Magazine article American Journalism Review

Win Some, Lose Some; Tribune's Editorial Approach Is as Wrongheaded as Its Business Ideas Are Refreshing

Magazine article American Journalism Review

Win Some, Lose Some; Tribune's Editorial Approach Is as Wrongheaded as Its Business Ideas Are Refreshing

Article excerpt

When I was a young newspaper reporter in upstate New York, the publisher decided to measure the amount of copy produced by each of his reporters. His secretary was assigned to measure the column inches each reporter turned in.

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When word got around, and with pay raises and possibly even jobs on the line, routine school notices swelled in size from one paragraph to three or four. Minor local-government stories usually worth four or five paragraphs suddenly received 10 or 12. Substantial projects that required lots of reporting time were set aside, to the detriment of the paper's journalism. Soon copy editors were overwhelmed and unhappy, and the whole exercise collapsed under its own weight.

What brings this long-ago experience to mind is a conference call in June conducted by Tribune Co.'s new management team (essentially all former radio and television executives). The new chief operating officer, Randy Michaels (radio), extolled the results of an analysis of how many column inches the company's many journalists produce.

The analysis showed that "the average journalist in Los Angeles does about 51 pages a year, but the average journalist in Hartford or Baltimore does over 300 pages a year." Those findings led him to say that "you can eliminate a fair number of people while eliminating not very much content." (Historical note: Pulitzers awarded in the last 10 years to the Los Angeles Times, 16; Hartford Courant, one; Baltimore Sun, one.)

Michaels did acknowledge that it takes longer to produce an investigative story than to write, say, an obituary, a factor he said should be taken into account. But, he added, "we believe we can save a lot of money and not lose a lot of productivity."

The productivity analysis apparently is at the heart of Michaels' plan to "right-size" Tribune's newspapers. The plan sets a goal of a 50 percent ratio of news to advertising on news pages (excluding classified advertising), which he estimates will eliminate 500 news pages per week in Tribune's dozen dailies. Moreover, the papers will be redesigned, with greater emphasis placed on charts, graphs, maps and lists--"what people are telling us they want"--starting first at the Orlando Sentinel and then extending to all the company's papers.

The format changes may do some good, since readers usually need all the help they can get in understanding complex issues. But it strikes me that Tribune is trying to make its newspapers look the way today's radio stations sound: disjointed, insubstantial, raucous, even--dare I say it?--irritating.

But the key point is that Tribune is diminishing its journalism in pursuit of greater profit at a time when the journalistic standing of newspapers is more important than ever as they continue to make the transition to the Internet. …

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