Win Some, Lose Some
Tribune’s editorial approach is as wrongheaded as its business ideas are refreshing.
By John Morton
John Morton (firstname.lastname@example.org), a former newspaper reporter, is president of a consulting firm that analyzes newspapers and other media properties.
When I was a young newspaper reporter in upstate New York, the publisher decided to measure the amount of copy produced by each of his reporters. His secretary was assigned to measure the column inches each reporter turned in.
When word got around, and with pay raises and possibly even jobs on the line, routine school notices swelled in size from one paragraph to three or four. Minor local-government stories usually worth four or five paragraphs suddenly received 10 or 12. Substantial projects that required lots of reporting time were set aside, to the detriment of the paper's journalism. Soon copy editors were overwhelmed and unhappy, and the whole exercise collapsed under its own weight.
What brings this long-ago experience to mind is a conference call in June conducted by Tribune Co.'s new management team (essentially all former radio and television executives). The new chief operating officer, Randy Michaels (radio), extolled the results of an analysis of how many column inches the company's many journalists produce.
The analysis showed that "the average journalist in Los Angeles does about 51 pages a year, but the average journalist in Hartford or Baltimore does over 300 pages a year." Those findings led him to say that "you can eliminate a fair number of people while eliminating not very much content." (Historical note: Pulitzers awarded in the last 10 years to the Los Angeles Times, 16; Hartford Courant, one; Baltimore Sun, one.)
Michaels did acknowledge that it takes longer to produce an investigative story than to write, say, an obituary, a factor he said should be taken into account. But, he added, "we believe we can save a lot of money and not lose a lot of productivity."
The productivity analysis apparently is at the heart of Michaels' plan to "right-size" Tribune's newspapers. The plan sets a goal of a 50 percent ratio of news to advertising on news pages (excluding classified advertising), which he estimates will eliminate 500 news pages per week in Tribune's dozen dailies. Moreover, the papers will be redesigned, with greater emphasis placed on charts, graphs, maps and lists — "what people are telling us they want" — starting first at the Orlando Sentinel and then extending to all the company's papers.
The format changes may do some good, since readers usually need all the help they can get in understanding complex issues. But it strikes me that Tribune is trying to make its newspapers look the way today's radio stations sound: disjointed, insubstantial, raucous, even — dare I say it? — irritating.
But the key point is that Tribune is diminishing its journalism in pursuit of greater profit at a time when the journalistic standing of newspapers is more important than ever as they continue to make the transition to the Internet.
Perhaps symptomatic of Tribune's new approach is a plan at the Los Angeles Times to turn over control of the paper's monthly magazine from the news department to the business side, which will hire its own editors and writers. If Otis Chandler, who guided the Times to journalistic greatness, could rise from his grave in outrage, I'm sure he would.
What makes this heavy-handedness on the news side so dispiriting is that on the business side the new management team has come up with some truly fresh approaches to running the company, especially its emphasis on employee input. Sam Zell, Tribune's chairman and chief executive, established a "Talk to Sam" e-mail initiative that encourages employees to submit ideas. More than 2,000 have emerged, many of them about revenue-enhancing projects.
An effort is underway to change the company's culture, from a top-down management style to one emphasizing local authority and accountability. Instead of micromanaging, corporate officials are to concentrate on overall strategies.
Most important from a revenue standpoint, Tribune is revamping how its newspaper advertising staff is compensated. Under the system long in place, salespeople are assigned specific categories, say a geographic zone or a type of client such as automobile dealers, and assigned a sales target. They are paid a base salary plus commission for meeting the target.
The problem with this system in Tribune's view is that while a salesperson may have a category with several thousand potential clients, the sales target might be met by selling to a fraction of them, leaving a lot of potential revenue on the table. Moreover, there is a built-in disincentive to surpassing the sales target, because doing so inevitably leads to a higher target the next year. Instead, Tribune wants its salespeople to concentrate on bringing in as much as they can, rather than on meeting a target that penalizes them for surpassing it.
So the company is embracing a payment scheme based solely on commission, with the base salary replaced by a draw against total commission. There are other changes, all designed to increase revenue. In all, it is a refreshing change in how to run the business side of newspapers.
Unfortunately, this kind of measurement mind-set does not work well in newsrooms, which thrive on initiative, imagination, esprit and, above all, creativity. Sadly, the new Tribune Co. will have to learn this the hard way.