Sunday, July 6, 2008

Bad News Business Decisions

By Dick Ahles

In the Land of Steady Habits, the 243-year-old Hartford Courant had been among the steadiest-until the Tribune Co. came along to make the paper's fourth century its most difficult.

Under pressure from a debt-ridden owner and declining circulation and advertising revenues, the state's largest newspaper is now being forced by its owner, the Tribune Co., to decrease its newsroom staff and the amount of news it produces every day by 25 percent. By the end of July, the news staff will be reduced from 232 to 175, down from 400 in the mid 1990s. The news content will be cut in September.

The only glimmer of hope is in Tribune owner Sam Zell's need to sell assets to pay his crippling debt. This gives the Courant the chance to be sold.

The Tribune, which owns 13 newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and Baltimore Sun, 26 television stations and other media, is being run by an owner whose background is in real estate deals and a chief operating officer who comes from the radio industry. Neither has any newspaper experience.

The radio guy, Randy Michaels, became an object of some richly deserved derision in news circles when he observed that a newspaper's productivity and value to its owner can be measured by how many pages of news each reporter produces in a year.

In the view of this journalistic innovator, “you can eliminate a fair number of people while not eliminating very much content.” They must really love this guy in newsrooms from Hartford to LA.

John Morton, one of the newspaper industry's leading analysts, said he worries “whenever somebody who has no background or fundamental understanding of the newspaper business takes over a newspaper company” and that is why he worries about the Tribune Co.

Quality doesn't seem to figure in the Tribune's desire to achieve what it cutely calls its effort to “right-size” its newspapers. Zell and Michaels ordered the Courant and the Tribune's other properties to give readers what they want. What they want, according Michaels, is smaller papers with shorter stories and more graphs, maps, lists and greater emphasis on local news, which is fine if you read another paper.

And what's wrong with giving readers what they want? Plenty. The newspaper doesn't exist just to sell groceries or automobiles or drugs you should ask your doctor about. It's in business to provide information the reader needs and when it decides to make its first priority giving readers what they want, the danger is that it will give them less of what they need.

I know this is so because I spent most of my career in television news and that is precisely what happened when news consultants convinced TV stations that viewers wanted more weather, fires, murders, dog stories, medical breakthroughs and consumer advice and fewer stories on government, politics, education and economics. The result is the TV news many no longer watch.

“When you fool with people's habits,” added analyst Morton, “when it comes to newspapers, you take a risk.” And in a land known for the steadiness of those habits, an even greater risk.

Dick Ahles is a retired journalist from Simsbury. E-mail him at

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