It was snowing in Arlington Heights when the lightning struck.
It was 1994, and I was in a darkened room watching a focus group through a two-way mirror. It was one of 16 such groups I monitored that year in order to learn about Chicagoans’ thoughts about food, cooking, recipes, and nutrition; I was leading a Tribune team charged not just with reinventing the food section, but actually with saving it — and with extending its success beyond print into television and online.
“All I really want,” one suburban mother and cook told the moderator, “is for my husband and kids not to hate what I put on the table.”
That was the lightning bolt. Throughout the rest of that day’s groups, I listened to people differently, focusing less on their activities and more on their motivations. And the next morning, I called a meeting of the project team to make an announcement. From that moment forward, we would not be working on a “better food section” centered on great recipes, the model since 1957. We would be working on a section built around a single idea: success with food. Success, however any reader might define it.
I didn’t know it, but we had stumbled onto a version of what Clayton Christensen was already calling these people’s “job to be done” — one of several things about this food project that would, sooner than any of us could have realized, become crucial we plunged into the Internet business along with the rest of the newspaper industry. The Tribune’s decision to retire the Good Eating name with last week’s issue creates an occasion to evaluate the effort, 21 years after the section launch.
A changing marketplace
So why did the food section need saving? Continue reading