Tonight, I watched an episode of a local news program called Chicago Tonight. One segment included a discussion with three guests about the future of newspapers. One of those guests was an editor from the venerable Tribune, another was a former writer for the Chicago Sun-Times. Needless to say, between these two gents the experience level was high.
The discussion was fairly gloomy–people in charge at the Tribune are desperate to save the paper from certain death, and have been brainstorming a variety of ideas on how to prevent its demise. Between the editor at the Trib and the former writer for the Sun-Times, I got the distinct impression that nobody in charge of one of Chicago’s most respected daily papers really understands why newspapers are getting slaughtered.
The worst example of this came when the editor at the Chicago Tribune stated quite clearly that he is “not Internet savvy”. I said out loud to the television, ‘And that’s why the Chicago Tribune is going to fold.”
The Internet is not killing newspapers–they are doing a fine job of committing suicide all by themselves. Any editor who does not understand and respect the ‘net is doomed just as surely as a woolly mammoth sinking into the La Brea tar pits. Bleat all you want, big fellah. You’re still going down.
I would love to pimp myself out to these newspapers as a consultant–or better yet as a new media ombudsman–and command a hefty fee to show them how NOT to get murdered in the age of the Internet. Since no offers are currently forthcoming, I’ll share a few “secrets” here.
The Chicago Tribune is getting thinner every day, and there is talk of serious layoffs to come. The newspaper is bleeding out, to be sure. Compare this to the survival–no–the GROWTH of ethnic newspapers. Latino and African-American owned papers are actually thriving. Their numbers are going up, not down. The Tribune could take a lesson from this.
Mass-appeal media’s days are numbered. A latino newspaper survives because it has a clearly targeted audience and it does not try to be all things to all people. The operation knows who it is writing to and targets the readers. The Tribune seems to have little strategy in terms of defining its audience.
The Trib’s main competition, for my money, is a weekly publication called The Chicago Reader. The Reader does not travel in the same circles editorially speaking, but the Reader has a strong readership and a following. It also has a specific target audience, and caters to it. The Reader is quite Internet savvy and uses both print and Internet to its best advantage.
Sure, you could call the Sun-Times a more direct competitor, but I submit that the Reader does the most effective job of defining an audience, catering to it, and using the web to maximum advantage. The Sun-Times does look a hell of a lot more plugged in than the Trib…but as an example of what a newspaper COULD be doing with a more defined set of demographics, the Reader sets the standard.
The Tribune needs to redefine itself. It still calls the online version “the Web Edition”. This implies that the paper and the website are separate entities. You get no such divisions at The Reader’s website. Net-literate minds are at work there.
I could go on and on about the Trib’s problems, but that editor’s statement that he doesn’t have any web savvy pretty much summed it all up for me. What the Tribune doesn’t do is take advantage of its own ubiquity in combination with the power of the Internet. A website is not a life support system for a printed publication. It’s the other way around. In today’s market, mass-appeal is dead.
The Trib doesn’t get this. And that’s why it is going to fold. Whether that’s next month or next year remains to be seen. Unless this publication suddenly has the lights turned on for them, you can start carving the tombstone now.
One last thing–as a caveat, I am not an expert on newspapers. I simply make my observations and draw my conclusions. But I know I’m not wrong about the Trib–its days are numbered unless they get wise.