For my money, the saddest story in the latest flood of dying-newspaper-industry news involves the Chicago Tribune. The paper announced last week it will produce two editions: the same old unwieldy broadsheet for home subscribers and a more portable tabloid edition for newsstand buyers.
Come on, really? We're reading about this kind of "innovation" in 2009? It's like Detroit announcing it's going to start making SUVs that are a little smaller and in brighter colors.
Because, get this: The newsstand edition will have basically the same content. It won't be more efficiently or intelligently presented -- tailor-made for distracted commuters, as you might expect -- it'll just be in a slightly more portable, jazzier-looking (in a 1970s sort of way) package. Imagine the production nightmare! And for what? The Trib only sells about 45,000 copies on the newsstand.
Oh, dear Lord. Pathetic.
The Trib move just underscores what newspaper executives still don't get: They're in the business of producing a product that makes millions of consumers feel bad about themselves. The brutal reality here is really about content, not form. As much as newspapers think they've evolved over the years -- adding colorful infographics and flufftastic lifestyle coverage -- the problem is that they still produce information in a way that makes people feel unhappy. I'm not talking about ain't-the-news-depressing unhappy. I'm talking unhappy as in readers thinking, basically, I just can't handle that much information; I'm already overwhelmed! I don't have time for this in my life! I can't keep up!
Chances are, if you subscribe to a newspaper and don't have a pre-modern life of leisure, your newspaper actually makes you feel bad too, if you think about it. Issues pile up, often largely unread. You think frequently about the dead-tree obscenity of it all, particularly on Sundays, when the first thing you do is peel off section after section you know you'll never read. But even the sections you do want to read you often can't get through. As for individual pieces -- well, a handful of star reporters and a columnist or two might more or less consistently deliver enlightenment, but time and time again you probably find yourself quitting pieces after the first few paragraphs, or somehow getting all the way through them and then thinking, "That wasn't worth my time." That surely happens frequently, too, if you have a habit of reading newspaper content online -- more so, actually, because content written in classic J-school-taught "pyramid style" can seem all the more lumbering and flabby amidst the milieu of crisply written blog posts and zippy data points.
Let's drill down further. It's not about form; it's not even really about convenience (by the way, I'm sorry, but tabloid-format newspapers are still pretty cumbersome). It's about the emotional basics of product positioning and marketing.
There are plenty of information products that make people feel good about themselves -- that allow them to feel quickly informed, with-it, part of the conversation, engaged, on top of things. A lot of the best blogs and websites (and tools such as RSS feeds) are about helping consumers to feel in control, basically. Two competing news products I've written about in this space aim to do exactly that: Tina Brown's The Daily Beast and Michael Wolff's Newser. The New York Times thinks it's doing that with its new "Times Extra" online version, which offers "coverage from other news sources and blogs, directly from our home page," but instead it just lards up the works and makes the information flow feel even more daunting. Sorry, Times, but more is less. (Making consumers feel overwhelmed, circa 2009, is just about the worst thing you can to do them.)
In a 2006 column titled "Is the 'Times' Trying to Commit Slo-Mo Suicide?" (in retrospect, the answer seems to be yes), I wrote about craving brevity: "What becomes of the physical paper? It withers away, in a good way, to something incredibly compact. ... The future physical version of the Times -- all paper editions of newspapers of the future that feel the need to still have paper editions (mostly for marketing purposes) -- will essentially be, should essentially be, program guides that excerpt from and direct readers to all the up-to-the-minute content on the web."
Really, most of the time, all consumers want from news organizations is, like, the informational equivalent of a shot of espresso. Instead, we've got the Chicago Tribune attempting to put out the same 64-ounce Big Gulp, but saying, "Hey, look at our cool new cup!" And The New York Times offering "Times Extra" as a sort of 186-ounce online Big Gulp.
But hey, at least the Times cup is filled with V8, right?