Talking bylines with new Chicago Tribune editor

July 17, 2008

gerould-kern.jpgTribune Co is keeping media reporters and headline writers busy these days with news of how the company is trying to turn around its newspaper business and stay afloat under billions of dollars in debt – all while creating a culture that, as Chicago real estate tycoon and newly minted press baron Sam Zell says, does not take itself too seriously.

That is growing more difficult as the company embarks on another round of job cuts at its papers, sparking fear and loathing among employees, and launches an ambitious plan to redo the papers’ sizes and looks. Tribune also set journalism types’ tongues a-wagging with its plan to review reporter productivity as a possible condition for staying on board. That might not sound so controversial, except that many people have interpreted that as saying it’s not about the quality of your stories, it’s about the quantity.

Gerould Kern, Tribune’s vice president of editorial and the successor to departing Chicago Tribune editor Ann Marie Lipinski, addressed some of these topics in a phone interview with Reuters.

Q: What is your immediate task as the new editor of the Chicago Tribune?

A: As we report almost daily, the newspaper business is in a crisis. And I want to do everything I can in my power to save it. And you know, the Chicago Tribune has played a huge role in the history of the nation and the city, and I know it and I’m proud of it and I want that history to stretch far into the future. So I’m optimistic that we can solve these economic problems, the economic dislocation that faces us and that we’re not only going to survive but thrive in the future.

Q: How do you make the business thrive with fewer people?

A: I think it becomes a lot harder and that’s going to force us to be a lot more innovative and entrepreneurial and resourceful than we’ve ever been before. There’s been a lot of misinformation and confusion about productivity as a topic. I think the idea’s fairly simple. Let’s turn over every stone, let’s do every smart thing we can to stretch the resources, to use them to serve people and build our audiences and bring in revenue to support journalism.

It means our full-time professional staff is going to get smaller. And that’s been happening to newspapers all over the country. And yet we’re having to support more local media channels than ever before. … At the end of the day we still will have the largest newsgathering organization in this city by far. And if we are really smart and resourceful about using them we will be able to a fabulous job for consumers in whatever channel they choose.

Q: What do you say to the reporters who say they’re scandalized by the idea of being judged on how many stories they produce, rather than the quality of individual stories?

A: I think it is unfortunate that this has been focused on in this way. I understand it based on some comments that [Tribune Chief Operating Officer] Randy [Michaels] made on the middle of that call. Let me just say this: I talked in a broader sense about productivity, which frankly is the way I’m looking at it. What can the whole organization do that’s smart, that‘s strategic, that’s resourceful.

But on bylines: All of our newspapers are looking at all kinds of information to see what is valuable in making some of these tough choices… Some of our newspapers in some departments have been doing byline counts over the years. It’s not the first time that anybody’s ever done that. From the beginning, we made it clear that this should be viewed as just one data point and, frankly, probably not the most valuable and that it had to be combined with other information. … Everybody knows for instance that you have to evaluate investigative reporters differently than other kinds of reporters. Because reporting takes a long time… And everyone was aware of that.

In the end, the information and the judgment calls [were] left strictly up to editors in the newsroom and that’s where it will remain. So, I think much more is being made of it than really is there.

5 comments

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Newspaper readers buy information and entertainment. Steve Lopez offers both. Newspapers have been tying to reconfigure themselves since they lost the monopoly on supermarket ads. What sells is quality and exclusivity. Until the moguls figure out that good journalism sells, the industry will continue to sprial down. To risk repeating myself, good journalism sells.

ummmm… good journalism doesn’t sell ads. That is the point of the problems right now.

Posted by joe | Report as abusive

Advertising personnel is held to dollar revenue standards, why not hold journalists to reader numbers?

There are plenty of market studies to show newspaper publishers exactly what readers are looking at. If it’s not well read, cut it (and the person writing it unless there’s an area that person can contribute to that will be or is well read).

I’m not sure I agree on the standardized number of stories, but surely by allocating resources to the areas people want to read (including investigative reporting pieces), you can’t lose?

The number of readers has a direct impact on ad dollars – look at preprint numbers if nothing else. We need readers, and therefore need newsrooms to write about what readers want.

ShaBay:
Thanks for writing. Newspapers traditionally have handled the issue of what readers want by adding and subtracting beats from their coverage areas, or larding up beats with more reporters if a topic really heats up and readers demand attention. Nowadays we see newspapers that have no compelling reason to staff overseas bureaus simply cutting out the bureaus while demanding more local coverage from their (ever smaller) staffs.

That gets away from a more difficult and tangential topic, but one that relates to your comment: Some people argue that there is a need to bring news of world events to people’s attention, whether or not it has a direct impact on their lives. If they choose to read it, then they do, but maybe they don’t. The Indian Ocean tsunami was front-page news everywhere, but there are probably many towns in the United States where it had little to no direct impact. Should it have been reported there? I don’t have an answer to that question, but I am curious about what you think.

Posted by Robert MacMillan | Report as abusive

If the only measure of journalism is the number of readers (and we know that the larger the headline, the greater the audience),then it will all Rupert, all the time. Then again, Zell obviously yearns to leave his mark on the public face. There is no other explanation for the mindless and inane and schlocky musings of Randy Michaels. The entire mess is a train wreck. Yet Zell has relatively nothing to lose. You bet the Trib people, including those related to Trib people, are suffering beyond the horizon and all you Zell people have for us are crusty cliches and platitudes from the old rehab days. So have a happy day. We will be sure to crank out the content instead of writing the stories.

Posted by Joan Bien | Report as abusive