Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Retweet: Crain's Chicago Business says new Sun-Times owner to remake the tab into the NY Post of the Midwest

The headline above pretty much tells the whole story: Michael Ferro, the wealthy new owner of the Chicago Sun-Times, who grew up on Long Island, wants to remake the struggling tabloid into the New York Post of the Midwest. Or so Crain's Chicago Business is reporting.

I really have very little else to add to the story, really. But the story, and its Post angle, reminds me of an episode at another struggling daily newspaper. That story, having already played out, might give readers an idea about how all this will play out.

In the early to mid-eighties Hearst Newspapers were trying desperately to figure out what to do with its daily newspaper in Los Angeles. The Herald Examiner had once been the dominate paper – or papers, really – in Los Angeles. Hearst owned the Herald Examiner. That paper was the result of the company merging its two properties, the Herald Express with the Examiner, in 1962.

Probably the quintessential New York Post headline,
now reportedly the model for the Chicago Sun-Times.

Hearst's decision to merge its two papers, while its competitor, Times-Mirror, merged its two papers, left the growing city with just two dailies that would split up the advertising and readers instead of four.

Hearst, being the giant media company compared to Times-Mirror, decided that it would be the afternoon paper, leaving the Los Angeles Times as the morning paper. To say that this was a stupid decision would be an understatement. But more was to come.

In 1967 the employees of the Herald Examiner went on strike as a result of the company playing hardball with its employees. In the end, Hearst "won" in that the original unions were broken. But the strike lasted ten years, cost the company millions of dollars, and left the Los Angeles Times in practically a monopoly situation. But more was to come.

Los Angeles was still growing – into the Valley and into Orange Country. Both Hearst and Times-Mirror found it hard to move into the new areas with any strength. Actually, Times-Mirror found it hard, Hearst didn't really try. As a result, Freedom Communication's Orange County Register surpassed the Herald Examiner in circulation in 1982 (if memory serves me correctly). I was, by this time, out of college, and working at the Herald Examiner.

Hearst wanted to turn the paper around, but didn't want it to cost money. The old, underground presses were long past their prime, but buying new ones was, apparently, out of the question. One new publisher after another came to Los Angeles from New York, looked at the situation, proposed something or other, and then beat it out of town - to be replaced by another New Yorker.

The best solution proposed was the most expensive one: the Herald Examiner would produce an all color newspaper, printed on nice presses and great newspaper stock. Several prototype issues were produced of the Sunday paper – I have at least two samples – they were gorgeous. And they, did I not say, they were expensive to produce. The experiment was chucked, and the publisher went away.

The next experiment reminds me of the plans for the Sun-Times. A tabloid paper would be created. It would look and feel like the tabloids of New York. It would be printed on shitty stock, with ink that barely stayed on the paper. It would be gritty, it would be controversial, it would be just what LAers would read when they take the subway to work each morning.

The Herald Examiner building, seen here in better days, was designed by the same architect who built the Hearst Castle in San Simeon, Julia Morgan.

Or so Hearst thought.

Of course, Los Angeles doesn't have a subway like New York. LAers spend their mornings on the Santa Monica, San Diego or Harbor Freeways. Los Angeles itself is a bowl surrounded with endless suburbs. And even within the bowl can found found suburban towns with all the familiar names: Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Torrance, Manhattan Beach.

In short, Los Angeles is not New York. Not by a long shot.

A tabloid prototype was produced, it was truly as ugly as it was designed to be. But before the paper could be distributed or destroyed, some union members grabbed the papers and threw them out the back of their truck in front of the Herald Examiner building so that the employees could know what Hearst had in mind.
I rushed out of the building, and thanks to the lack of wind, was able to piece a tabloid back together. I have it still, somewhere in my box of old issues from those days. The day it was printed, that paper looked 100 years old.

Shortly after that episode the management team changed yet again, but I was long gone – working then for Copley Newspapers. But the new team was there to shut down the ol' paper and finally kill it off once and for all.

In the end, Los Angeles was not New York. And neither is Chicago.

One could also talk about the times the Tribune Company tried their luck in Los Angeles – first in the Valley, then by buying the LA Times. That hasn't worked out so well, either. There is still value, I guess, in understanding your readers.