Ever since Sam Zell bought the Chicago Tribune, I was worried about whether the paper could survive. His heavily leveraged purchase put the company deeply in dept at a time of declining newspaper readership. Then the recession hit ad revenues, leading to even more financial pressures.
The cutbacks and layoffs at the Trib arguably led to a decline in journalistic standards, accompanied by a cheapening of the look of the paper and a bizarre move on their website to turn their most famous owner, Colonel Robert R. McCormick, into a cartoon buffoon. Go to a story on the Tribune website and you’re likely to see a box with “Col. Tribune Recommends” pointing you to other, unrelated stories. The cartoon colonel wears a hat made from a newspaper, and has his own Twitter profile, Facebook page and email address. Apparently they have meet-ups where people also wear newspaper hats.
Then comes the news that the Tribune is about to switch to tabloid format for casual copy sales. Subscribers will still get the broadsheet version, but the version sold in vending boxes and newsstands will be a tabloid. People buying the paper outside of the Chicago Region will get the broadsheet version, too. They promise the same articles in both versions, though the look may be different because of the different formats.
The Tribune has long had the largest circulation of Chicago’s two dailies, but according to the most recent circulation figures, the tabloid format Chicago Sun-Times sells 186,626 copies (60% of their total sales) versus 46,495 copies (9% of their total) of the Chicago Tribune. The Trib says consumers have long demanded a more public transit-friendly tabloid format, and that may very well be true. But tabloid formats are much cheaper to produce than broadsheet papers. It seems inevitable that all copies will eventually be in tabloid format.
By itself, changing to tabloid format means nothing: Format doesn’t indicate content, despite the bad reputation “tabloids” have. However, the cutbacks, the layoffs, the odd decisions about the way the information is packaged all suggest that the paper may be acting out of desperation.
I hope the Chicago Tribune survives. It’s my hometown newspaper, the one I grew up with, and I have tremendous sentimental attachment to it. It’s always sad to see a newspaper die, as so many have in recent decades. Maybe these moves are just odd enough to work. I hope it does.