This is probably going to end badly for Tribune Co.

By Steve Outing

I’ve been thinking more about the Tribune Co.’s “radical” print newspaper redesigns, which started with its Orlando Sentinel last Sunday. I’ve checked out the print edition each day this week.

Overall, my impressions are big-time negative — not so much from a how-it-looks perspective (the design is nice enough), but rather from a corporate strategy perspective.

  1. It’s not that radical of a redesign. I wrote last week after viewing the online preview of the print redesign that it didn’t seem that much different from a USA Today-like revamping. After looking over its pages this week, I just can’t see that this is something that is going to “save” printed newspapers. It’s hardly a “reinvention” of the print medium.
  2. It’s not going to win over younger people. To the Internet-savvy young person for whom newspapers are another generation’s relic media, this revamping of the printed newspaper won’t even register. Instead, the abrupt change in how the paper looks will annoy established readers who still value the print edition. My prediction: 6 months from now the Sentinel will have fewer print subscribers.
  3. The redesign is flash disguising editorial cutbacks. I get a strong sense from this redesign that it is an attempt to win over people with short, Internet-fueled attention spans by using flash and splash to cover up the fact that there’s less to the paper. It feels like a TV or radio mentality applied to newspapers, and it won’t work, IMHO. Look at the negative reactions in Hartford, Connecticut from readers who are hearing about Tribune owner Sam Zell’s instructions to the Courant’s publisher to reduce editorial content to a 50/50 editorial/ad split. The redesign in Orlando is meant to cover that up (Zell’s edict applies in Orlando, too), but I’m confident that Orlandoans will see this as a ploy and reject it.
  4. The redesign goes in the wrong direction. I think Zell is misguided to think that putting a corporate team of TV and radio people in charge of reinventing the company’s printed newspapers is the way to go. They seem to be steering it to in-your-face visuals and make-it-shorter articles. But people still willing to read printed papers tend to be older and more thoughtful, so that’s the wrong direction. Orlando’s paper would do better to aim for New York Times instead of New York Post.
  5. Redesigning print won’t save the company. This is the key point. A good, smart print redesign could go far in retaining existing readers who like reading on paper; it will hold on to them a bit longer. (A badly conceived one, as I view Orlando’s, will result in readers fleeing.) But a redesign is not going to bring new readers to print. The Tribune Co. needs to put all its creativity and crazy ideas into Internet strategy, which is what is going to save the company.

One reason for my sense of Tribune Co. doom is employee morale, which must be pretty low right now. An indicator of that is this video of a speech by Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, who insults his Tribune Co. bosses at a Los Angeles Press Club awards event (to hearty laughter from the crowd). I don’t know how an effective turnaround is going to happen in an atmosphere of employee disdain and disrespect for company leaders. (If I’m wrong on this, perhaps some folks inside Tribune newspapers will set me straight.)

My prediction: Zell, famous for his expletives, will be doing a lot more cursing before Tribune starts to go down in flames after not making its debt payments within the next year or two.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!