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Breaking News out of Hollywood

The Channel 5 news, anchored by furniture peddler and Mayor Daley suckup Alison Rosati (more on that later), informed me tonight there was “breaking news out of California” after the commercial break. Curiosity kept me there.

What was this breaking news? An earthquake? A fiscal crisis spurred by some action or inaction by the state general assembly? Unrest in Los Angeles or San Francisco or Oakland?

No, it was more important than that. Apparently Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver are separating.

Who says hard-hitting TV news is dead?

Where Pay Per View Gets Tricky

My wife tipped me off to some puzzling news. USA Today evidently is amending the way they compensate writers, going to an incentive system that pays bonuses to the writers getting the most page views.

The Big Lead originally broke the news, and the article expresses concern that writers might start pandering to the lowest common denominator to bring in views. This is a legitimate worry, but USA Today might be onto something.

The company needs to reward employees who provide the desired results. News organizations are useless if no one uses them. Even worse, they are unprofitable. They need sets of eyes. Writers are the product, so if my story on celebrity smut brings readers in, I need to be compensated.

The balance needs to come in when deciding where and how the page views fit in. There’s a USA Today reporter that’s writing a story on the newly-averted budget shutdown (yawn). He or she is not going to get the page views the reporter writing on Charlie Sheen’s exploits.

Also, I can get a ton of page views by reporting exaggerated, false or simply sensationalized information. This obviously chips away at the news organization’s reputation (one of its most important assets), and reporters need to be evaluated on accuracy, professionalism, ethics and tone. But if all those criteria are met, page views are deadly important, too.

I can’t condemn USA Today for what they’re trying to do. Information and the journalists who provide it aren’t free, and it’s about time they start properly valuing both.

Egg on his face

As I noted yesterday, Matt Painter had little reason to leave Purdue for Missouri. It didn’t really add up. But the St. Louis Post Disptach’s Bernie Miklasz seemed to have the story nailed. Yesterday, things just looked very good for Mizzou. Today, Miklasz wrote that Painter took the job and was going to West Lafayette to say goodbye to his team.

Except he wasn’t. In fact, Painter did consider the Missouri deal, but it just wasn’t enough to lure him away from his home state and his alma mater. Painter signed a contract extension through 2018-19.

There’s a lot to be excited about right now with Purdue basketball. We are moving into our new offices and locker room complex over the next couple of weeks. Our program is built on hard work, and we are ready to get back to improving as a team and a staff.¬†At the end of the day, my heart is at Purdue, and this is a place where I want to win a national championship.

Oops.

For Miklasz’s part, the crow eating is in progress. Miklasz went so far as to suggest Painter would make an appearance at the Cardinals’ opener at Busch Stadium tomorrow. Sounds like someone gone overboard with some anonymous sources.

Is Bernie red-faced? Well, yeah.

At Lafayette’s Journal and Courier, the sports staff should celebrate. They did enough on-the-record reporting and showed the patience not to report something as fact even when other, larger organizations were reporting it. They trusted their instincts and didn’t rush to be first, only to be right.

Good job.

James Tyree and the Sun-Times’ future

Mesirow Financial founder James Tyree died this week at 54.

The question is, did the Sun-Times die with him?

Tyree bought a media group no one else want, for a mere pittance. The Sun-Times Media Group was in debt, losing cash and shedding readers. Tyree played hardball with the Chicago News Guild, getting them to make some considerable concessions before closing on the Sun-Times. The Guild nearly blocked the purchase.

If the Guild nixed the deal, the Sun-Times would have been dead. No other buyer had stepped forward and signs pointed to STNG running out of cash.

That all said, waves of layoffs continue, even after Tyree’s death. Suffice to say, STNG is very lean, yet not yet profitable.

The Sun-Times for some reason captured Tyree’s imagination. Tyree had plans for the Sun-TImes, but first he had to save it. The long-term prospects for the Sun-Times weren’t good with Tyree alive, but at least he was willing to be patient.

Will his group have the same patience, let alone a similar vision for the paper?

I hope so. I fear not. A year from now, Chicago might be the next one-newspaper town.

Bludgeoning the Brands; Destroying the Product


Michael Miner’s News Bites notes a full-page Wall Street Journal ad that ran in the Sun-Times the other day. It seems that a Tribune subscriber abandoned the paper for the Journal, and she wrote them to compliment them for such a strong product. The last straw that drove her to the Journal? The September redesign, which is hideous.

Miner notes the timing of the full-page ad:

Readers of the ad whose reaction was, “Surely the Tribune isn’t as bad as all that!” and turned to the morning Trib for reassurance found themselves staring at a whopping front-page profile of Linda Kollmeyer, the WGN-TV Lottery lady. “LUCK BE A LADY” said the headline to the edition’s most prominently placed story. Alongside it was a report on a tuition squabble at Marian Catholic High School in Chicago Heights. Other elements of the front page included a picture of Bono in Chicago and a headline “Monster trains are here / Get ready to rumble.”

Email I received from an unhappy camper called it “perhaps our must inane front page to date since the disastrous redesign of the paper.”

Yes, the packaging counts, but so does the product. I used to make time to spend a half hour, maybe more, with the morning newspaper. Now, I skim the Tribune, and move on to the meatier Wall Street Journal and Financial Times.

Miner came back Thursday with another story about how the former reader, Coleen Davison, was courted heavily by the Tribune staff (most notably, the editorial page editor Blagojevich wanted whacked). Despite a good dialogue, Davison left the meeting at Tribune Tower feeling that the newspaper she grew to love was not coming back.

It’s a shame. The product matters, and as newspapers strain to appeal to a new demographic, they are systematically alienating their most loyal customers. By trying to save money, they are destroying the product.

The Washington Post is also cutting. Today comes word that they are chopping the business section down to size. This follows another round of layoffs there.

We’ve all heard about the problems the New York Times has had. That’s as strong a newspaper brand as you’ll see anywhere in the world.

How powerful is the Washington Post brand? Well, it rewrote the book on investigative reporting in the 1970s, bringing down a President and inspiring a book made into an Academy Award-winning movie.

Or we can remember what one of my readers said about the Post a couple of weeks ago. Yes, he would look forward to reading Thomas Boswell, who is still a big part of the Post brand.

Boswell’s also a big part of the product. People subscribe to the Post to read Boswell. They subscribed to the Tribune to read Bernie Lincicome or Bob Verdi. Or Mike Royko. Or, yes, even Bob Greene.

Royko passed on. Greene had an indiscretion catch up to him a dozen years after the fact (giving the Tribune no choice but to fire him. Verdi left to write about golf. Lincicome left after feeling slighted by a management team that seemed to value Skip Bayless more than he.

So what are we left with? John Kass, a strong voice, although I’m not disappointed on days he takes off. Eric Zorn, a prolific writer (who’s gotten with the new media program), although often way too full of himself. Stephen Chapman, a good policy guy who gives you your vegetables, but rarely gives you written ice cream. Well-written ice cream is important to retain readers. Beyond that, what is the Tribune brand anymore? Col. Tribune, a strange caricature of Col. McCormick?

No. This is the Trib’s brand:

The product? Not so good anymore.

And Zell wants to increase revenues? Well, look no further than the comment section of the Reader’s posting to find the answer:

Vince
March 13th – 12:56 p.m.
Here’s an idea that the newspaper industry somehow finds impossible to grasp: Maybe the print reader is an older demographic loyal to in-depth enterprise journalism and the online reader/tabloid reader is looking for something briefer and breezier. Why force one into the mold of the other? Instead, raise the subscription rates for those devoted to print and give them the depth that Colleen is asking for. Meanwhile, do a better job online of appealing to the younger demographic with features that are truly interactive and with much quicker load time.
Joe Cappo
March 13th – 1:16 p.m.
Vince has the best idea yet. Newspapers are always trying to appeal to a younger audience that has expressed quite unequivocally that they prefer to get their news from the Internet. So why not produce a newspaper for the audience that prefers the printed page–older, more educated and more affluent readers. After all, that is the fastest growing age cohort of our population.
If the Tribune has a decent news organization (currently questionable), they should also be able to come up with an effective Internet-based news product that appeals to younger readers.
Unfortunately, the paper does neither.

Ground breaking thoughts, eh? The Tribune has a print newspaper for youngsters, a broadsheet for home subscribers (presumably so they can read the paper over coffee and eggs), and a tabloid for commuters (so they can read it on the bus and the El more easily). They have an Internet site for everybody. All four incarnations of the Tribune are geared for a “young” audience.

To me, their attempt to look “young” and “hip” looks like the desperate out-of-touch parent desperately trying to get through to his or her 14-year-old child. It’s condescending at times, clownish at others. The print Tribune needs to be itself.

The Internet Tribune (and maybe the Red Eye, if it really makes sense to keep printing it), needs to look for ways to make this thing work. Build a revenue model. Make it worth it to return to the site. The Net is where the newspaper will live on. However, you still have a large, moneyed demographic that wants the paper it came to depend on back.

Meanwhile, you can go online at the other dying Chicago paper and read Rick Telander trash bloggers (along with former Ohio State star and current prison inmate Maurice Clarett). So we have the city’s newspapers insulting the group of people that still appreciate the established media with a crappy product, and we have the city’s newspapers insulting the group of people it wants to court on the Internet with a column slamming some of this decades great advances in democratizing the press.

By the way, Telander’s column was lousy. For a guy that’s dedicated his life to the craft of writing and reporting, and for a guy once at the top of his game, it’s a hell of a note that I am almost always indifferent to Telander these days.

Again, it’s the product. You succeed by doing what you do well. If you dilute your product, for pride’s sake (and for the sake of your shareholders, who have lost enough already), just shut the doors.

Coleen Davison isn’t the only one out there.