By: Mark Fitzgerald
The Chicago Tribune likes electronics. In 1921, it started supplying news and market reports to Chicago’s first radio station. Three years later it bought its own station, renaming it WGN after the paper’s slogan at the time, “World’s Greatest Newspaper.” WGN-TV started broadcasting from Tribune Tower in 1948. The Tribune began making its print text available in electronic formats as far back as 1985, and its Web operations now constitute a new flagship of sorts for the more than 50 sites owned by Tribune Co.
But when David Hiller, the newspaper’s publisher, president, and CEO, is asked to talk about the future of newspapers, he suggests holding the conversation at the Tribune’s Freedom Center production complex ? amid the smells of newsprint and fountain solution.
The not-so-subtle message: The Chicago Tribune believes in print. And Hiller believes it can still reach young and diverse readers with print, including its traditional daily newspaper.
Wall Street and industry experts increasingly preach that the so-called “core product” must transform itself into a vehicle for a smaller, older, and inevitably dying audience. The Tribune isn’t buying it. Hiller declares, “The consumer doesn’t want to make our metro paper a niche product, and we don’t either.”
Sprawling over 31 acres with nearly a million square feet under roof ? “I always like to say a million, it’s 971,000,” says H. Jack Devedjian, area manager for the paper’s facilities and engineering services ? Freedom Center turns 25 next year, but it’s still growing.
On a visit in late August, the final Goss Metrocolor press was being fitted with new MAN Roland color towers that will double the newspaper’s color capacity to 32 pages. To fit three-high formers that will increase page count and sectioning capacity, they had to literally dismantle part of the ceiling. Across the street from the pressroom, the massive Sunday collating center still has its new-car smell three years after going online. And, Hiller lets slip, Tribune’s board of directors just green-lighted the purchase of more inserting equipment to permit preprint distribution below even sub-ZIP code targeting. “We’re investing in print, we’re investing in Freedom Center,” says Hiller. “We’ve invested as much in Freedom Center now as we invested to build the center in the first place.”
As much and sometimes more than any other daily newspaper in America, the Chicago Tribune is distributing content through new media. But again and again, the paper turns to print ? even for audiences that are supposed to be unreachable with the “dead-tree” medium.
Take the fabled 18-34 demographic, for instance. Sure, the Tribune targets that younger set with Web sites, including the entertainment-oriented Metromix.com. But its splashiest effort is in print: RedEye, the five-day quick-read tabloid that turns 4 years old on Oct. 30.
Right after Labor Day, the Tribune increased RedEye’s distribution from 100,000 to 150,000. “When you’re distributing 150,000 copies, you have a daily newspaper as significant as any other in Chicago,” Hiller notes. “That is a very meaningful level.”
RedEye has surprised its many initial critics with its success in the Chicago market. The paper turned profitable last year, and continues to run ahead of plan, the Tribune says. “Our hypothesis was that the [theory] that young people will not read print, which we tested on the market, would be proved wrong,” Hiller explains. “In fact, young people will read if the paper reflects their interests, is engaging, and is convenient.”
Around Tribune Tower, they refer to the Tribune as the “Blue Paper” because of its blue front-page flag. RedEye is the “Red Paper.” And while the Red Paper is intended for young adults, with older mass-transit commuters also along for the demographic ride, Hiller insists the Blue Paper can keep the young, too. After all, he points out, last year’s Gallup Chicago Media Usage poll showed that weekly cumulative readership for the Tribune among 18-34 year olds in the Chicagoland market is 46%.
More RedEye-like editorial elements are also being added to the Blue Paper in deference to the youth movement. Occasionally, content labeled as RedEye shows up in its pages, especially in sports.
The median age of Red readers, 34, is at least a full decade younger than the median for Blue readers, but the differences in the audiences are probably more about lifestyle, says RedEye General Manager Brad Moore: “Our readers are more time-pressed than anything else.”
Vice President/Director of Operations Tony Hunter says that while the Blue Paper’s audience may be older-skewing, the paper has a “deeper, more intense relationship” with that part of its audience. “We don’t look at it as an either/or situation.”
Circulation of the Blue Paper, though, has fallen as steadily as any other big-city newspaper in America. But Hiller argues that should be seen in the context of its many other print offerings for the market. He compares the Tribune to television networks, which are losing market share in broadcast but compensating by launching a variety of cable and Web operations.
Certainly, the Tribune continues to roll out print. It offers an edition of the national Hoy daily in Chicago. One happy by-product of that Spanish-language paper is that its age demographics are actually even younger than RedEye’s.
The Tribune is even betting that its total market coverage (TMC) product will do better if it looks more like a newspaper than a shopper. It now prints the TMC on higher-quality newsprint, and upgraded the editorial with a selection of “greatest hits” from the Blue Paper.
“We are a multi-product, multi-channel information company,” publisher Hiller adds. “And we aren’t giving up on any demographics ? including the 18-34-year-olds, who are an important piece of our audience, currently.”