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American Journalism Review
The High-Tech Trib  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   April 1994

The High-Tech Trib   

When it comes to embracing the electronic future, Chicago's Tribune Co. is in the forefront of newspaper companies.

By Philip Moeller
Philip Moeller, a former business editor and electronic news editor at the Sun in Baltimore, is a communications consultant and writer based in West Hartford, Connecticut.      


Bob Gremillion and Jack Fuller can joke about it now, but there weren't so many happy faces in early 1992, when the Tribune Company prepared to commit its 145-year-old flagship newspaper to a highly visible role in the electronic information business.

Gremillion runs the company's ChicagoLand Television regional cable news channel, which went on the air in January 1993 with 650,000 area households, a total that has since grown to 1.1 million, or more than 90 percent of homes with cable in the Chicago metropolitan area.

Fuller was then editor of the Chicago Tribune (he's since moved up to president and CEO of the newspaper). His mission, executed principally by Howard A. Tyner (then associate editor and now vice president and editor), was to prepare the newspaper's 650 news staffers to collaborate with the new cable channel. A TV mini-studio was set up inside the paper's fourth-floor newsroom and its suburban news bureaus were placed inside the main newsroom and studio built for ChicagoLand TV in suburban Oakbrook.

With their worlds of television and print journalism about to merge, Gremillion and Fuller worried they would face confrontation between their staffs.

"You had to get the lions to lie down with the lambs," Fuller recalls. The task was made more difficult by the surprising discovery that each side thought they were the ones about to be led to slaughter. The TV side thought of the newspaper staff as a bunch of old, gnarled veterans who would eat them alive, he says, while the Tribune crowd feared a parade of blow-dried, on-air performers would take over their lives.

The reality has been much different. There have been some rocky moments, but to date more than 140 Tribune staffers have made some 800 appearances on ChicagoLand TV during its first year. Appearances are voluntary and unpaid (the cause of some grumbling), but editors and staffers agree there has been little tangible opposition from the newsroom. And managers at ChicagoLand TV say they're delighted to have the skills and instant credibility that Tribune reporters, columnists and critics bring to Chicago-area audiences.

Tribune Co. has been known to generations of journalists as the arch-conservative home of Col. Robert Rutherford McCormick, who ran the show from 1914 until his death in 1955. Known more for his politics, McCormick also was keenly interested in technology. So is today's Tribune, which is quietly becoming an industry leader for its many information technology initiatives.

ChicagoLand TV is just one of many efforts throughout the company to make electronic information available to readers. Tribune Co. has developed or invested in most of the emerging communications technologies, and if it's good enough at doing this, Tribune executives think, the company will thrive in a digital future.

Tribune's electronic metamorphosis has been a result of its diverse holdings beyond its core newspaper franchise that includes the Chicago Tribune, Orlando Sentinel and Ft. Lauderdale's Sun-Sentinel. The company owns seven independent broadcast TV stations (soon to be eight) that reach nearly 25 percent of the nation's households. It produces news and syndicated entertainment programming for those stations. It owns six radio stations. And its ownership of the Chicago Cubs was an early example of how professional sports, like the new communication technologies, could generate programming and merchandising opportunities.

With numerous print, broadcasting and programming holdings, Tribune has concentrated on buying and developing new types of content and expertise. In the past year, it spent nearly $200 million to buy into the CD-ROM business (Compton's Multimedia) and to purchase two educational publishing companies (Contem-porary Books and The Wright Group). It bought a large stake in America Online, the fastest growing of the major online services, and created Chicago Online, which allows users to access Chicago Tribune stories and classifieds, send messages to Tribune staffers and shop electronically. Tribune has also made minority investments in a number of small high-tech companies that are trying to develop information-technology products.

With the information revolution yielding more superhype than superhighway, at least so far, some of Tribune's investments could fall on hard times. The company notes that its big dollars have gone to buy Compton's and the two publishing houses – established and profitable companies that have done just fine without an interactive multimedia explosion. The CD-ROM business, which certainly is in a fast lane on the superhighway, is forecast to post substantial gains. The number of personal computers in the U.S. able to handle multimedia CD-ROM disks is forecast to nearly double this year to 9.5 million, according to Multimedia Business Report, an industry newsletter.

Tribune declined to provide figures for its total spending on information ventures but says the money invested in high-tech start-ups is "modest" for a company with $2 billion in annual revenues, according to a spokeman. And Tribune's investment in America Online has earned the company an estimated $35 million in paper profits so far, giving it some cushion against any high-tech loss.

As a result of all this, Eric Philo, a Goldman Sachs analyst who watches newspaper stocks, says the Tribune's high-tech initiatives "continue to far outstrip other public newspaper companies' efforts."

Col. McCormick's conservative brand of politics may have overshadowed, at least to outside observers, Tribune's appreciation of technology.

"I think the company has always been willing to take good sound business risks," says Executive Vice President John W. Madigan who is also president and CEO of its largest unit, Tribune Publishing. "And I think the shroud of our past has shielded the outside world from some of the things that we have done."

More recently, the company has made major management and operational changes, stemming in part from its initial sale of stock to the public in 1983, which brought with it more public exposure and the increased accountability of a publicly traded company. At the same time, however, it received brutally negative publicity from extended labor and business problems at the New York Daily News, which was founded by Tribune in 1919 and run by McCormick's equally famous cousin, Joseph Medill Patterson, until it was sold in 1991.

A further assault came from former Tribune editor James D. Squires. His 1993 book, "Read All About It! The Corporate Takeover of America's Newspapers," chronicled his unhappy experiences with the company (see "Plundering the Newsroom," December 1992).

"Among the many reasons I was so easily expendable at Tribune Company is that journalism, particularly newspaper journalism, has no real place in the company's future. No one ever uses the word," Squires wrote. "The company bills itself as an 'information and entertainment' conglomerate and hopes that newspapers will become a smaller factor in its total business."

But Tribune managers note that the newspaper prospered during the recession and has added 50 news staffers since 1990, at a time when many papers have been cutting backs. Nearly all those jobs came from stepped-up zoning efforts, and Tribune officials think finding other outlets for their stories will help pay for more local reporters and editors.

The company also thinks cutting costs is part of the solution. Tribune "has moved decisively in recent years to exit unprofitable newspaper operations," Dean Witter analyst Jim Dougherty wrote earlier this year. Those actions have come since Charles Brumback became CEO in 1990, and included selling the Daily News, closing the company's newspaper operations in Palo Alto in March 1993, and selling off a majority stake in its large Canadian newsprint operations, the QUNO Corp., in February of the same year.

Soon after taking over the CEO slot, Brumback set in motion an assessment of the corporation's business prospects that laid the foundation for its current new media efforts. The Tribune adopted a plan, which Brumback explained in a Wall Street speech last fall.

"Simply put," he said, "our strategy is to develop content for our important local markets. We will provide information and entertainment as digitized text, graphics, images, audio and video. We will deliver that content in any manner desired by the consumer – print, broadcast, coaxial, fiber or telephone. Our many initiatives will enable us to give consumers the opportunity to drill down deep to get what they want, when they want it."

The increasing involvement of Tribune Co. news staffers in the company's electronic news and information products has had only a modest impact on how Tribune journalists do their jobs. But the forces it has set in motion – business, technological and attitudinal – will surely change what journalists do, the definition of news and what journalism means in an age when content will be king.

The creation of its 24-hour news cable channel, ChicagoLand TV, based in Oakbrook, closely linked with the Chicago Tribune, seems to have created a bridge that staffers feel comfortable crossing. But participants recall that it might have turned out differently.

"I think there was a sense in the newsroom a couple of years ago that the company was almost out of control," says Tribune Editor Howard A. Tyner, "and that it was going off in a helter-skelter way" with acquisitions and plans to develop technology-driven information and entertainment products.

"What has happened has, I think, surprised everybody," he says. "The cable operation has been assimilated almost without a hitch, without undermining the traditional role of the newspaper. And I think, as we had hoped, people look on it as a legitimate extension of the newspaper, and not a threat."

Jack Fuller, Tyner's predecessor as Tribune editor, says he saw potential revenues from ChicagoLand TV as a way the newspaper could maintain staff levels in its newsroom and suburban bureaus. Tribune added more than 50 newsroom staffers during the past recession, although building up its suburban zones was accompanied by staffing trims elsewhere at the paper. But more staff would not have been enough inducement for the newspaper to cooperate with the TV venture, Fuller says, without top editors being convinced that the cable channel would be producing a news product that "was in character with the Chicago Tribune."

"It was clear that some way or another, there was going to be a convergence of all these various delivery means," he says, "and the sooner you got used to that, and started learning the skills across disciplines, the better." Second, to finance a first-rate news operation, he says, "you'd better be able to sell content in multiple channels." The Tribune has spent heavily on suburban zoning, he notes, and ChicagoLand TV "needed exactly what we were building," a big, regional information-gathering network.

Michael S. Adams, director of news and programming for the cable operation, says, "We want information in any form possible," and doesn't see the need for heavy visual and graphic backups found at most television stations. "We will accept things that allow the newspaper's database to be used on the air... After all, that's what it's all about, finding ways to convert the newspaper's huge database."

Adams says the station has stayed with a very low key approach to using Tribune staffers and that on-air appearances have been designed so that print journalists don't have to be TV anchors and correspondents but can simply answer an anchor's questions. "I don't ask anybody to come on this channel and provide analysis when they are reporters," Adams says. "I ask them to come on and tell us what they know, not what they think."

This year, the Tribune's three other large suburban bureaus will also get remote-operated camera locations so their staffers can appear on the channel. There also are plans to promote parts of the newspaper more directly on cable.

In addition, the Tribune is expanding its news staff's involvement with Chicago Online. In February, four newsroom staffers began "tagging" stories – embedding references in the Tribune newspaper to related stories that do not appear in the paper but could be accessed through Chicago Online.

John Lux, the paper's online editor in charge of the tagging effort, says he wants all sections of the paper to identify stories for tagging but that he and his three colleagues are doing most of the work in coding the stories, preparing the tags and making sure users of America Online get the right item when they enter a specific code number.

Lux says putting material online has reinforced his appreciation for editorial skills. "There's so much crap out there," he says. "You could be online 18 hours a day and never learn what you need to, so the editorial expertise is really important."

Tribune Features Editor Owen Youngman oversees the online group. He says while technology diverts resources from some news operations, it's a necessary and desirable transition.

"As technology has made some things easier and eliminated some tasks, editorial has taken them on, some willingly, some not," he says. "[But] we certainly don't want to be stuck with today's technology.

"A lot of people in the newsroom are like me in that they're interested in learning things and telling people about it," Youngman adds. "Given the opportunity to tell even more people [through new technologies] they'll find a way to do it. Some are more eager than others [but] the ethic in this newsroom is, preponderantly,..to do more, to tell more.

"I'm not going to pretend that it's Nirvana here... My fond hope is that what we do editorially in that editing, filtering, selecting, valuing process, can be so valuable to people that we won't be subject to the whims of advertisers in what we choose to put out there."

Bill Barnhart, a financial markets columnist for the Tribune, is one of the regulars on ChicagoLand TV. He delivers 45 seconds or so on market averages and daily investment trends. Barnhart would like compensation for his appearances. he also says he's still uncomfortable in front of a TV camera. But, he adds, "I get a lot of feedback [from viewer and readers]. I don't deny it. So there are benefits."

James Coates, a longtime Tribune correspondent who's now the paper's computer writer, is more involved in the electronic age via E-mail through Chicago Online and the Internet, the vast network of computer networks. Coates puts his Internet address at the end of his columns and says he's getting 200 to 250 pieces of E-mail a week, which takes him four to five hours to handle.

Coates says the online work can be arduous, although it can lead to stories and helps keep him up to date with what's on the minds of computer users. However, he and Barnhart worry that Tribune's technology demands will pull them further and further away from the substance of their jobs – a price they think the company is willing to have them pay.

"The Big Three automakers did not regain the trust of the public by buying faster trucks to deliver the cars," Barnhart says, making an analogy with Tribune high-tech efforts. "Every minute that I spend worrying about what goes on America Online is a minute I don't spend writing the news. It's clear that top management cares more about the technology than the substance."

Ted Gregory, a general assignment reporter, says "on the big picture scale," the Tribune's electronic projects haven't affected his work. However, sharing a newsroom with ChicagoLand TV can be disconcerting at times, Gregory says, but the hectic pace of television news has energized the suburban bureau. The TV staffers "are young people who are constantly running around and hustling after stories," he says, "so it sort of invigorated all of us."

Gregory, 35, says there is some sentiment that money spent on ChicagoLand TV is coming, in part, at the Tribune's expense. "I think you would find more than a handful of people who would feel that ChicagoLand TV is taking away something from the newspaper side," he says, "but I also feel that it's an investment that's innovative and progressive, so in a way, somewhere down the line, it will be a helpful thing for the Chicago Tribune newspaper."

Outside the company, Tribune watchers have more praise than criticism for the company's efforts. The Tribune's news staff is so large, they say, that it contains the full range of opinions about technological change. But for the most part, they say, staffers seem to have the view that new electronic skills will help their careers.

"I don't really quarrel with the decisions they're making," says Michael Miner, a veteran Chicago reporter and currently media critic for the Chicago Reader. "I don't think all the electronic dabbling is affecting the editorial product," he says, but agrees that Tribune investments in new ventures are using dollars that otherwise would have gone to the newspaper.

George Harmon, an associate professor at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, says Tribune reporters he's talked to view the new technologies as an opportunity to reach more people with their news stories.

The basic process of reporting won't change, he notes. "I don't see how you cover a fire differently, for example, and I think a lot of reporters see it that way."

"I think it's a pretty smart strategy that Tribune is embracing," says Jeff Borden, who covers media and entertainment for Crain's Chicago Business. Referring to ChicagoLand TV and Chicago Online, he says, "I don't think it has had much of an effect on overall content or quality, at least on the print side. I believe at first there was a level of resentment in the newsroom," with staffers seeing new efforts as "just one more task in the day."

But reporters haven't experienced a major disruption in their professional lives, Borden says. "The smart reporters,..the reporters who know what's going on in the outside world, are understanding they won't be hurt" by new technology. To the contrary, Borden says, they will be helped if they learn to master other forms of media.

Electronic re-use of news content is clearly emerging as a factor in the newspaper's thinking, Tribune editor Tyner says, although "I think at this point there have been no instances when editors have sat down and said, 'We have to have the non-traditional delivery systems in mind when we do this story.' "

"We're reexaming all of the stuff we do," he adds. For example, Tyner says, the paper has assembled an unusually broad team to shape the redesign of its food section, and it's considering designing the section in a way that its content can flow more easily online.

Fuller says Tribune editors had to do some hard thinking a couple of years ago as they approached the new media, and that such deliberations are essential to becoming the masters of new communication technologies instead of the victims.

"We had to understand who we were," Fuller says, and state those values clearly, of fulfilling its social and leadership responsibilities by providing serious, in-depth journalism.

"If we haven't identified very well our fundamental values, we're going to be scared," he adds. And communicating this to the newsrooms will be a major challenge to editors. "Most people in the newsroom feel these things. It's not like you have to teach them that these are their values," Fuller says. "You have to reassure them that they are your values.

IN ADAPTING ITS STRATEGY, Tribune decided to focus on its local markets rather than chase the dream of national supremacy on some lane of the information highway. The company also decided it couldn't compete with phone companies and other players in the big bucks efforts to build distribution systems on that highway. Instead, it saw its future in creating content and using technology to find new and profitable ways to sell that content to consumers. And to do these things well, Tribune concluded, it needed to change the culture of the company, encouraging employees to embrace change and take risks.

"Back in '89, when [CEO] Charlie [Brumback] took control of the company, he started a strategic planning process," recalls Jim Longson, corporate vice president for technology. The extensive process "redefined the mission of the company," he says. "We came to the conclusions that while the company had done well, the '90s would be a different ball game."

"We've encouraged people to take risks," Brumback says. "We want risk takers, not risk avoiders. With a company like this, that wasn't easy. Back in the '30s and '40s and '50s and '60s, you got a job here because you knew somebody, and once you got a job here, you pretty much had a job for life." The company's personnel efforts, Brumback says, dealt "more with the non-performers than with the performers. I want to focus more on the people who are productive, and we have done that."

Figuring out the proper role of technology in helping to execute the company's business strategies involved a major lesson, Longson says, which was "that our role as a company wasn't to develop technology but to take technology that others had developed and make it useful."

This has led to a number of still-evolving ways to apply technology, Longson says.

One is a return of sorts to the way newspapers were written 50 years ago, when reporters brought in the news and rewrite men wrote the stories. In an era when information is reproduced for a variety of media forms, Longson says, there will be a need for digital rewrite men and women who are capable of putting stories in the newspaper, online and into video and instant multimedia products as well.

Tribune Media Services' Voice News Network (VNN) offers audio news and entertainment that consumers access using touch-tone telephones. Subscribing newspapers can capture these audio feeds and distribute them over their own audiotex systems for telephone-information services. What VNN is really doing, TMS President David D. Williams points out, is creating a national electronic newsroom capable of delivering content in different forms.

VNN is also teaching Tribune lessons about how content may need to be changed once it's placed in a different medium. "As we get into electronic applications," Williams says, "you can't take what you do in print and just slap it down into another format... The value that somebody like us can bring is not only to gather the content but to repackage it."

Beyond ChicagoLand Television and Chicago Online, Tribune Company has ventured into numerous other technologies and media with an eye for expanding the kinds of information offered and the ways it is delivered. It recently purchased Compton's Multimedia Publishing Group, a leader in CD-ROM packaging, a compact disc for computers with visual and audio text. "Now that we've identified the capabilities, we've begun to build and acquire the technologies to achieve these capabilities," says William S. Murray, Tribune Broadcasting's director of information systems and director of strategic technology.

The company's investments include minority stakes in Starsight Telecast (electronic TV programming guide), Peapod (an online home shopping service) and Picture Network International (a digital database of photos and, down the road, other images).

Tribune Media Services has emerged as the most technologically oriented of the major news syndicates, through sophisticated TV listings and the decision to go head-to-head with the Associated Press by providing stock listings and investment tables. TMS is providing content to a number of new electronic information services as well, including Apple's expanded eWorld online service.

Tribune's television operations have also been busy, including the 1992 purchase of WPHL in Philadelphia and its announcement last year of plans to buy WLVI in Boston. Tribune's stations are partners in Time Warner's announced WB Network, which it hopes to build into a fifth TV network alongside ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox.

Tribune's long partnership with Knight-Ridder in the KRT wire is being carried over to TV, as WPHL will air the Philadelphia Inquirer's ambitious effort to generate an hour-long program each day modeled after its newspaper's contents. Tribune is also a founding owner of the new cable channel called the Television Food Network. And its syndicated programming includes an interactive shopping show starring Joan Rivers that began early this year in partnership with Barry Diller's QVC Network.

Now, several years after setting all this in motion, Murray says many of the traditional walls that exist in any old-line, hierarchical organization are coming down. He calls it a "culture of sharing" that, in effect, travels with the content as it crosses different divisions within Tribune. These are real "barrier bashers," he says.

Brumback says the pace of change within Tribune has been "painfully slow to me," but adds that he sees improvement. As if thinking that assessment too harsh, he adds, "But, yeah, I'm pleased where we are in comparison to other large metropolitan papers."

Fuller admits there are trade-offs for journalists in what Tribune is doing. But the conflicts between great news coverage and great newspaper profits existed long before information was digitized and put online.

"Our job is to make it possible to do good newspapering that makes a buck," Fuller says. "And it's not easy. If it was easy, everybody would be doing it... If you say it's your job to do good journalism and hang the buck, that's a recipe for no journalism. If you say it's your job to make a buck and hang the journalism, you'll soon find you're in another line of work."

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