July 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

Joe Knowles, Associate Managing Editor of the Chicago Tribune, has told brucejquiller in an e-mail exchange that the newspaper will carry some content exclusive to its printed edition: “I think you’ll see some content that is print-only, so we can keep it out of the aggregation pool. If we are charging people for the paper and calling it premium (as opposed to putting it online for free) we need to restrict the access somehow.”

I asked if his paper planned to install a pay wall for online readers as the New York Times did recently.

“We have been experimenting with restricting access to some content online,” Knowles said. “You’ll have to register to get certain things. Eventually there may be some sort of pay system, but I don’t think we have it all figured out yet. I don’t know if anyone has it all figured out yet. Inevitably, the model will have to change. The current free-for-all system isn’t smart or sustainable.”

The Tribune announced significant changes in a June 15th spadea. While the announcement included news that the Tribune’s website had been redesigned and reorganized, most of the space was devoted to details of the print expansion, and how the weekly addition of 40—44 pages would be allocated. A love letter from publisher Tony Hunter and editor Gerry Kern to subscribers introduced these changes:

“Dear readers:

Today’s Chicago Tribune marks the debut of a bigger, better newspaper created to meet the expectations of our most loyal readers. For the past week, we’ve highlighted the pages that will be filled with expanded news coverage.

Starting today, you will find those extra news pages throughout your newspaper each day, presented in a fresh new design and typography. We’ve added depth, dimension and range to our news report. That means more coverage on the topics you asked for. We’ve strengthened the newspaper for readers who are serious about their news and love their daily experience with the newspaper…”

The letter concluded with recognition of a simple fact rarely mentioned in broadcast media reports or in the press (my italics):

Despite technological change, the printed paper remains very special to many people. We are investing in the paper to ensure it is vital and rewarding. By doing so, the Chicago Tribune is charting a new course, offering one of the few print editions in America that is growing again. We look forward to making this journey together with you.”


The new typeface is pleasingly simple and fresh.

Knowles says, “the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive so far.”

I asked him to tell me more about the change of typeface:

“We were sweating the decision a little bit, because we haven’t changed the body type since 1993, but we finally found a typeface that held up to the narrow column widths we often have to employ now (after several web-width reductions left us with a smaller image area). I think it adds a subtle touch of elegance to the paper and enhances the reading experience. The old typeface, Nimrod, had a large x-height, which is usually an attribute, but it crowds the space between lines. With Mercury Text’s smaller x-height, we get a little more white space built in without losing legibility. And the letter forms in both are very similar, so it was easy for readers to adjust.”

It is no secret that the Tribune Company has been to hell and back since Sam Zell bought the paper in 2007, but I am glad to see they have come back.

Before the Zell era the Chicago Tribune offered some of the best foreign reporting to be found anywhere. It was my habit to spread the Tribune and New York Times on a table each morning. It was not unusual to find the Tribune carrying more information about a particular topic—human trafficking for instance—than the Times. It seemed to me that the Tribune embarked on major investigative pieces more often than other major newspapers.

Then came the diminutive real estate billionaire who began to gut the paper as if it were a teardown, wielding the talk radio ethic like a fire hose to blast the graduates of journalism school out of their office chairs.

On September 22, 2008 I received a promotional e-mail from Gerry Kern, the editor of the paper, crowing about many wonderful changes:

From Gerry Kern, Chicago Tribune editor

Dear Bruce Miller,

I want to invite you, as a valued Chicago Tribune subscriber, to be among the first to see the new Chicago Tribune, which will debut next Monday, Sept. 29.

Over the past several months, we have worked around the clock to reinvent your newspaper in ways we hope will enlighten, provoke, entertain and surprise you every day. We’re introducing new sections and content to make the Tribune even more relevant and useful to you in your daily life, while we maintain our commitment to compelling storytelling, blockbuster investigative reporting and illuminating analysis and commentary. To take the virtual tour, please click here

But we’re not done yet. We want to hear from you. Spend some time with the new Chicago Tribune online through the virtual tour and when you get the paper on Sept. 29. Then take our online survey. It’s available at

If you have any questions or comments, please email us at

It’s a whole new day. Thank you for beginning yours with the Chicago Tribune.


Gerry Kern

It turned out this “whole new day” included firing the foreign reporting staff and other writers and copy editors, axing the Chicago section, reducing the number of pages, and the gratuitous use of exclamation points. The paper had already become a comic book featuring life-sized visuals and personality-driven stories, so I decided I had suffered enough.

I told my friend Jacob Schroeder, a book publicist with whom we shared an office, that I had canceled my subscription, because the newspaper had gotten so bad. He sat at the round table where he always took his lunch, reading the Tribune. He shook his head sadly, one hand on his fork. “Well” he offered weakly, “it gets a little better as the week goes on. Monday and Tuesday are the worst. By Thursday it starts to improve.”

Not long after I canceled my subscription I received a phone call from Paul Lynch whose title was “Director, Quality/commercial print.” He said he was concerned about the fact that I had terminated my subscription and wanted to talk about it. I was surprised that anyone cared. We had more than one conversation during which I aired my grievances. Paul was very patient and polite and on October 8, 2008 sent me the following e-mail:


Thanks again for taking the time to share the correspondence you received from our editorial staff. There was good intent, but I can see why you thought it was a little impersonal.

I look forward to your additional thoughts and constructive feedback. Please remember the editor’s intent for the redesign is an evolution of continuous improvement. Thus, your feedback is critical and we appreciate it.

I also enjoyed our phone discussion and I hope you give us another chance. Please email or call me if you change your mind. It will make my day. In addition, regardless of your decision to remain a customer, I would be honored to provide you and your family with a personal tour of our facility. It’s quite interesting and I enjoy showing it off.”

The newspaper reader deprived of his daily fix will become irritable, like a person whose mystery novel has been snatched away before he or she has finished it, or a coffee drinker handed a cup of tea. No matter what I did I would not be able to whip out the Chicago section, flip it over to read Tom Skilling’s weather report and move on to read stories from far-flung places by Hugh Delios, Joel Greenberg, or Tom Hundley.

I was angry with my friend I told my wrath, my wrath did….not really end, but, I kept thinking perhaps I needed to change my attitude to suit the day, so, I ended up taking the free subscription that Lynch had offered during our phone conversation and then renewed with a payment. But, my attempt to adapt to the sorry state of the Tribune did not last. I canceled and ordered the Sun-Times.

I wasn’t the only one complaining.

“After our last redesign in 2008,” says Joe Knowles, “we heard from many readers who clearly valued the print experience. It’s a habit they are loath to give up. Many of them use the web, but they still like the idea of sitting down with the paper and a cup of coffee in the morning. There were dozens and dozens of comments…Most of the disgruntled people said they were leaving us for the WSJ or NYT, not the Herald or the Sun-Times. That could only lead us to believe that there was a core of serious news consumers out there, and that we needed to find a way to serve them better.”

“Last summer,” Knowles continued, “we began exploring the idea of a ‘premium’ paper aimed at our most engaged readers… that was the ‘Five Star’ project. It was driven by two factors. One, we realized that over time we had shrunk the paper to the point that we were turning off our best customers. And two, we needed to turn our business model around. With ad revenue in steady decline, we needed a model that would be more consumer-supported, like a premium cable TV channel. Over the winter and into the spring, the idea evolved further. Eventually, we decided not to develop a separate ‘Five Star’ brand and instead position the Tribune as the premium tier.”

So, the Tribune brass reversed course, but it took three years for them to realize they had lost their best customers.

The thing I find odd about last summer’s powwow as described by Knowles, is that Tribune executives would think in terms of “a premium cable TV channel” while discussing the restoration of a newspaper.

This may be symptomatic of the problem former reporter David Simon (who now writes for a premium cable TV channel) identified during his June talk in Baltimore at the annual meeting of the Association of American University Presses. Simon attributed many of the recent financial problems of newspapers to the fact that management has had contempt for its own product. And the corollary of contempt for the work of reporters and editors is contempt for the newspaper-reading public.

However you explain the long strange trip of the Chicago Tribune, the newspaper is now heading in the right direction. While the Chicago Tribune’s foreign reporters will not be brought back, Los Angeles Times reporters have stepped in to give the Tribune some first-rate reporting from abroad.

I asked Joe Knowles if the paper intended to add staff, or if they planned to cut the number of employees, and, specifically, copy editors, a group whose work has been undervalued by newspapers and book publishers alike:

“We added some staff in Business to beef up the reporting there. As for copy editors, we have not cut back from 2008 levels, when we made some overall staff reductions. We’re trying to protect that function because I believe it separates us from the pack. We’ve tried to be more creative with our new hires, finding people who can double as editors and designers. That flexibility has helped us cover our needs with a smaller overall staff.”* SEE POSTSCRIPT.

I told Knowles that I regard pages two and three as a lost opportunity. John Kass has been published on page two for many years with the vain hope he might turn out to be another Mike Royko. His column appears four days a week.

Kass has recently written with passion about ex-mayor Daley’s bodyguards, eating watermelon, and a mobbed-up former Chief of Detectives named William Hanhardt who was released from prison after serving ten years for running a ring of jewel thieves. Kass poses this question: “With Joe [Joey ‘the clown’ Lombardo] and Fast Eddie [alderman Edward Vyrdolyak] out of the picture, who’ll throw the welcome home party for the boss of detectives?”

As the self-styled tough guy of Chicago columnists, Kass panders to the idea of Chicago as a city full of corrupt cops and politicians. His irony is heavy as the syrup in a can of peaches. It is as if he is always winking at the reader in anticipation of what he thinks his readers think about the city. He is a one-note Johnny and the tedium of his voice has become oppressive.

On page three is a feature called “The Talk.” At its worst The Talk is part gossip column, part news, and part nonsense. It has the earmarks of an editorial football passed from hand-to-hand, and I wonder if anyone at the Tribune knows what it is or what it is supposed to be. At best it has some entertaining stories that could easily be placed into an appropriate section. Here are three Headlines from this week:

July 20th: “RUFFLED FEATHERS Plumage Demand: Fly fisherman vs. fashionistas “(This includes a large color photograph of a woman sporting a feather in her hair.)

July 21st: “Scotland Yard Puzzle: Why’s it called that?”

July: 22: “Unstrung heroes eye air guitar title
Chicago plays host to national contest this weekend”

The latter story and many others—like the July 13th piece (“Body of Work Speaks to An Icon”) about the Marilyn Monroe sculpture at Pioneer Court—would fit nicely into a reconstituted Chicago section.

Read within the context of an appropriate section, most of The Talk stories would work well, but they don’t belong on page three. If Tribune executives realized they were losing subscribers to the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, why would they take the funfair and clown approach to the very front of the newspaper? Neither the Times nor the Journal would use their first three pages this way.

“The Talk has its fans and detractors,” says Knowles, “same for John Kass I would imagine. I think The Talk serves as a change of pace from the news report, which can sometimes be a little heavy.”

Yes, the Tribune is headed in the right direction, but management needs to rethink what they print in the front section. In my view the old stand-alone Chicago section ought to be reestablished, and prime time (to go back to a television metaphor) should be occupied by serious news. Those readers who find this news too heavy can read the RedEye edition. I can say this without being accused of snobbery because I used to write for RedEye.

There are many other newspapers that have gone to the funfair format, but I don’t think the Chicago Tribune needs to follow that lead. After all, many newspaper websites these days are full of moving pictures, color, and instant titillation, so print does not need to mimic that approach.

I look forward to reading the Chicago Tribune and, especially, the hard-hitting investigative pieces to come.

POSTSCRIPT: CRAIN’S CHICAGO BUSINESS reports that 20 people were fired from the newsroom of the Chicago Tribune, including veteran health reporter Bruce Japsen. “Shell-shocked is how you might describe the feeling today,” a source tells the Sun-Times. “It’s something that caught the staff completely off guard.” It is sad news indeed and took Brucejquiller by surprise as well.

Does the right hand know what the left hand is doing at the Tribune Company? Will the company’s promise  of “a bigger better Tribune” be fulfilled? Japsen is a skilled and experienced reporter, firing him gives the impression that the much-vaunted expansion is a public relations stunt.

POSTSCRIPT THE SECOND: The Tribune Company’s Los Angeles Times has fired the entire free-lance writing staff of its Book Review. What other changes might be taking place at Tribune-owned properties?


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