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July 21, 2008

The Death of the Chicago Tribune?

The Chicago Reader, the Second City's alternative weekly, recently selected the Chicago Tribune as the city's "best news source" for 2008. But apparently the media empire spawned by the paper's success—the troubled Tribune Company—doesn't see things that way. Or perhaps Sam Zell just doesn't care.

Chicago Tribune front page

A front page that suffered for lack of 'consumer-oriented and entertainment features.'

That the Trib is planning to make deep cuts in foreign bureaus and rely more on wire services for non-local news is no surprise. Plenty of papers have made such moves. What we do find surprising, and more than a little disgusting, is the proposed redesign, which, Crain's Chicago Business reports, may involve a front section devoted to "consumer-oriented and entertainment features," with local, national, and international coverage (in other words, news) relegated to the second section.

If you do that, we're telling Sam Zell right now, you've lost one Chicago reader. If we wanted to read about consumer or entertainment news, we'd read a magazine about consumer and entertainment news. If we wanted to read a tabloid, we'd read the Sun-Times (or the New York Post, which, oddly, is available in Chicago). Look, we understand the newspaper business is in crisis, and we understand the Trib needs to make money. But is the solution really to turn every single decent paper left in this country, aside from maybe the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post, into USA Today? Haven't other papers tried that, to little or no avail? It seems to us that the "soft news" market is already supersaturated and that to make such coverage the Trib's focus would not only fail to solve anything financially, but it would totally eliminate any competitive advantage the Trib might've had.

We also happen to believe that some things, newspapers among them, are supposed to be on the stodgy and respectable side. And, if the Chicago Tribune turns into another breezy, overly graphical semi-tabloid, can papers like the LA Times, which is also experiencing heavy cuts, be far behind?

Of course, another possible solution to the company's financial woes has been proposed: rebranding the Trib's wire reports. The company's chief innovation officer was dissuaded from labeling them "from the newsroom" because, as an editor pointed out, "we would be lying if we said that." We'd like to suggest "short bytes." It's snappy and the "bytes" spelling is vaguely evocative of the internet, which is totally hip.

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