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Tribune Company Looks to its Future—and That of Newspapers

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Tribune Company Looks to its Future—and That of Newspapers

Photo by Ernesto J Rios

Chicago Tribune Company chief Sam Zell says the whole newspaper industry needs a new business model. He bought the ailing Tribune conglomerate in an $8 billion deal late last year. He says papers have to be nimble—use multiple media platforms—and most important, draw a larger, younger audience.

Back in February, Sam Zell told Tribune staff: “Unfortunately, I can’t turn this ship from its course of the past 10 years within just a few months.” But he’s swiftly cut hundreds of jobs at the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and other company papers. He’s brought in new top management from the internet and entertainment industries—and called for a less uptight corporate culture. Zell made his case again last month on a conference call.

ZELL: This company needs a new template and we need to think differently. We have to be revenue-focused, we have to be more creative, we have to be faster and leaner.

Zell wants different departments to communicate more, and work together to capture both audience and advertisers. He said he asked staff for suggestions, and received more than 3000 emails.

ZELL: These people really want this to work. If you sat in my over my, on my shoulder the last few months, reading these emails, late into the night I might add, you’d come away and you’d say, these people care, these people have a vested interest in making this company work.

Zell says he’s gotten all kinds of ideas.

KOGAN: Some of them must be wonderful. Some of them must be insane, like I believe the Tribune should buy Wendella Boats and that would help us and we could give free Tribunes to people or I believe that John Kass should have his own morning kid’s show. It could be wild.

Rick Kogan writes for the Chicago Tribune’s Sunday magazine and hosts a radio show, so he gets the need for media-multitasking. But as a second-generation newspaperman he finds the industry’s downturn, and his own paper’s upheaval, deeply depressing. The same might be said of the dim room in the Tribune Tower where we’re talking. It looks like the place where people stick the less comfortable chairs. Everything that’s not grey seems to be brown.

But Kogan says it used to be pink, back when it was his late friend Ann Landers’ office. Those were rosier times, and he acknowledges the paper is trying to square its present reality with its own sense of the way things used to be.

KOGAN: There is a kind of institutional, and has always been here, complacency that we are ‘The Tribune.’ And in some ways that’s sort of nonsensical because if Zell and his people, these sort of free thinkers that he’s brought on board, they are to my mind in the tradition of Colonel McCormick, who ran this place and who was one of the great lovers of new technologies.

Colonel Robert R. McCormick oversaw the Tribune for the first half of the last century. He was a rich, outspoken guy who liked grand gestures, buying the Tribune’s first radio station and naming it WGN after the company motto, World’s Greatest Newspaper. But McCormick’s audience was not abandoning print in favor of the internet. Readers who actually pick up a newspaper are a greying population, and advertisers are following younger customers online, where space is ruinously cheap, maybe 10 to 15 cents for every dollar a print ad would cost.

Morningstar media analyst Tom Corbett leafs through a Chicago Tribune and finds a full page cell phone ad on the back of the front section. He says this is where the money is.

CORBETT: You know people pull out the section and then they leave it say on the bus or they leave it in a cab or they leave it at the doctor’s office. This ad will probably be seen and noticed by a greater proportion of readers than, say, the 8th page ad page ad, you know, buried in Section C advertising, say, hot tubs.

But print ads are declining too. Websites like Craigslist, along with the slump of the housing market, have taken a giant bite out of the classified section, until now a reliable moneymaker. Corbett says papers are also weighed down by infrastructure, printing plants, delivery trucks, and support staff. He agrees the industry needs to rethink the model. But he says papers that lay off lots of reporters and editors can damage both their product and their reputation. Readers go away and so do advertisers. Former Chicago Tribune editor Marshall Froker is tired of this conversation.

FROKER: What kind of annoys me from analysts and so on is that they kept saying newspapers have to reinvent themselves, they don’t get it, this is a new era. And, you know, what I want to scream at them is, you know, we do get it, we have gotten it, we have been trying to change the way we do things for decades.

Froker took what he calls a generous buyout this year, one of many staffers who did so. He gives Sam Zell a lot of credit for taking the company on. But Froker thinks a newspaper like the Tribune can’t fundamentally change its tone and content and still be the Tribune. He says if Zell wants to strengthen the Chicago Tribune brand, he’s got to figure out how to free it from the package it came in: as Zell put it, a ship that’s hard to turn.

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