* The Chicago Tribune new redesign debuted to day to a chorus of brickbats. Yes, it’s not your mother’s Tribune. Lots of huge photos, hundreds of cutouts and kitchy gimmicks (The “mall map” at the top of each page that tells you what page you’re on, is really a hoot. With respect to comedian Jim Gaffigan, just how drunk do you have to be to not know what newspaper page you’re on?).

But, once you get past the flash and glamor, there is substance. Lots of it. And it’s interesting and useful.

The Tribune came out of the gate with a strong gallop. If it can maintain this pace with “the Midwest’s largest reporting team,” it just may have something. Something the competition should be concerned about.

* Given the reaction of Congress with the financial institutions, could it be possible that the news industry could also receive a bailout from the government? Would the government be willing to loan money to an industry that has been the watchdog, uncovering corruption and abuse of power for more than 2 centuries?

Obviously, government leaders would probably be happy to see the mainstream media fade away into oblivion. But, if that happens, who would our lawmakers blame for their abuse of the public trust?

The Chicago Tribune gave the world a peek at its anticipated redesign Monday, and almost immediately the darts started flying from Tribune readers and media pundits alike. The large photos, cutouts and graphics were too much like USA Today, too busy, too shallow, too much like RedEye.

Too much like RedEye? Well, isn’t capturing young readers what it’s all about?

Instead of hearing from the grizzled pundits who long for the days of the “bigger, fresher, 24-hour Tribune,” I (and the Trib’s management, as well) would rather hear from the folks who made RedEye a viable tabloid in the city. If there are as many of them who look at the new Trib and go “hmmmmmm….” as there are current readers that go “ewwwwww..,” then I’d wager that this will not be the debacle that many are already predicting.

And that, my friends, is what taking a leap of faith is all about. Right or wrong, at least the Tribune Company is trying.

I’ve been reading a lot why online revenues have stagnated in the past year. While the economy is certainly a prime factor, I really like consultant Mark Potts’ theory that newspapers’ web sites are … well… too much like newspapers. Potts offers a good number of suggestions to clean up and focus newspaper sites.

But the biggest issue with newspaper web sites is that … like their print counterparts .. are still a “one-size-fits-all” product. As a reader, I have to sort through the bag to find the information I want. Some web sites are easier to sift through than others, but I still spend time sifting.

Why haven’t we looked at creating a customized web site that reflects the individual reader’s interest and reading patterns … sort of an electronic “zoning” of the web site, but drilling down much farther than print zoning could ever do.

Look at some of the great retail web sites out there. Amazon.com pioneered the ability to track customers to monitor where they go and what they buy. So when that customer comes back to the site and logs in, not only can they see what they’ve bought, but Amazon offers suggestions based on their previous purchases which may fit their lifestyles.

So, borrowing from Amazon’s success, wouldn’t be cool if, as a reader, I could log into my Daily Local News web site and get a home page that has headlines from my neighborhood, the presidential race, the White Sox, and media business news? Then, there would be a rail that “suggests” stories that would be of interest to me (based on my previous visits to the site). Plus, there would be a link to the non-registered users home page, just in case I’m curious of what I’m missing.

If the basis of a custom site was a ZIP code, that could be an opportunity for a small business to advertise on your site. The local pizza parlor who doesn’t want to advertise on the web because the reach is too broad may consider buying if the ad goes only to readers in certain ZIP codes. And, you could sell it at a lower price to make it more attractive to the small advertiser.

When a paper zones in print, it usually creates a page template and swaps stories per zone. The same could be done online. Tagging could direct stories to where they are most pertinent, and a template could swap stories based on information gained when a reader registers, as well as tracking where the reader goes on the site. Frankly, the web template would not necessarily have to look like your home page. You’d just need to carry your brand on the page.

So why haven’t more newspaper web sites tried being more like Amazon? I have a feeling that Potts’ theory that publishers aren’t keen on real innovation is not that far off the mark.

But, oh, what a way to tell your readers what we’re doing is all about you!


I often wonder why newspapers web sites don’t aggregate more. Oh, yeah, now I remember … they are afraid of losing readers to the links they’d send them to.

This proprietary thinking, however, carries less weight as readers and advertisers continue to leave. And as newsrooms become leaner and resources become scarce, it only makes more sense to help fill readers’ needs to provide content from outside your walls as well as inside. Consider, for example, that we already provide links away to wire services such as AP and Bloomberg. Well, newspaper pay for that, so they have no problem. But as long as Google and Yahoo are getting away with it, why can’t those of us who are still producing original content also fill gaps from elsewhere…even your competition?

Consider two things:

1. More studies are showing that readers do not go away when you link away from your site. Publishing 2.0 recently pointed out that aggregate sites like the Drudge Report have more readers and keep them longer than traditional news web sites.

2. Newspaper publishers, editors and reporters have been using an excellent example of news aggregators for years…and I’ll bet they didn’t even realize it. Jim Romenesko has been providing a media blog for the Poynter Institute for almost 10 years. Romenesko rarely has original content and links directly to the source of his stories every day. And every day, thousands in the business (and outside as well) come to his site to get a comprehensive snapshot of the media scene.

Now, as a reader of Romenesko, ask yourself: “How many times have I left his site to read a story, and didn’t come back?” If you’re like me, the answer is “never.”

So, in a sense, why can’t newspaper web sites be more like Romenesko? Newspapers still have the advantage of creating original content. But for the new media world, you should focus your resources on content you do best — in most cases, that is local news. Blanket your existing resources on that.

In the areas outside your practical realm, rely on aggregation. Even if it’s a competitor. As long as you can give your readers what they want, when they want it, they will care less where it came from. But they will rely on you to bring it to them.

Drudge is learning that; so is Arianna Huffington. It’s time we all got on the bandwagon. Remember…in the new media world, your enemies will become your allies.

Combined sections, smaller newsholes…how can a newspaper remain viable when there is less space and fewer resources?

The trick is to let go of the notion that every edition has to be all things to all people. Maybe it’s time for newspapers to adopt a magazine approach to presenting its news.

Here’s how to make the best of less:

1. Cover story: Instead of 20 people writing 20 stories that are 20 inches long, focus on one or two stories a day that will be your “cover story.” It’s easy when you have breaking news, but also enterprise a daily feature that anchors the front page and is the main entry point into the paper. Depending on the story, some days it could take up the entire page. But this is where the focus of resources should go, in telling the story traditionally through an in-depth piece, as well as supporting stories and graphic elements. USA Today created the idea for newspaper almost 30 years ago. It makes even more sense today.

2. Digests: Do you really need 10+ inches on every government meeting? Hit the high points, keep the facts up front and the quotes to a minimum. If it’s a budget story, save the official-speak and just say what the major earmarks are and how readers will be affected by the increase/decrease.

3. Beyond words: Look at how the story is best told. Can it be better said in a picture or two? How about a graphic? A list? An alternative story form? A haiku (no kidding!)? Something short and sweet to help readers get the main points quickly.

4. Bullet points: Again, short and to the point. The town’s new road project? Bullet point the total cost and what roads are affected. A controversial tax district to pay for facade improvements? Bullet point the facts, the cost, a brief synopsis of both sides. Save the mayor’s comments for the city’s web site.

5. Bring on other resources: If you still can’t get it into the paper, tell people where they can get more. Utilize your web site to be a resources (not a repository of the 20-inch version of the story you couldn’t get into print). Set up a page for a controversial issue, where you can place statements from all sides, supporting documents and links to supporting websites Or direct your print readers directly to the supporting sites. The more you help them get the information, the more they’ll come back to you to begin their search the next time.

There are more ideas floating out there that I’d love to hear about. The bottom line is that newspapers should not just consider the bottom line as they cut back on newsprint. They should be looking at how to best continue the mission with less.

It can be done.

I’ve been in a recent comment debate with Bill Lueders, news editor at the Isthmus in Madison, Wis., over remarks he recently made to a local business group. And while I certainly agree with his conclusion — “Read the Newspaper.” — I was taken aback by his stance that all the reasons readers say they don’t read a newspaper is not convincing … therefore, readers need to change their habits and read newspapers.

That is equivalent to GM saying “All the reasons you’re not buying SUVs anymore is wrong, so change your habits and buy a Hummer.”

While Bill’s intentions are honorable, he severely misses the point. Newspapers serve a purpose and function to the community. But newspapers are also a business and need to have a customer base and, in turn, make money. Changing a newspaper’s shape,content or even delivery method is not necessarily pandering to the marketing gurus. Readers’ needs and demands have changed over the past several decades. I’m a journalist, but I’m also a husband and father raising two very active children. I barely have time to sit down and fully digest my own newspaper, and barely scratch the surface of the second paper delivered to my home. And I find myself no different than my non-journalistic neighbors who are up before dawn and in bed past midnight every day.

While we have been offering the same menu over the past 100 years, local cable, CNN, free weeklies and the Internet have come along to offer alternative news packages. In addition, wireless networks, Google News, RSS feeds, smart phones and … soon … electronic readers will offer delivery methods that will better fit a reader’s cramped lifestyle.

Oh yes, readers may change their habits, but I doubt they will come back to the old newspaper when they can get news off their iPhones through a personalized news feed.

Bill (as well as Jim Russell, who thought I was behind the times with a blog post several months ago) should read Rick Edmond’s recent Poynter blog post. Newspapers are the Bennigans of the industry. We lost our customers years ago and need to figure out who they are and what they want, then develop a news package that not only meets the core values of great journalism, but also meet the demands of our customers.

If not, they’ll simply go somewhere else.

The New York Times has announced that it is going to reduce the number of sections of its newspaper to three.

Me thinks the announcement will soon be met with confirmations from other papers like the Chicago Tribune and Tampa Tribune.

And, I’d wager that this was a strictly business decision without involvement of editorial leaders. And if it is, that means the NYT and others will have lost another great opportunity to redefine its news package in order to provide great journalism in a smaller product, instead of the same-old stuffed into a smaller bag.

What a shame if that is the case.