In Sales Ploy, ‘Chicago Trib’ Hands ‘RedEye’ a Scoop

By: Mark Fitzgerald

The once-taboo idea of letting the newspaper’s Web site scoop its print product is common practice these days.

But a tactic the Chicago Tribune just employed to drive Sunday sales remains unusual: It put an investigative story from a series that began this Sunday on the front page of last Friday’s edition of RedEye, the youth-oriented tabloid it publishes on weekdays.

“We debated this issue with great vigor,” the Tribune’s deputy projects editor, Flynn McRoberts told me Wednesday. “The question was, are we going to be driving people to the Sunday paper — or is (reader reaction) going to be, ‘We’ve already read it in RedEye, so why should we pick up the Sunday paper?'”

McRoberts’ argument, and the one that carried the day, is that the two newspapers — called “the Blue” and “the Red” inside Tribune Tower — reach two different audiences.

And, indeed, the way the story was played in the two papers illustrates the different appeals each makes to its readers.

In the Blue paper, Tribune Beijing Bureau Chief Evan Osnos’ first story in the series unfolds with a leisurely lyricism, “more of a New Yorker (magazine) pacing to it,” in McRoberts’ apt description.

The RedEye version, rewritten by its editor, Jane Hirt, got to the point after two short grafs: “The result: Buying cashmere sweaters pollutes the air you breathe.”

“We used maybe 20% of the article, and focused it on the consumer angle of cashmere,” Hirt said.

Osnos’ series entitled “China’s Great Grab” looked at the emerging economic power’s insatiable appetite for resources, and how it is literally changing the world. The cashmere story, for instance, documented how China’s massive cashmere industry not only slashed the cost of once-pricey cashmere sweaters, but has produced overgrazing by goats that has accelerated the pace of desertification of the Gobi — sending dust pollution into Los Angeles. Other stories looked the similarly hidden environmental and economic costs of hardwood flooring and China’s relentless pursuit of new oil supplies. To view a multimedia package of the series click here.

There’s no real way of knowing whether previewing the series in RedEye led to more sales of the Sunday Trib, but the heavy Web and chat traffic suggests it reached young readers.

The cashmere story was actually the third time the Blue has previewed projects in the Red. “The first time was in November of 2003, so you can see it’s not something we do regularly,” McRoberts said.

But RedEye regularly directs readers to the Sunday paper in other ways. On Fridays, it runs a “RedEye Recommends” item that points out five stories that will be running in the Sunday Trib. And the same day the cashmere story ran, RedEye noted that Sunday’s Tribune would include a poster of Chicago Bears player Brian Urlacher.

From time to time, too, the Trib puts coupons for discounted Sunday papers on stickies on the RedEye’s front cover.

“We’re always trying to drive RedEye readers to the Sunday paper, and the Tribune in general,” Hirt said.

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