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Chicago Tribune Phil Rosenthal Media Column

July 13, 2008

By Phil Rosenthal, Chicago Tribune

Jul. 13–Two industrywide media business trends crisscrossed last week within Tribune Co.

The result you’ll see in about two months is more news on TV, less in print.

Tribune Co.-owned WGN-Ch. 9 in Chicago announced it was expanding its news offerings by an hour each weekday beginning in September with the addition of a 30-minute broadcast at 5:30 p.m. and an extra half-hour tacked onto its midday news.

A day later the company’s Chicago Tribune began informing employees of plans to cut back on both newsroom staff and number of weekly pages, each of which will have shrunk by around 14 percent before Channel 9 adds to its news.

The business models are changing, making it increasingly cost efficient to add more newscasts as it is increasingly less cost efficient to print–and, just as importantly, distribute–papers.

While newsprint prices are up, despite less demand, it doesn’t take a Nobel laureate to sense skyrocketing oil prices won’t make it cheaper to get printed papers where they have to go.

So the Tribune, for example, has cut back on distribution away from Chicago because those distant readers became too expensive to reach other than electronically.

Add to that the fact that a newspaper, with its portrait of a moment in time that risks being outdated by the time you check your e-mail, is a tough sell with a generation of consumers accustomed to getting up-to-the-minute info at home, in the office or in between.

The life raft for the newspaper business is in digital platforms, free of most publishing and delivery costs. While growing, the Internet isn’t yet generating enough money to float the print enterprise, which has suffered ad declines compounded by the fact that traditional sponsors are in their own financial straits.

But the Internet is anything but the limited marketplace in which papers once competed.

As you read this–in print, online, on a mobile device–the audience advertisers seek through both TV and newspapers is splintering, the byproduct of the ever-increasing options for time and attention.

Even with the cuts, the Chicago Tribune still will have around 500 journalists, more than any three TV news operations in town. Although the printed paper will be more slender, the demands of remaining competitive on the Internet are likely to require its remaining print reporters, like their TV brethren, to produce more actual content than ever before.

But what’s driving the addition of more TV newscasts is only partly the Internet. In recent years the syndicated shows a TV station typically would buy to fill airtime have come to be seen as a much dicier bet compared to news. As network sitcoms have struggled of late, their reruns have become a less reliable draw.

The stations already have news staffs in place. Like the papers, they want to get more out of their personnel. The bonus is that they don’t have to split advertising revenue or pay rights fees on news.

They own their own material, which they can air, post online and repeat from one newscast to another as appropriate.

Before 1992, when ABC-owned Chicago market leader WLS-Ch. 7 expanded its pre-”Good Morning America” newscast to an hour and introduced a half-hour midday newscast, the station ran three hours of local news.

Today that number for Channel 7 is five hours and 35 minutes, not counting the late-night rerun of its 10 p.m. news.

By fall, Tribune Co.’s Channel 9 will be churning out seven hours of local news each weekday.

Fox-owned WFLD-Channel 32 puts out even more, producing a whopping seven hours and 35 minutes of local news each weekday, thanks to the addition last week of a fifth hour to its morning news programming, which now spans from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m.

If sitcoms were funnier and oil were cheaper, the news might be different.

Or ‘He’s still alive?’: Admit it. When you heard that former “Kung Fu” star David Carradine dropped an F-bomb on the “WGN Morning News” on Friday, your first reaction was: Who’s David Carradine?

Along with silly jokes: Notice no one wraps fish in newspapers anymore? Add another item to the list of why the newspaper business is in trouble in the 21st Century: Ziploc bags.

Can we blame the Internet? So Diane Keaton, 62, dropped an F-bomb on ABC’s “Good Morning America” in January. Jane Fonda, 70, employed a vulgarity for female genitalia on NBC’s “Today” on Valentine’s Day. Now Carradine, 71, stuns WGN.

Kids today just have no respect for standards.

philrosenthal@tribune.com

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Copyright (c) 2008, Chicago Tribune

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