Someone Vomited on My Newspaper

Fresh on the heels of this blog post on the newspaper industry from last month, the Chicago Tribune introduced its newly redesigned paper today.  The paper has asked for feedback on the “New Chicago Tribune” and here is what I’ve sent to the editor:

Let me preface this by saying that I’m a 30-year old affluent professional that writes a regular blog, uses the Internet heavily on a daily basis, and subscribes to the Chicago Tribune and Wall Street Journal. That is, I’m part of the demographic group that this Tribune redesign is supposedly geared toward.

When I first read about the Tribune Company’s initiative to redesign all of its papers, I wrote the following blog post that addressed my concerns:

How To Kill a Newspaper

Essentially, I feared that the Tribune was advocating “form over substance”, meaning that it would switch around portions of the paper and make heavier use of graphics without making real substantive changes. I also questioned the paper going the route of USA Today as opposed to the New York Times or Wall Street Journal not just from a journalistic perspective but from a pure business standpoint. It’s incredulous that a local newspaper that depends on hometown subscribers would follow the model of USA Today, whose circulation is primarily based upon giving papers away for free to out-of-town travelers in hotels and has virtually no subscribers. At the same time, even if we grant that the web is eventually going to replace physical newspapers altogether, the websites that have the highest journalistic standards – the New York Times, Washington Post, and BBC – are the ones in the top 100 most-visited websites as opposed to USA Today (while the Wall Street Journal has arguably the most successful online paid subscription operation of any website).

After looking at the new Tribune today, all of my fears have come to fruition and then some. The fact that the business section was eliminated and what little business news is left is of the “consumer” variety that can be found in hundreds of other sources on newsstands and the web is a complete abomination for a metropolitan area that is the most important financial center in the world after New York and London. Chicago is the home of the world’s largest financial exchange and a leading center for banking and corporate law, yet the Tribune has neglected an opportunity to fill an important (and from a newspaper business standpoint, lucrative) area of covering the commodities, futures, options, and legal news stories coming out of this city that aren’t being addressed by the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. At the same time, it seems as though the Tribune wants to be a broadsheet version of the Sun-Times, even though that competitor is the one that’s on the ropes financially and in terms of circulation.

Frankly, it’s insulting that the leaders of “old media” seem to believe that members of Generation Y just want flashy graphics and junk food news about celebrities and crime. While those of us 30-and-under certainly enjoy snarky blogs about Hollywood, we are also the most media-savvy generation anywhere and crave great substantive reporting as well (hence, that’s why you see the New York Times and Washington Post websites high on the list of most-visited sites on the Internet but USA Today is nowhere to be found). The Tribune has made a huge substantive error with its redesign. At the end of the day, it will not attract any more of the younger set of potential readers while also alienating its long-time subscribers like myself.

(Image from Chicago Tribune)

The Problem With Last Year’s Bulls, New Illini Basketball Schedule, the Blind Side, United Stock Scare, and Exception to Idiots-Out-Walking-Around – Land-o-Links for 9/10/2008

As both White Sox and Cubs fans watch their respective teams plummet, here are some links to take your mind off of Chicago baseball:

(1) Knowing is Only Half the Battle in Chicago (Wages of Wins Journal) – The always fascinating Wages of Wins Journal takes an in-depth look at why there was such a drop-off in wins for the Bulls from 2006-07 to 2007-08.  Through statistical analysis, the problem was simple to identify – offensive shooting efficiency was way down last year.  Of course, improving upon this is another matter.  As one of the commenters to the post noted and anyone who watched the Bulls regularly last season noticed, the team appeared to have a significant increase in the number of attempted jumpshots as opposed to shots in the paint.  I think this is a result of the Bulls’ previously weak-to-average post presence in P.J. Brown leaving for Boston, which left the team with no post presence whatsoever.  The key to Derrick Rose turning this team around over time is setting up those high percentage shots from the floor for his teammates.  I have been high on Rose since he was a high schooler and think that he’s up to the challenge, but Wages of Wins correctly notes that the immediate impact that he’ll have next season will be up in the air considering that you have to expect lower performance from a rookie (no matter how talented he might be).

(2) 2008-09 Illini Basketball Schedule Announced (Illini Basketball Fans Blog) – The test will be to see how the Illinois can get through the non-conference schedule in November and December without the services of Alex Legion.  For the team’s sake (but not for the sake of fan interest), the non-conference slate is a bit easier than last season.  Interesting games to note include a road game at Vanderbilt in the third game of the year on November 20th, Clemson at the Assembly Hall in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on December 2nd, Georgia at the United Center a few days later on December 6th, and the Braggin’ Rights Game against Missouri in St. Louis being moved to the Tuesday right before Christmas on December 23rd.

(3) NFL Salaries: Believe in the Blind Side (New York Times: Freakonomics Blog) – Here’s a look at the average salaries at each position in the NFL, which reinforces what well-informed football fans know already: after the quarterback, the next highest-paid position in football is the left tackle.  As the referenced Michael Lewis book “The Blind Side” noted, this makes logical sense since the left tackle protects the blind side of the right-handed quarterback (if a quarterback is left-handed like me, it’s the right tackle that becomes the key offensive lineman), so it’s essentially an insurance policy to protect the most valuable player on the team.  (By the way, Lewis is one of my favorite writers on business and sports.  His first-hand account of being a bond trader in the 1980s in “Liar’s Poker” is a classic and entertaining read regardless of whether you’re interested in finance.)  Even more interesting is how little most running backs are paid considering how much they handle the ball.  This actually makes a lot of sense to me – while there are a handful of running backs today such as LaDainian Tomlinson and Adrian Peterson that are truly unique talents, the success of most RBs is almost entirely dependent on the offensive line.  Hence, teams such as Pittsburgh and Denver that have historically had strong offensive lines have been able to plug in a number of running backs over the years yet continue to get great production.

(4) Google, Tribune Co. At Odds Over Spread of United Story (Chicago Tribune) – Speaking of financial matters, United Airlines stock plunged on Monday when a report from the South Florida Sun-Sentinel came across the newswires that the company was filing for bankruptcy.  It was later discovered that the report was a copy of the original Chicago Tribune story that was posted on the Sun-Sentinel website from when UAL filed for bankruptcy back in 2002.  Drive and Dish goes through a great analysis of how all news organizations and websites need to take greater care in getting accurate facts.

More disturbing, though, is a follow-up today about a squabble between Google and the Tribune Company (which owns both the Tribune and the Sun-Sentinel), where it appears that the Google News engine put Monday’s date on the old Sun-Sentinel story.  Thus, this shock to the markets appears to have been caused by a news aggregator putting a wrong date on a link.  If you’re an investor like me, the speed with which the market reacted to what turned out to be an old news story is absolutely frightening.  It’s clear that there are journalistic standards that news organizations need to stand by in terms of getting stories accurately reported.  However, what obligation do news aggregators, who are in essence posting links from those news organizations, have in terms of ensuring that the date and time stamps to those links are correct?  The United scenario that played out on Monday has probably just opened up a whole new area of the securities litigation – shareholders that saw their stock dive as a result of wrong date and time stamps might have some ammunition against Google and other news aggregators.  Whether those shareholders could actually prove that Google and other news aggregators have some type of legal duty to the general public with respect to checking these date and time stamps, though, is another matter that can’t be answered at this time.

And finally…

(5) Black Heart Gold Pants – Once you get past the initial shock of discovering the existence of literate Iowa graduates, this college football blog devoted to the Hawkeyes and, by extension, the rest of the Big Ten will vault to the top of your must-read list.  Even the occasional/frequent thrashings of the Illini are entertaining enough that all is forgiven (and the blog’s love of all things J Leman has become legendary on the interweb).

Parlay picks for this weekend are coming over the next couple of days.  Until then, let’s hope that the White Sox can stem the tide of awfulness that is taking them over.

(Image from Arbiter Online)

How to Kill a Newspaper

Even though I’ve only just hit 30 years old, in the media world I’m considered to be a dinosaur. You see, I’m part of the increasingly rare tribe that actually reads newspapers – and I don’t mean just online (although I have the New York Times and Washington Post websites open pretty much all day), but physical newspapers that come to my doorstep every morning. Part of this is a function of riding the train into work, so I have time to pore through the Wall Street Journal and the Chicago Tribune on a daily basis. However, there are also benefits that you get with a physical newspaper in contrast to browsing online – you’re more likely to encounter stories that are outside of your normal reading agenda and I’m perfectly content spending an entire Sunday with the fat weekend edition of the paper.

That being said, while most of the world has been focused on Sam Zell’s quest to sell the Chicago Cubs at the maximum price (and nearly tax-free, no less) with Mark Cuban in the mix, his new plan for changing the newspapers at Tribune Company is particularly disconcerting and may have a more lasting impact on life in Chicago. (The Cubs have long been a marquee baseball franchise with deep pockets and a high payroll, which will continue no matter who the next owner might be.) The plan is reduce staff and close bureaus to slash costs and redesign the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and other Tribune Company newspapers to make them more in tune with what focus groups supposedly say they want, which are more charts, colorful graphics, and shorter stories. This essentially means that Zell is looking to make the Tribune and its sister papers look like USA Today.

The problem, though, is that he is advocating what we call in the legal world “form over substance” – that is, switching things around on a page but not really changing anything meaningful. There are really only three newspapers in the United States that have been able to weather the erosion of paper circulation in this country over the past three decades: the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and USA Today. The Journal and Times have made their mark by taking the high road of in-depth investigative reporting and a commitment to resources both here and abroad. On the other hand, USA Today has famously gone after the lowest common denominator as the “McPaper” with lots of charts and graphics. One would think that more newspapers that try to make turnarounds would try to emulate the Journal and the Times, not just because of some amorphous ideal of high journalistic standards, but rather that they are able to charge a premium to advertisers because they draw readers with exceptionally high levels of income and education. This means longer-term revenue streams that are less susceptible to economic downturns.

Certainly, the Tribune has long positioned itself as one of the elite metropolitan papers in the country. (Let’s contrast this with the Chicago Sun-Times, which has lately been putting out lots of hard-hitting stories, including this one referenced on the front page a couple of weeks ago. On a related note, I think all red-blooded American males can agree with this viewpoint.) Yet, every single story that I have ever seen about newspapers getting overhauled show owners going the USA Today route of slimming the paper down for the supposed masses. This occurs even though I have never met anyone that actually has a subscription to USA Today – it’s a paper that’s largely provided for free to travelers staying in hotels. So, Sam Zell and a whole lot of other newspaper owners appear to believe that the path to success for local papers that depend on hometown buyers and subscribers is to emulate a model that has proven profitable for a publication that is passed out free to people while they are away from their home markets. I have worked with Zell’s old REITs before and believe that he is as shrewd of a businessman as anyone, but his approach to the Tribune Company is showing that real estate investment skills aren’t necessarily transferable to the media world.

Here’s the mistake that nearly every newspaper owner in the country is making when they are trying to attract the elusive Generations Y and Z: they equate short attention spans with smaller papers containing fewer stories about substantive national and international issues and more blurbs about Hollywood. This is a ridiculous notion since when you take a look at the top 100 websites in the United States by numbers of visitors, you won’t see USA Today, Entertainment Weekly, TMZ.com, People, or any site focused on celebrity news on the list. However, the New York Times, BBC, and Washington Post websites are all on there. People over 30 fail to understand that people under 30 are the most media-savvy consumers anywhere and can instantly identify fluff versus well-written stories. While young people certainly like their junk food stories about the latest travails of Brittany Spears and Lindsay Lohan along with snarky commentary from a slew of blogs and other media sources, they also crave substance and they will turn to media sources that provide them with that. Even if you grant that physical newspapers are eventually going to go extinct and media companies should focus on the web, the success of the Times and the Post websites ought to be an indicator that going for the high-end of journalistic scale is a lot more successful in drawing readers (and the advertisers that pay for such readers) either online or offline than a bunch of cost-cutting measures and flashy graphics.

So, as a Generation Y guy whose main complaint about today’s Tribune is that it has introduced too many empty journalistic calories (the What’s Your Problem? feature is more suited to a community flyer as opposed to the top paper in the nation’s third-largest media market that features multiple Pulitzer Prize winners, while the Trib’s Starbucks fetish has been well-documented), the path to long-term survival in the newspaper industry, whether it’s with ink and paper or on the web, is all about substance over form as opposed to the other way around.

(Note: The Online NewsHour has some excellent analysis of the Tribune Company’s proposed moves that largely reiterates what I have stated above. For an alternate viewpoint, the Recovering Journalist takes the Tribune Company employees that are protesting Sam Zell’s moves to task in this post. This is an interesting take, particularly for a former journalist. I agree with the notion that the newspaper industry needs to undergo drastic changes, but Zell’s proposed moves aren’t necessarily the right moves to make.)

(Image from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University)