The next miracle (v11.1): Owen Youngman

Knight Professor of Digital Media Strategy, Medill / Northwestern

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These 11 Amazing Sound Bites about the Trib and Sun-Times Will Turn You into a Chicago Media Expert

Last Thursday, people in the Chicago media business had some news to make them sit up straight, if not stand up and run screaming from the room.

Michael Ferro, whose investment group Wrapports took control of the Sun-Times in 2011, closed a deal to become the largest shareholder in Tribune Publishing, owner of the Los Angeles Times, San Diego Union-Tribune, and many other titles.

Including, not incidentally, the Chicago Tribune. If the city’s downtown dailies were keeping their relationship status up to date on Facebook, they’d both have switched to “It’s complicated.” (And they would start seeing different ads in their Facebook timelines’ right-hand rails.)

So, what’s up with all this?, Chicago journalists wanted to know. Some of the wondering reporters found their way to my inbox and my voicemail – no surprise given the 37 years I spent at the Tribune before coming to Medill in 2009. The markets didn’t seem happy, but that seemed mostly to be about Tribune Publishing’s eliminating its dividend. And I did give a few interviews — to Crain’s, to the Daily Herald, to WBEZ (no link), and to WLS (starts at 39:28 of the audio stream of the 2/7 edition of “Connected to Chicago”).

But for now, here are a handful of comments you can make when your Uncle Fred from Orland Park calls you up for an explanation, once he gets last Friday’s paper out of the bushes next to his driveway. All you need are the numbered points, but I’ll give you some backup too.

  1. Despite what people have been asking me, the Tribune and the Sun-Times do not have “the same owner.”

Ferro’s $44.4 million investment gives him 16.6% of Tribune Publishing and he cannot acquire more than 25%, at least for a while. That makes him the biggest shareholder and entitles him to the job of “nonexecutive chairman,” but he’s not yet The Owner in the Rupert Murdoch/Sam Zell/Citizen Kane sense. Or even the Robert R. McCormick/Marshall Field sense.

  1. The long-term future of the Sun-Times has not changed since last Wednesday.

There is still little perceptible long-term future for the smaller paper in any of America’s dwindling number of multiple-newspaper cities. The future of the larger paper in these towns is hardly assured, but its Doomsday Clock is not yet at 23:57, despite what new chairman Bruce Sagan told the Sun-Times newsroom. (Okay, perhaps there is now a new version of a consolidation option that was less obvious before the deal, but that never has been off the table given items 5 and 6 below.)

  1. The medium-term future of the Tribune still depends on a consumer digital-revenue strategy.

Some of America’s most visible news startups actually are treating their Web sites as “legacy media” whose best days are behind them, so fast is the shift to mobile devices. (One of them was on campus last week and said so.) In order to support the number of journalists necessary to cover Chicago (or L.A.), a viable consumer revenue strategy is needed online as well as off, and this cash infusion from Ferro may buy the company a somewhat longer runway as it implements the metered paywall plan it announced in November.

  1. If either paper does absorb the other, Chicago will not be a “one-newspaper town.”

The list is shorter than it was 40, 30, or 20 years ago, but Chicagoland still is home to the Daily Herald, the Northwest Herald (no relation), the Kane County Chronicle (5 days in print and a Monday e-edition), and the many suburban titles owned by the Tribune or formerly owned by the Sun-Times; also see item 6.

  1. It may have been a bigger deal when the Tribune started to deliver the Sun-Times in 2007, and print it in 2011.

Why? In large part because the extra revenue at the Tribune — once estimated at $70 million a year, down to $30 million last year according to the SEC filing about Ferro’s ownership stake — and the reduced expense at the Sun-Times helped provide the cash to sustain many more jobs in both shops than could otherwise have happened, though also see No. 6. (Which is not to say this is any consolation to the printers, pressmen, and drivers who lost their jobs while some journalists retained theirs.)

  1. It may have been a bigger deal when the Tribune bought the Sun-Times’ 38 suburban dailies and weeklies in 2014.

First off, the fact that these properties changed hands without too much regulatory pushback – with the price, $23.5 million, far below the Hart-Scott-Rodino antitrust thresholds – is an indication that a mere investment that values all of Tribune Publishing, not just Chicago, at $265 million, is unlikely to raise significant eyebrows. (A week later, TribPub’s market capitalization is down to $150 million, by the way.)

And second, the rebalancing of expense and revenue in the printing-and-distribution agreements, mentioned above, figures to have helped both parties get to today in something like their current forms.

  1. It’s may be just as big a deal that the Sun-Times and Daily Herald have been sharing content since last fall.

Daily Herald high school sports content, a strength, has been appearing in the Sun-Times since August. Sun-Times pro sports content, a necessity, has been appearing in the Herald since September. Reporters and readers may tend to romanticize the world of the “The Front Page,” where reporters hid under desks and inside garbage cans to steal one another’s scoops (and where, somewhat less romantically, circulation wars actually involved “guns, blackjacks, and brass knuckles,” as the Tribune put it in a retrospective during its 150th anniversary year in 1997) – but today’s reality is one where, in order to do good work in one area, a publisher may choose not to compete in another.

  1. The best way to understand Michael Ferro’s past role at the Sun-Times is to read Bryan Smith’s piece in Chicago Magazine from 2013.

It’s fascinating, it’s long, and it might not leave you feeling cheerful, but it’s must reading. Here is the link: http://www.chicagomag.com/Chicago-Magazine/November-2013/michael-ferro/

  1. You want to keep either print newspaper alive for a while? The first thing you should do is subscribe.

Since I left the Tribune, a week never goes by when I’m not asked a version of this question. (Yes, I know the Sun-Times is primarily a street sales newspaper, so go ahead and buy it at Starbucks or Jewel every day if you want.) Newspapers need their readers to help them make a bigger dent in the declines they’re seeing in ad revenue. But you should know that even this strategy will not guarantee that a daily newspaper will remain a 7-days-a-week “daily” for an indefinite period (cf. Cleveland, Portland, Detroit, New Orleans . . .)

  1. The second thing you should do is not cancel when the rate goes up.

And yes, the rate will go up, including at the newsstand. The days when newspapers (and magazines, to some degree) kept their circulation prices down in order to maximize the raw number of subscribers are long over, especially given that Google has proven that millions of audiences of one are more valuable to advertisers than one audience of millions. Newspapers will need their readers to pay in proportion to the value they place on them.

  1. The third thing you should do is clip and use the coupons.

You actually can help to control one of printdom’s two most reliable remaining revenue streams (the other one being death notices): Clip a few coupons. Consumer-products advertisers have been looking for a digital path to the 50 million people they reach weekly with newspaper inserts for two decades now, but until they find one, they are providing the patient with some much-needed oxygen several days a week.

Got it? If so, I’ll start routing my calls your way.

Good Eating, a bridge to the future

The first and last issues of the Chicago Tribune's Good Eating section, 1/25/1995 and 7/11/2015.

The first and last issues of Good Eating, 1/25/1995 and 7/11/2015. (Yes, to scale.)

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

Paving the road to the Web (or just spreading gravel)

On Jan. 19, 1995, I called to order the first meeting of a 10-person Chicago Tribune committee charged by our bosses with figuring out the Internet.

By March 29 … yes, just twenty years ago … we were done.

(Must have been the head start: Since 1992, the company had been running Chicago Online, a service on America Online that was about to become profitable … thanks to the number of hours its users were spending not so much reading the news, but chatting with each other.)

Of course, our merry little cross-functional band knew full well we weren’t done. But we were done enough to pitch a vision and a business plan, and to argue for the organizational bandwidth needed to hire about 18 new staffers. And then to turn them loose.

We also knew that even if we persuaded the bosses to go for our ideas, we could still screw it up. “An uncompetitive or uncompelling product invites ridicule, or worse, complete uninterest,” I wrote. “Reputations are made and lost on the Internet as quickly as technology changes; what once was ‘innovative reuse of content’ is now ‘shovelware.’ A substandard or merely mediocre product not only puts at risk our reputation for technological innovation; it also provides an opening for competitors.”

But enough quoting from source material, whether the prose be deathless or deadly. Continue reading

We celebrate the book, and sing the e-book

IMG_2369 IMG_2362IMG_2371Looking at Julia Keller’s new e-short story: My Kindle Fire, Kindle DX, and Nexus 7. Admittedly, none of this hardware is of recent vintage…

This Saturday (June 7), I’ll be returning to the Chicago Tribune Printers Row Lit Fest for the first time in a couple of years. It’s the 30th anniversary of an event that was called the Printers Row Book Fair when we acquired it from the Near South Planning Board a dozen years ago. My longtime colleague and Tribune literary editor Elizabeth Taylor invited me back for a panel called “The Digital Revolution,” its general topic being “the many digital developments that are transforming the publishing industry.” (Event details at the end of this post.)

As it happens, the first thing that Liz and I worked on together was itself a “digital development”—a standalone Web site for the Tribune books section called “Chicago Books,” developed for us by Jimmy Guterman and which launched in August of 1997 even though only a fraction of the section’s readers were yet even online — and when, according to my files, a week of 30,000 Books page views was a big deal. (If you want to re-enter that version of the world, check out this piece by Donna Seaman from that month: “Learning to Crawl: Book Lovers Go On-Line.”)

Also as it happens, this is also the week in my Coursera MOOC “Understanding Media by Understanding Google” where one of the two topics being discussed is the impact of the Web in general, and Google in particular, on the book business (the other is the news business). One of the ideas I have put out for agreement or disagreement is taken from Steven Levy’s In the Plex, in which he quotes librarian John Wilkin of the University of Michigan: “Twenty years from now, interaction with a physical book will be rare. Most of that interaction will be in the study of books as artifacts.”

Does my worldwide student body agree? Continue reading

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