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Sean Daly, Michelle Stark and Sharon Kennedy Wynne

Tribune Co. remains canary in the coalmine for big media's continued breakdown

Sam_zell_03_cmykWhen Sam Zell first took over Tribune Company -- the corporation which owns the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and Orlando Sentinel, not to be confused with our local Tampa Tribune -- the hope was that a guy with some business success who hasn't worked in newspapers might figure out how to save them.

Instead, once he climbed inside the business, Zell has found himself bedeviled by the same problem faced by every other newspaper manager in the country: What do you do, when your current economic engine is disintegrating and you can't find another one?

So far, Zell's response has been pretty much the same as every other newspaper owner: layoffs and slimming of the newspapers to save money on staff costs and news print, along with Hail Mary-level changes to the product in hopes of staging a turnaround (Zell and new COO Randy Michaels promised an emphasis on maps, graphics, lists, rankings and stats -- which is great, because nobody's tried that in newspapers since, oh, USA Today debuted 26 years ago). The Orlando Sentinel is expected to be the first to reflect this aggressive revamp -- with a redesign expected to debut less than two weeks from today on June 22.   

Walking the halls of the National Conference on Media Reform Friday, I felt the same frustration and misguided anger. Fans of quality journalism and media want to believe this industry fragmentation is the result of somebody's screwup; newspapers took audiences for granted, filled themselves with fluff, gave readers too much, gave them too little. Because if this mess is the result of somebody's boneheaded mistake, all it takes is quality leadership to turn things around.

The more troubling and probably more accurate conclusion is that we've hit a perfect media storm of longtime newspaper complacency and audience disconnect, combined with collapse of almost every significant source of revenue fueling newspapers -- classified ads, retail ads, real estate ads, automobile ads and subscriptions. And turning that around takes much more than fixing a few mistakes.   

At a time like this, there's far more questions than answers, and here's mine:

Why are newsprint companies jacking up prices when the industry is in the deepest recession its ever seen? Everywhere newspaper publishers expect increases in nerwsprint prices to cost millions, just as they have in years past. The cost increases are helping drive the pressure to shave down editions, which is making it tougher for newspapers to survive. So shouldn't newsprint companies limit their cost increases to keep their floundering market alive?

Why is anyone surprised that Tribune COO Randy Michaels is helping lead a downsizing of the company? The last big company Michaels led was Clear Channel, the radio giant which bought up 1,200 radio stations across the country and then slashed their individual resources in attempts to save money by corporate synergy. The resulting dips in original content, localism, news programming and quality have been used as case studies for opponents of media consolidation. And now Michaels -- with several of his former pals from Clear Channel -- is running one of the country's biggest newspaper companies.

Why has Zell's approach focused on devaluing the things which distinguish newspapers most? In a conference call with Wall Street analysts, Michales and Zell reduced their changes to numbers and figures -- pages at all newspapers will be reduced to a 50/50 split between ad space and news pages, and downsizing figures for staff were calculated by looking at the column inches of news produced by each reporter. This means no accounting for local standards or values in the size of the newspaper, and the column inches encompassing a front-page investigative story or blockbuster column are treated the same as the column inches featuring TV listings and the police blotter. Forget about fitting the newspaper to the community, the brand value of well-known columnists and reporters or the quality of the content -- which is only the backbone of newspaper's appeal to readers and advertisers. No wonder his own employees are confused.

Can newspaper companies get consumers to pay more of the real costs for gathering information? The biggest problems with using advertising to fund newspapers was that it taught consumers for decades that the facts packed into an average newspaper were only worth 10, 25 or 35 cents each day. The real cost of newsgathering is much more -- even subscription fees for most newspapers only pay for costs incurred in getting the newspaper to everyone's doorstep -- and now the Internet has convinced consumers that all this information should be free. So how do newspapers convince consumers to shoulder more of the real cost?

My biggest fear: that newspapers are headed for the same kind of decline previously experienced by radio and local TV, in which staff reductions and corporate synergies have left many such outlets hollow shells of themselves. Boy, it's getting ugly out there.

[Last modified: Wednesday, July 21, 2010 2:47pm]

    

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