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Memo to Sam Zell

To: Sam Zell, new Tribune head honcho
From: Pete Anderson, longtime reader (and former employee of yours)
Re: Reviving the Tribune

Sam, I know you're looking to make a big splash in media circles by reviving the Chicago Tribune, which you've recently taken control of. Everyone says newspapers are a dying medium, but you've defiantly retorted that they ain't dead yet. Given your history of contrarianism, along with the hundreds of millions of dollars you stand to gain if you are proven correct, I'll assume your statements are sincerely felt. Although your maverick status implies you're not terribly receptive to outside opinion, I still have a few ideas to suggest for the Tribune.

Although substantial improvements are needed on the editorial side of the business, I can't comment on much there other than to point out that your front section on Sundays reads like a glorified wire service sheet. While I haven't tabulated any hard figures, I could swear that at least half of the stories there come directly from the Associated Press - in other words, the same stories that every other newspaper in existence has access to. Bolstering your non-Chicago correspondent ranks and foreign bureaus, and thus delivering much more original content, would be a big first step.

But on a more basic level, even if your editorial product improves dramatically, it doesn't mean a thing if you can't deliver that content to the reader. On the internet side, drop the silly site registration formality that's currently required to read Tribune articles online. People will be much more likely to share your stories with others, thus increasing your site traffic and the rates you can charge advertisers, if they can do so without burdening their friends and acquaintances with the annoyance of site registration.

Secondly, there will always be a substantial amount of people who prefer reading an old-fashioned newspaper in hand rather than online. (Assuming, of course, that your editorial quality is high - if a reader only expects to see a few articles they're interested in, they'll probably just read in for free online instead of paying for a copy of the paper.) But those people have to be able to physically access the paper to even consider making a purchase, and I've increasingly noticed instances in which the Tribune's distribution function is sorely lacking. Three pieces of anecdotal evidence from my own experience:

1. Until a month ago, I had home delivery of the Sunday Tribune for most of the past twenty years. Reading the Tribune was a cherished part of my Sunday ritual - in my younger bachelor days, I'd even read it cover to cover. But the Tribune has abdicated its home distribution role, instead outsourcing home delivery to an anonymous fleet of generally unaccountable independent contractors. Our home delivery service grew increasingly erratic, with the paper never arriving half the time, which required us to contact a call center (overseas, we suspect) which always assured us that the delivery person would be contacted immediately and our paper would be arriving shortly. It rarely did, even after calling, and even if it did arrive it wouldn't be there until 10 or 11 a.m. at which point my prime reading time had already passed. Since most such mornings ended up with me driving out to the drugstore to buy my own copy anyway, we decided to cancel home delivery and pick up our copy at the store.

2. Since then I've been picking up the Sunday Tribune at my local CVS. But the clerk there told me that the Tribune has recently been providing significantly fewer copies of the paper each day, which isn't a problem for me since I get to the store fairly early but increases the chances that the later-arriving Tribune reader won't find a copy to buy. On top of that, the Sunday final editions are often mixed up with the early editions (which should have been removed when the final edition was dropped off), thereby risking my arriving back home with a paper full of nothing but Friday's news. The paper's sections are also sorted haphazardly, so I never really know if I'm buying a complete paper.

3. Lastly, this past Sunday I stopped to pick up breakfast at the most popular doughnut shop in town. The place was particuarly crowded this week, with every seat occupied and a line that stretched out the door. Inside, copies of your rival Sun-Times and its subsidiary Joliet Herald-News were in plentiful supply, but no Tribune. While there was a Tribune coin-operated box outside, the box was completely empty - and given the early hour, my guess is that it had never been filled.

Not putting the paper where people can buy it - outside high-traffic doughnut shops and inside drugstores - or reliably delivering it to people's homes are just two aspects of the Tribune's business model which are clearly broken. No matter how good your paper is, if people can't get their hands on it, they won't read it. So fix your distribution system first, and do it quickly. Otherwise your newspaper's steady decline into irrelevance will be no one's fault but your own. Yes, the problems predated your stewardship, but they're your problems now. So fix them.

January 14, 2008 in Chicago Observations | Permalink