The next miracle (v11.1): Owen Youngman

Knight Professor of Digital Media Strategy, Medill / Northwestern

Owen YoungmanOwen YoungmanOwen Youngman

Stop the presses! Cooper Rollow was a legend!

For a good part of the 20th Century, it was not at all unusual to find one particular person front and center at important moments in the life of Chicago, in the business of media, and in American sports.

That person was not an athlete or a mogul, as such a person almost certainly would have to be today. He was the sports editor of the Chicago Tribune.

Cooper Rollow

Cooper Rollow catches some rays in Pioneer Court next to Tribune Tower.

“He was so influential,” said one of my former colleagues at a gathering I attended on Saturday night; “it was the biggest job in the country.” “I couldn’t believe the famous people who came in,” said another. “He was a celebrity,” nodded a third.

We were sitting on a Lake Forest patio, about 5 miles from Halas Hall, and we were deep into the first of two days of talking mostly about Cooper Rollow, who died March 29. He was sports editor of the Tribune from 1969 to 1977, which means he was the boss when I began my 11 years in that department in September 1974. But the celebrity part goes back a good ways before that.

Continue reading

RedEye turns 10. How did it happen? Why did it work?

"Dinner with 12 Strangers" logo

Friday, Nov. 2, was always going to be an interesting night. Back in May, I had agreed to take part in a Northwestern tradition called “Dinner with 12 Strangers,” in which a couple of faculty members, a dozen random students, and some alumni hosts share a meal “in an informal atmosphere that builds Northwestern community and camaraderie,” as my invitation put it.

RedEye's 10th anniversary logoRecently, just after I learned I’d be dining in beautiful nearby Kenilworth, my second invitation for the evening arrived, promising a somewhat different kind of community and camaraderie: “It’s been 10 years of crummy commutes, celeb meltdowns, 3 a.m. taco runs . . . and we’re just getting started. You’re invited to RedEye’s 10th Birthday Bash. Dress to impress; birthday suits not optional.”

How did RedEye happen?

Well, okay then, it was looking like a double-header, not to mention a fine way of wrapping up a week of thinking about how a few paragraphs I wrote in the May 2000 Chicago Tribune strategic plan had turned into something big enough to host a party for more than a thousand of its closest friends:

“Market data indicates that young, time-starved city-dwelling professionals can be be attracted to a newspaper–but that it might take a very different product than the one we produce today . . . Rather than continue to deliver a single newspaper throughout the marketplace and ask its purchasers to make choices from among the content we have bundled together, it may be time to put multiple newspapers in the market and let readers make a choice on what to buy.”

It went on to describe a “5-day-a-week newspaper for single-copy distribution, primarily in the city, Tribune vs. non-Tribune branding to be explored, edited for a younger audience.” Continue reading

Who will pay?, revised and expanded

What's a year of the newspaper worth to you?

This morning, Crain’s Chicago Business quoted me in a story about a possible new books section or supplement under discussion at the Chicago Tribune. Lynne Marek’s reporting indicated that the Tribune hopes to charge separately for it, and she called yesterday to see what I thought.

To expand on the quote she used, I have been saying for a while that the news industry needs to find out what readers want to pay for and do more of it, not just make some changes and hope advertisers will line up in support. Whether a new books section were launched as an add-on to the paper, or as a separate product carrying the Tribune brand, why wouldn’t you seek the answer to that eternal question, “Who will pay?”

In the days when the operative, profitable strategy was to aggregate as much disparate content as possible in order to aggregate as much audience as possible for a range of advertisers, adding a new section “for free” was a viable idea. I did it plenty of times myself. But as advertising dollars flow to disaggregated and targeted niches, news organizations clearly need consumers to pay more . . . and it would be folly merely to charge more for what they’re already doing, or what’s left of it.

Not that charging more is wrong, particularly if you are targeting those who are passionate about the print reading experience. There is a particular conversation I have at every public event, dinner party, charity gala, or board meeting that I attend, and it goes something like this:

Interlocutor: “The Internet is fine, but I need my printed newspaper. I just can’t live without it.”

Professor O: “I understand. I still subscribe to three or four printed newspapers myself.”

Interlocutor: “Do you think they will all go away?”

Professor O: “It probably depends on what you are willing to pay.”

The New York Times has not been shy about finding out what consumers will pay, of course; my annual payment for seven-day service (after credits for vacation stops) went from $550 at the end of 2006 to $700 at the end of 2010 (my quoted rate is $769.60). But as you can see from the graphic at the top of this post, I have way more data — 20 years’ worth, in fact — on my Tribune subscription. And for 17 of those 20 years, home-delivery pricing tracked inflation so closely that the chart isn’t worth showing. (If I may anticipate a potential question, I did not take an employee discount at any time during this period.)

What actually is a little more interesting is the next chart, which compares my annual payments to the “discount” a subscriber received off the newsstand price. This is not a notional number; until moving to the suburbs, I was a newsstand buyer, since my first editor at the Tribune insisted that we buy and read the street-sales edition, not the home-delivered one that had closed hours before the record of the day’s events was complete. The timing of my annual payment, which over time has shifted depending on the Tribune’s internal strategy for changing anniversary dates if there are vacation stops, to some degree accounts for the volatility. But still:

Subscription vs. newsstand pricing

Charge for convenience, or lock in a reliable revenue stream?

When advertising was good (pretty much throughout the 1990′s), there was little reason to worry about the size of the subscriber “discount,” even when the price of the daily and Sunday papers increased significantly. And throughout the early years of the 2000′s, circulators who still remembered the pain of increasing the street-sales price from 35 cents to 50 cents in September, 1982, found equilibrium at or below a 10% differential and stuck with it, trying to retain as many copies as they could, particularly on behalf of preprint advertisers who were paying by the piece. But ultimately the economics had to dictate that, after 15 years, the cover-price status could not be quo, calling the question on how big an increase subscribers might stand for.

The big difference this time around is that with a 20% increase in 2009, and the 35% increase that hit last month, we are seeing an aggressive bet that passion will be more important than pocketbook to a newspaper’s most important audience (seemingly outlandish, preprint-revenue-focused Groupon offers aside). The introduction of the purported pay-as-you-go books section thus would be a variation on that theme.

And one last thing: with this last round of increases, my annual $390 Tribune bill has been uncoupled from the Consumer Price Index. My $162.68 annual subscription payment in 1992 would translate today to $262.36. Formulas like that are likely to be what keeps at least some newspapers, in my interlocutors’ phrase, from “going away.”

It was 40 years ago today, redux

Front pages, Sept. 4 1971 and 2011

That was then, this is now: 9/4/71 and 9/4/11

A couple of years ago, I noted here the 40th anniversary of my start in journalism by scanning in my first check stub. Today I note the 40th anniversary of my first day of work at the Chicago Tribune by comparing the news of the world as encapsulated by a pair of front pages: the edition I read on the Saturday morning that I went to work, and the Sunday edition I read today after a communion service, a church picnic, and a worship service at Winchester House, Lake County’s long-term health care facility for the elderly in Libertyville. (Maybe some other time I’ll write about my first worship service at a county home: in Kingsville, Ohio, during what turned out later to be called Super Bowl I.)

There are both similarities and differences.

  • First, you may note that today’s paper has a more vertical profile. The 1971 Tribune was about 15 inches wide and 23 inches deep; today’s paper is more like 11 by 21.
  • Second, you may note that the 89-pica-wide photo of a McCormick Place crowd listening to President Nixon shows that big photos are not necessarily a latecomer to Chicago front pages, though of course big photos in color appear way more regularly today.
  • Third, you may note that “soft” news was appearing on Page One forty years ago (and that today’s front page is actually pretty hard). In the lower right-hand corner of this Saturday paper is “The Motley Crew,” a regularly appearing feature by Tribune rewriteman John R. Thomson whose overall purpose was to chronicle where he and his fellow staffers went to eat on their lunch breaks.It made Page One because of President Nixon, actually; the dinner he spoke at was advertised as the largest in history, with 25,000 being fed at McCormick Place and another 15,000 getting their meals at suburban hotels, all courtesy of the American Milk Producers Association. (What reporter can turn down a free meal, fully disclosed, in pursuit of a Page One byline?)
  • Of course, one difference is that the President’s speech was about “a new prosperity.” Current Presidential speeches seem to have a different economic tone.
  • You can’t miss the weather.
  • And there’s nothing like a “Cubs lose again” headline to make a Chicagoan remember that the world is still spinning on the same axis today as when Leo Durocher was the current and future manager, two years removed from the pennant that was not to be.
There are other obvious things to compare, like story count, color, and the different kinds of people favored with head shots. Or that the Saturday paper was then a dime, not a dollar (in 2011 terms, that would be about 55 cents).
But finally, do not fail to note that the 1971 masthead noted that for your dime, you got to read “The World’s Greatest Newspaper.” Inspiration enough, don’t you think, for a new copy boy to show up for the 3 to 11:30 p.m. shift. that day? And then to continue showing up, on a fairly regular basis, for the 37 years that followed.