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Is this a good story?

May 8, 2009

Tribune Co.’s bankruptcy and mass layoffs at the Baltimore Sun have obscured another troubling incident at the media giant: a market-test of stories that have not yet been published.

Editor & Publisher carried an item about this on April 30, the day after 55 Chicago Tribune reporters signed an e-mail to their editors protesting the practice. That was the same day The Sun laid off 40 union members, and the day after 21 manager-level folks were let go.

Someone sent the reporters’ e-mail to the Associated Press, and a reporter there asked some questions of Tribune management, and they basically fessed-up.

Chicago Tribune editor Gerould Kern, who was to meet with the news staff Thursday afternoon, issued a statement late in the day saying the newspaper had discontinued “a brief market research project that tested reader reaction to working story ideas that have not yet been published.”

It should not need to be said, but for those who don’t know, newspaper reporters and editors take pains to keep their work product under wraps until it’s ready to publish. The thinking is that premature sharing of the stuff reporters find out could cause sources to clam up, or be unfair to the subjects and sources involved in the news story at hand. It is also unfair to readers not in the loop.

Focus-group marketing has been an expensive and useless habit of newspapers for several decades. But until now, the focus groups would be set upon previously published material.

The AP piece links the Chicago incident with another stellar marketing coup the company had in Los Angeles:

Earlier in April, The Los Angeles Times ran an advertisement resembling a news story on its front page. The ad, for the NBC program “Southland,” was labeled as an advertisement at the top, but was in a vertical column previously reserved for news. The text was next to a banner ad for the show at the bottom of the page.

A statement by the newspaper afterward indicated it was testing new approaches to the delivery of news, including new marketing opportunities for its advertisers. News industry analyst Ken Doctor of Outsell Inc. called the ad a “loony idea” that blurred the line on what readers can trust in the newspaper.

People with long memories (like, say, 10 years) might remember the L.A. Times‘ infamous Staples Center fiasco. That happened under the previous management, and helped weaken Times-Mirror for Tribune’s subsequent slaughter of it.

The A.P. story doesn’t say it, but both of these recent gaffes stink strongly of radio-style ploys. Lee Abrams, Tribune’s loopy Chief Innovation Officer, stakes his claim to fame on his popularization of the Album-Oriented Rock format adopted by FM radio stations in the 1970s and ’80s. The repetitive playlists, the blaring, constant commercials, the stifling sameness of the stations, coast to coast–in short, everything that made once-cool radio stations suck–made Abrams into a multi-millionaire guru.

So now Abrams (or someone who thinks just like him) is mutating Tribune, its newspapers and its TV stations and its web sites, into a stunted, mechanized, marketing-driven analogue of the wretched radio world. Journalism? News? Investigations? They’re just “content,” no more or less compelling than a syndicated advice column, crossword puzzle, or an advertorial for a cool new movie.

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