Friday, June 13, 2008

We write it, we read it?

As I referred to last week, the Chicago Tribune is planning some unspecified cuts, likely to take place by the end of September. Their Public Editor (something of an ombudsman), Timothy McNulty, talks about those cuts today:
Why do you read the newspaper? Let me put it another way: What do you value in the newspaper?

For those not keeping up with the news about the media world, there are radical changes afoot.

A week ago, the new executives of Tribune Co. told lenders that their newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, are going to be radically "right-sized" in keeping with reduced advertising revenue.

Plainly, that means "downsizing" the paper you are holding; it will have fewer pages and fewer people to produce the stories. This isn't a "less-is-better" argument; this is a "less-is-what-we-can-afford" moment.
In addition to that, the current publisher is stepping down. McNulty goes on to discuss the different ways readers use the newspaper, but accepts that there will be major changes:
That's what the journalists here are focusing on now: how to re-engineer the newspaper to accommodate financial realities and still remain true to the traditions of the Chicago Tribune and its commitment to provide readers with the best news-gathering and information possible.

Very little is sacrosanct. Different formats could save newsprint, sections can be collapsed, and a magazine or a tabloid-style presentation may be more readable. Stories can always be cut back, and sometimes a chart is a faster read than a narrative.

There will be redesign, just as there has been several times in the past, but this will, I suspect, be much more dramatic. Physical changes will alter the look and feel of the paper. Not that that will be the first time; the paper you are reading now is an inch and a half narrower than it was eight years ago.
McNulty solicits comments, but I doubt those will be of much help to the people "re-engineering" the paper. If I had to guess, the journalists will be allowed the first crack at the changes, the money guys will analyze those and decide they're not enough (since the journalists will still want to retain things like news), and the journalists will be required to stand back and watch the pillars fall. Some will get crushed under them.

There are those who think these changes are possible without hurting the quality of the newspaper. One often cited is that, in a multi-newspaper company, there is no need for each paper to have a film reviewer. Instead, there will be one reviewer for the whole chain.

While that seems plausible, it ignores the very real connections that readers feel with the bylines. The late Gene Siskel was quite beloved, there was pride in this local figure going national, and those feelings simply wouldn't exist if the critic came out of L.A. Is there value in those feelings? I don't know, but I do know a lot of marketing and advertising is built around trying to create that sense of connection, and it seems counterproductive to get rid of it.

Perhaps, though, the Tribune has already tipped its hand as to the kinds of changes they foresee. In yesterday's paper, we received an extra section titled Triblocal (I guess that's Trib-local, not Tri-blocal). Apparently, Triblocal's web site has been up since April, and, according to "managing editor" Kyle Leonard (I guess it's more friendly to put Kyle's title in lower case), it "has been serving the communities of Naperville, Lisle, and Aurora in a new and exciting way." Tell me more, Kyle.
Your friends and neighbors have reported news, posted events and shared their photos on Now we will share the best of each site every week.

Our small team of writers will deliver stories we think will be of interest to you, but we want you to post the news important to your lives on
Essentially, this is Web 2.0 seeping back into Life 1.0, what some have called "citizen journalism," in which the readers themselves create the content. In the case of Triblocal, the web material will be filtered back into a weekly newspaper, 24 pages in yesterday's version, that is designed to create more interest in the web site, and in this circular fashion will snowball into, well, what?

[By the way, Kyle wrote an article for Harvard's Nieman Reports about this endeavor:
Citizen journalism, as it’s called, isn’t really journalism. Instead it resembles what you’d hear in small town barbershop conversations. It’s stories about you, your neighbors, your friends, sometimes your town leaders, and what’s happening in your life and in the place you call home.
If citizen journalism isn't really journalism, is the print edition really a newspaper? Let's see.]

There are roughly 22 stories in Triblocal. (There is also a local events calendar that is, apparently, the result of reader submissions.) Four of them were written by Naperville/Aurora reporter Patricia Murphy. One was written by staff reporter Mary Rakoczy. One was written by staff reporter Jeff Vorva. (By the way, these three also took the pictures; apparently, there is no room for professional photographers.) One was the introduction by managing editor Kyle Leonard.

Which leaves 15 articles that were written by PR and marketing people. The articles promote upcoming festivals and concerts, or they're warmed-over press releases. There is an article taglined, "Aurora Dist. 129 details pursuit of excellence," and it's a puff piece written by the school district outlining all the wonderful things they'll be doing with new referendum money.

Is this journalism? Perhaps it's not supposed to be. Kyle:
Technology enables what gets sent to TribLocal to flow directly into a publishing system built on templates. Seven staff members of TribLocal are able to do the work that in a less automated setting would require 15, maybe more. Our four “reporters” also work as editors, photographers, designers and ambassadors. As managing editor, I help to layout pages, edit stories, and direct Web site-to-publication workflow.
It's interesting that "reporters" is in quotes, and that anyone would think of a journalist as an "ambassador." (It's also troubling that managing editor Kyle doesn't know that "layout" is a noun.)

Kyle believes that he has achieved a 50-50 split between stories and ads, but 2/3 of the stories are, in effect, ads. Are there things that people want to know about? Sure. Are they a reflection of journalism? Absolutely not.

One might hope that Triblocal will evolve over time, that reporters will "begin to report on issues that are crucial to the community." But they've gone to press with this lackluster first issue, and, I suspect, as long as they can sell ad space, they'll continue whether it improves or not.

Let's not pretend about what's going on here. The Tribune wants its readers to do the work, to write the stories and take the pictures, then the corporate conglomerate will reap the profits. Might this be the future for the main Tribune? Might they move to a "participatory" model, in which much of the newspaper is taken up with advocates and flacks masquerading as reporters? This is frightening to those of us who believe that the daily newspaper might possibly have some standards, some sense of larger purpose. It tilts the editor vs. publisher model so far towards the bean-counters that truth will fall through the cracks.

[Note: I have found an article written in January by Michael Miner of the Chicago Reader that anticipates some of my points, and finds a specific case where a "citizen contributor" was using Triblocal as an avenue for political flackery. Miner also talks to Kyle Leonard and discovers that the main job of their "reporters" is to stir up interest in]

1 comment:

Citizen Carrie said...

Thanks for the post. I've seen similar publications, not quite like Triblocal, but fluffy little rags all the same. I've also seen news content decline in regular newspapers to the point where many of us don't even subscribe to them anymore. It's amazing that newspapers answer the challenge by eliminating even more news content.

I'm convinced that newspapers are nothing more than advertising campaigns aimed at selected audiences. The fact that papers are losing readership doesn't matter as long as the remaining readers belong to the correct demographic groups. I can't imagine that there are people out there who love to read about local tricycle parades, but I have to accept that perhaps it's true, and maybe what I enjoy reading is not of any value to any of the news organizations.

BTW, I like fluffy stories as much as the next person. I fondly remember the days when newspapers used to report on fashion runway shows from London, Paris and Milan. Even the fluff pieces today aren't as interesting as they used to be.

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