Yesterday, I picked up both the Chicago Reader and the New City Journal, another "free" newspaper here in Chicago. What I saw shocked me. It wasn't the content, though; it was the size of both papers.
Recently, the Reader went to a tabloid format. They'd already reduced the number of sections from four to three a few years ago, when they had their old format. Back in the day, the Reader was a thick paper, full of ads, personals, etc. This is not the case.
I pick up a Reader every couple of weeks. When I was a young single guy, picking up a Reader was a Thursday tradition. You'd check out where bands were playing, read music reviews, maybe even look through the "Matches." Even just a few years ago, Kim and I met through the Matches, though we did it online.
The newspaper business is in trouble. Recently, Cincinnati joined the many US cities that only have only one major newspaper. My friend Larry, who works for the Hartford Courant, told me that they keep attriting positions down without replacing people, meaning a bigger and bigger workload for him. The Chicago Tribune was recently sold, and a lot of people think that Sam Zell may have been foolish to buy it. And the Sun-Times laid off a bunch of people in the last week.
I have trouble believing that we're looking at the beginning of the end of newspapers. But there's a shift going on. People in advertising have trouble selling ads-- why, the potential customer asks, should they pay for an ad when they can advertise free on Craigslist?
Zell has talked about newspapers needing to develop new means of revenue. What this means remains to be seen. He's succeeded in all of his other endeavors; I hope he saves the Tribune.
For my part, as much as I read news online-- I probably spent an equal amount of time every day reading the paper and online versions of the New York Times (I subscribe to the New York Times)-- I can't imagine a day when I don't want to have the newspaper in front of me while I eat my breakfast. I hope that the people who run newspapers can figure something out.