News of the Tribune Co.’s bankruptcy this morning was hardly surprising. In fact, I was most surprised to see the Tribune simply mentioned when I went to the NYTimes website this morning just because I can’t recall the Times ever referring to the Tribune for anything.
The Tribune joins the Chicago Sun Times in financial trouble, calling into question whether America’s third largest city will cease to have any, let alone two, major daily papers.
This got me thinking, how has the Tribune gotten into this financial mess?
Over the course of many years, the Tribune has acquired other media entities, including newspapers (L.A. Times), T.V. (WGN) and radio (AM 720 in Chicago). For decades this seemed like a good move because TV, print and radio were simply the sources of information distribution.
I have a feeling that over time, the Tribune just got too big. Plus, all forms of traditional media advertising, the way these outlets make money, have been hit hard simultaneously as ad budgets get allocated further away from print, TV and radio. Enduring all these blows at once must have been crippling.
I think the reality that TV, radio and print really were not the same business, became very evident as the Tribune began falling. On the surface, yes, they are all media and they all survive on advertising. But beyond that, they are different businesses and it’s simply hard to be great at the newspaper business, and the TV business, and the radio business. Scalability could probably be reached through owning many outlets within the same the medium – all print or all TV, for example.
Applying the Wrong Prescription
Then along came the Internet, and these weird things called blogs and social media began to undermine traditional media and steal audiences. Instead of trying to adapt in this new online world though, the Tribune began making changes within its own pre-internet world. For example, its answer to declining readership was to put a heavier emphasis on entertainment news. It seemed as if some genius at the Trib read a marketing report saying that entertainment news is a hot seller, and so the Trib better start focusing on entertainment to gain back audience. This only compounded the Tribune’s downward spiral into not just being in a business where the means of production and consumption were changing, but the paper also no longer did what it was originally good at – reporting the news. More on that later.
By making all these costly changes – heavier focus on entertainment, layout changes, cutting out news sections, etc. – the Tribune was not addressing how people wanted to get their news and how the Tribune could continue being relevant to a changing readership.
They could have stopped and said, “hey look at the Huffington Post” (who just got $25 million in funding), “what makes the windycitizen blog a hit?” They didn’t ask those questions obviously because their delivery style has not changed and there has been no attempt at changing it. These new forms of journalism that feature more interactivity were key to these sites’ successes.
Moving Away from Tribune’s Core Business
In the last few years, I find it extremely hard to tell anyone what area of the news the Tribune really owns anymore. Local politics? I’d choose a host of blogs that provide stories that I follow via Twitter. Business? Crain‘s has the Tribune beat. Sports? Maybe. But, I’d still take ESPN.com to get a fuller picture of what’s happening.
My point is, areas that the Tribune used to be great at, they no longer are. When I get up each morning and look at the local news section of the Trib online, I see anywhere between 10 and 20 stories, of which about 3 are interesting. International news? The Tribune is a joke. Regional news? I don’t see them taking leadership on this either. City politics? There’s some decent coverage, but again, there’s more depth from someone like a Ben Joravsky at the Reader or the blogs that cover this.
What about the Tribune’s columnists? That’s probably the biggest turnoff about the Tribune.
Think about the New York Times again. People read the Times because of minds like Tom Friedman and David Brooks. The only one at the Tribune worth their salt is John Kass. Kass has proven he has the chutzpah to report on tough issues, call out people when he believes they’re wrong and he’ll stick with a story.
The others? Eric Zorn is soft and Mary Schmich is uninteresting. And what’s with Dawn Trice? Do we really need a columnist devoting their three to four days per week column to race relations? If the Tribune should know anything about the next generation of readers, it’s that the Millennial generation is a post-racial generation in so many ways.
Prescriptions for Success
Here’s my recommendations to getting the Tribune back on track:
- Develop a real online strategy. Give readers the news and give them control over how they get their news. Let them rate articles to determine what goes on the front page, put up new pictures from the day’s news instead of the same photos week in and week out. Also, the Tribune should show respect to bloggers and other smaller news outlets. A little humility and cooperation might go a long way to engender some good cooperation between news sources.
- Invest in good minds, make things interesting. Right now, I don’t see any debates happening from the Tribune between its columnists. Wouldn’t it be interesting if the Trib featured two smart people with differing political views to take on issues in order to make its readers think and question their own assumptions?
- Be really good at something. If the Tribune is cutting its DC staff or its international staff, ok…then cover local politics better than anyone. Give us good reporting and full coverage, with pictures, videos, etc. Then, cut out the stuff that you’re not good at. If I wanted to read about entertainment news, I’d go to People or US Weekly.
- Downsize the scope of media ownership. I think being as big as the Tribune is, has hurt the company. Again, it can’t do everything great. It should pick a core business and be the best at it. Get out of the businesses that it doesn’t understand or is not good at.
The Wild Card
Sam Zell is no ordinary owner. He’s one of the keenest business people in the world and he knows what he’s doing by bringing the Tribune into bankruptcy. I think the paper will emerge one day in much better shape than it is today – I wouldn’t dare say profitable but I’d say not hemorrhaging money. Zell has the business understandings to fix this complex problem.