. We're still print subscribers and stayed Trib (vs sun times) because the Trib was a better paper to savor on a Sunday. We'll see when this current 8 week pay period is over. I can get fluffy garbage anywhere. I count on these guys to keep an eye on bad guys.

2:42 PM  
Anonymous Greg said...

Is this really the Chicago Tribune? I come from Europe and this newspaper used to be for us like an icon. It is sad to see this front page.

I don't mind the layout. I cannot understand story choices.

I am afraid newspapers do not loose their readership just because of new media. They loose confidence in their mission and because they do not address the most important issues in their countries or communities that are their readers' concerns.

There is a study in Europe about this. For example: story choices of UK editors are nearly opposite to readers' priorities:
http://forum4editors.com/2008/10/why-editors-focus-on-different-issues-than-readers/

And dumbing down the newspaper is not going to attract young people. There is enough dumb content on the net that is more attractive than the story on kids' parties. Simply check YouTube.com etc.

However, newspapers - perceived as more serious than other media - can engage the young generation. But they should not try to become what they are not. They should address topics that are serious enough for the paper and that are important for youngsters at the same time.

It can be done. Have a look at this Tibetan story from a winner of the World Young Reader Newspaper of the Year award:
http://forum4editors.com/2008/09/how-to-win-young-readers/

5:52 AM  
Blogger rknil said...

About two years ago at my Web site, I started posting examples of horrible front pages.

I stopped doing this for a few reasons. The main one is the pages are now packed with softball news, and I can no longer stomach viewing them.

People like Randy Craig still try to spin the soft-news focus into something positive. People like Randy Craig have no facts to back up their points, and they should be ignored. Every measurable statistic points to these redesigns being failures across the board. This is not opinion; it is fact. People who cannot grasp this concept need to either get smart or get quiet; we simply cannot waste time with their empty claims.

Also, the comparisons to USA Today are asinine. Last I checked, USA Today debuted in 1982. Today's market is far different; time to stop throwing out that example and pretending it's indicative of anything.

Finally, the person who said the writing is weary and tired is absolutely correct. Specific example: I used to look over the Friday NFL capsules to see what the writer thought would happen in each game. In today's edition, every projected score is approximately 28-14, with only a couple of points' difference on either side. Clearly this was mailed in, much like Randy Craig's comments.

8:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sure nobody will read this comment, but the title of this post reminded me a funny moment from high school. I asked a fellow student what they thought of euthanasia. Their reply, "I think they are brainwashed." I couldn't stop laughing.

6:03 AM  

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