The Chicago Tribune goes tabloid!

The paper announced today that it will sell a tabloid version of the paper on newsstands throughout the city and suburbs. It will continue to provide the traditional broadsheet version to home delivery.

Bold and gutsy move … and welcomed by those of us who have tried reading the Trib on a Metra commuter train, as well as the poor schleps sitting next to us and getting punched as we try to gracefully navigate the paper. Obviously trying to increase newsstand sales … an area the tabloid Sun-Times has had the advantage for some time.

But I wonder if thought was put into a couple of areas:

1. The number of people who get home delivery for the purpose of taking the Trib with them on their daily commute. They will still get the broadsheet. Will they cancel home delivery to get the tabloid and effectively shift circulation, instead of build it?

2. At a time when newspapers can barely afford to print one edition … and considering the parent Tribune Company is in bankruptcy proceedings … just how long will the accountants allow them to print two versions of the same newspaper?

Why do I see the Trib eventually saying to its core readers: “Don’t worry, you’ll get used to the tabloid format”?

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I’m not one for new year’s resolutions. Every year I resolve to lose 20 pounds and usually end up putting on 20. But considering the newspaper industry’s rudderless descent into oblivion over the past few years, I’d like to see us all resolve to make 2009 a year of evolution, not de-evolution.

Here are a few resolutions I propose for the industry:

1. QUIT WHINING: Yes, times are bad. Talented people are losing their jobs and newspapers continue to bleed revenue. And it is sad. We’ll probably lose more talented people this year, and some well-known nameplates will cease to exist. But our industry needs a good slap in the face to realize we can’t continue to wallow in sorrow. We must get our collective act together and focus on long-term survival.

Let’s have a good cry now. ………….. OK, now let’s go out and fix this broken thing.

2. FOCUS ON YOUR PRODUCT: If you’re still using the words “newspaper” or “publishing” to describe your business, you’re not focused on the right thing. It’s not words and pictures on paper anymore. It’s words and pictures. You have a vast wealth of information that is valuable to your readers and advertisers. It’s just that a growing number don’t want it on paper anymore. Figure out ways to parse your product and deliver it to your customers in a package that is inviting to advertisers, and possibly in a premium that readers would want to pay for.

3. FOCUS YOUR RESOURCES AT WHAT YOU DO BEST: You don’t have the staff and resources to do cover everything anymore. Focus them on what you do best. For most newspapers, that is local news. Local sports. Local events. Stay in tune with your community and become its soul…it’s guiding light. What you can’t do on your own, rely on other sources … including (GateHouse Media excluded) sources you consider ‘competition.’ Readers won’t really care where the information comes from, as long as they can rely on you to bring it to them.

4. HELP YOUR STAFF STAY WITH THE CURVE: Remember pagination, when your copy desk took over the responsibility of designing pages? Your copy editors didn’t have the electronic skills, so what did you do? You hired new editors who were skilled, and trained those who needed to learn. Staffers who didn’t learn left or became obit writers. Today is no different. Changes in technology and the move to the web require your staff to be knowledgeable in new skills. Help your staff learn them. Train copy editors in HTML, CSS, PhotoShop, Flash, etc. Train reporters to use video and audio devices. Have them learn Flash, Audacity and other pertinent software. If you are hiring, look for people with these skills. Have them be your trainers and leaders. With a trained and knowledgeable staff, you’ll be ready to make changes quickly and smoothly.

5. EMBRACE THE TECHNOLOGY: Think it’s still all about your web site? That’s so mid-2000’s. There’s a whole new world of technology out there that you should be looking at, and more coming down the pike. Think iPhone. Think Kindle. Think Twitter. If you’re not looking at developing your brand to adapt to these sources of information delivery, odds are your audience will move on to the next great thing by the time you do. Keep an eye on what people are using, and what the next generation will bring. Be ready to adapt quickly. And have people on board that are always looking past the current fiscal year to help you avoid the icebergs.

6. KEEP MINING FOR REVENUE: The revenue well is running dry. Now’s not the time to be looking into it. And don’t pray for rain, because it won’t come. Look at new audiences to serve, new ways of getting an advertiser’s word out to the audience, and ways of providing “premium” services. If you can hit a combination of delivery and content that people would be willing to pay for, you’ve hit the mother lode.

7. LISTEN TO YOUR READERS. LISTEN TO YOUR NON-READERS:
Your current readers will stay by your side as long as you continue to provide a quality product at a decent price with reliable delivery. But find you why people aren’t reading you. Is it the what you offer? Is it how you package it? Is it how you deliver it? Find out what your non-readers are looking for. Then figure out a way to give it to them. Nurture your current audience, but start building new ones to sustain you

8. FIND YOUR NICHES: The Tribune Company had a hit with RedEye, which was accepted by 20-something urban readers as the metro newspaper of choice. So, they decided to redesign the flagship Chicago Tribune using cues they took from RedEye. Three months later, the negative reaction continues and the paper is backing off on some of the design cues. They call it a “work in progress,” but it seems more like a “mea culpa.” Instead of trying to tweak your one product to meet the needs of many, look at spreading your brand to many products that meet the needs of specific groups. You may never build your flagship’s readership back to its glory days, but if you can build decent readerships among many targeted products, you can offset .. or eventually overtake … the totals of the days gone by.

9. ENGAGE YOUR READERS: Reader comments on stories and reporter blogs are nice, but why not bring them further into the discussion? I’m intrigued by a program on Chicago’s PBS station, where three average people dine at restaurants they all recommend, then gather on TV to talk about their experience at each eatery. The waiting list to be a guest reviewer is in the tens of thousands. Why not have your readers provide their take on local restaurants or businesses? How about doing a review of a movie or local theater? How about rating their favorite pizza place, convenience store, oil change shop? Take that information, develop a database. If enough favorable comments are posted, will the business owners be willing to pay for it for their marketing purposes?

10. TAKE A LEAP OF FAITH: Innovate, experiment, implement. Remember that Thomas Edison had just as many failures as he had patents. Be patient with new projects; let they try to build steam. If the plug needs to be pulled, don’t be discouraged. Learn from your mistakes, and build on them for future projects. And, above all, don’t lock yourself into thinking new revenue needs to linked to an active press.

That’s a good start for now. Please send me a note if you have other resolutions, and I’ll add them to the list.

Hopefully we’ll all be around this time next year to review how well we did.

The Chicago Blackhawks — the hottest team in hockey now and the biggest thing in Chicago since, well, the ’05 Sox — come into Wrigley Field on New Year’s Day and proceed to get blown away by the Detroit Red Wings.

Needless to say, it adds credence to my call to tear down Wrigley Field. End the curse once and for all!