Sam, I get it. You're being aggressive. When you add to Randy Michaels' aggressive talk about cutting newspaper size and staff that "I promise you he is underestimating the level of aggressiveness with which we are attacking this whole challenge," you seem to be proudly announcing that the newest barbarians may well be inside the gates. I'm not sure who that impresses aims to impress -- your employees are fairly shell-shocked already -- but it does capture attention.
What I don't get is why the aggressiveness seems to take us back to 1980 rather than forward to 2012? (Though 2012 may seem even further away to Zell and Michaels than it does to Hillary Clinton.)
It's little surprise to keen observers of the new Tribune that more draconian cuts had to be on the way. Zell relied on this trading acumen, and luck, to create an auction for Newsday, and that netted him tens of millions more than most people will tell you the paper is worth. The Cubs, Wrigley Field and cable network assets are next, but the deepening downturn in the industry (and as of Friday, maybe the cyclical economy as well) tell us that those asset sales may not even be enough to get Tribune through 2009.
What is surprising is that in publicly announcing cutbacks, Randy Michaels, Zell's radio guy-turned-Tribune czar, is focusing on, of all things, PRINT.
Take his notion of how to make the papers more readable and sell more of them.
Michaels saying the papers will become more USA Today-like, with:
"a new look and feel in each market, emphasizing what people are telling us they want in the research: charts, graphs, maps, lists."
Wow. Great solution for 1992 perhaps, 10 years after USA Today turned the newspaper world, Pleasantville-like, from black and white to color. The problem with that is that USA Today is essentially flat last several years in circulation, and it's got a national base and multiplicity of hotel/travel programs to keep the numbers up. The biggest innovation of the last couple of years isn't the color weather map on USA Today's back page; it's Google's ability to map everything and anything, instantly -- at the customer's fingertips and choice, 24/7.
Which takes us to the bigger news that Tribune figured out that the problem is one of ratios, now believing that a 50/50 ratio of ads to news is right.
"If we take, for instance, the Los Angeles Times to a 50-50 ratio â¦ the smallest paper, Monday and Tuesday, [would be] 56 pages. That would be substantially larger than that day's Wall Street Journal. We don't think that's a bad value to the consumer. And we think that by doing that, and then by being able to produce less editorial content â¦ we can save a lot of money by producing the right-size newspaper.
Let me hear that again. You're going to decide how much editorial content to produce by seeing how much will fit into the new downsized papers? You're going to ratchet down the amount of editorial content (and staff), leaving the decision of what you are going to give your print readers essentially in the hands of print ad buyers?
Surely, we can make good journalistic arguments about the folly of that. Journalism's never been mainly a quantitative business. But let's look broadly at "product." Would Randy Michaels, who rebuilt Clear Channel on a low-cost model, let the amount of radio ads sold determine how much programming listeners got? I don't think so; you've still got to have a consistent product for listeners or readers.
Readers are already fleeing newspapers -- and I'm talking about decades-long readers, not the young whom the industry too often blames -- because they see every day that less is less. This change, however it looks on a spreadsheet, will only hasten that decline.
That's a decline that is, at this point, inevitable anyhow. I give Michaels' credit in publicly announcing some thinking about how to justify cuts, but he could have put it more simply. People and paper are our two biggest costs, and we don't have enough money to maintain current levels of spending. That's less fancy, but more to the point.
What we'll soon see is "daily" papers becoming, uh, less daily. Monday and Tuesday editions are a sinkhole, with the latest evidence here, as MediaNews looks to those days as "quick-read" editions. Those days could soon be dropped completely, at smaller operations here and there. Anyhow, the whole notion of a daily newspaper is now obsolescent. It has taken way too long to get to 24/7 newsrooms and news output, but that's what the national players -- from CNN to the New York Times to the BBC -- have adjusted to. Even TBO.com, in Tampa Bay, has made a centerpiece of its new "Continuous News Desk" and committed a couple of dozen people (print, broadcast, web) to making it work.
The old daily paper is being -- as we watched Hillary Clinton's concession on Saturday and its instant analysis on TV and web -- replaced by the web.
Which brings me to a final point on Tribune's new math. Editors and reporters will never like the idea of scrutinizing editorial production by staffer, department or newsroom. As an old managing editor, I deeply understand that. At the same time, of course, the quantity of production (obviously aided by a quality gauge) does have value.
That value is never more evident than in the Internet age. And that's the Achilles heel of Tribune's Friday reasoning. Publishers can't decide how much staff they'll keep or how many stories they need on the basis of shrinking print. They've got to make those determinations on the Internet value of editorial content and of serving target audiences, local or niche. That content has lots of value -- short- and long-tail, on publishers' own sites and distributed on portal and niche sites, readied for mobile use and made more easily accessible through archives.
So, yes, think about the volume (always in tandem with quality), but think about web value -- ad monetization, syndication, licensing revenue -- and not just how much print advertising can be sold on any given day.
For Tribune -- and everyone in the industry -- I think it's back to spreadsheets. A content unit-based value system is a hazy idea, and it needs a lot more work to make journalistic -- and business -- sense.
More on Tribune here.