One of America’s biggest newspaper chains has issued an edict: advertising pages must equal the amount of editorial space.
The order comes from Sam Zell, the tough-talking, hard-driving chairman and chief executive of The Tribune Company, owner of major US newspapers including the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and a dozen others.
If necessary, up to 500 pages of news will be scrapped every week from the company’s various papers, he has warned.
It’s a move – drastic as it is – that the management insists is absolutely necessary because of shrinking revenues. The aim is papers with pages – excluding classified ads and special advertising sections – split 50:50 between news and ads.
The edict has shaken many journalists, who don’t quite see how skinnier papers – and a resulting smaller news staff – can solve the problems of today’s newspapers. But no one has come up with an alternative.
The Tribune plan is a stepped-up version of what many other newspaper groups are tentatively trying in the hope of staving off increasing financial problems.
At the Los Angeles Times, it is estimated the plan could mean cutting the news pages by as much as 80 a week. Lesser reductions can be expected at some of the smaller papers in the group, including The Baltimore Sun, Orlando Sentinel and the Hartford Courant.
There could also be a big effect on news staff. Already an analysis has been conducted in which the mount of copy produced by each reporter was assessed. The judgement: Many writers were not pulling their weight and would hardly be missed.
It is even felt that most readers will hardly notice a decline in the quantity of news, if stories normally written by staff are replaced with stories from AP or Reuters.
The effect on staff morale is nevertheless another question. The New York Times has raised the question of whether it might accelerate the drift of readers to the Web and other sources of news.
On the other hand, Allen Neuharth, former chairman of Gannett and pioneer of the abbreviated newspaper such as USA Today, believes it might not do much harm.
“Most readers of newspapers only read a small percentage of what a newspaper produces,” he said.
The Tribune plan includes providing more graphics and charts – which it is believed readers will ultimately prefer and accept.
It is suspected that the biggest target will be international and possibly some national news, which these days can be largely read at the press of a computer key. Local news will probably be able to hold its own.
One noted publisher who doesn’t subscribe to the idea of cutting back on the size and content of newspapers is Rupert Murdoch.
In the Wall Street Journal, which he now owns, he had this comment on how he thinks the current problems can be solved: “Just produce better papers, papers that people want to read.
“Stop having people write articles to win Pulitzer Prizes. Give people what they want to read and make it interesting.”