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Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Tribune Starts Its Overhaul in Orlando

The Orlando Sentinel landed on newsstands Sunday with a new layout featuring more graphics, quick-read digests of top news, blog summaries and other changes aimed at making the newspaper more appealing to harried readers.

Orlando is a proving ground for Sam Zell's effort to reinvent floundering Tribune Co., owner of a string of television stations and newspapers, including the Sentinel, the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. Between now and the end of September, Tribune plans to roll out redesigns at its papers. Accompanying the makeovers will be scaled-back page counts and further paring of employees.

Mr. Zell took control of the company in December after leading an $8.2 billion deal to take Tribune private. The buyout left Tribune saddled with debt amid an industrywide meltdown in newspaper advertising, but Mr. Zell and his new management team of radio and TV executives have promised a revival built on fresh ideas.

Newspaper promotions declared "New look, new stories, new attitude," in the run-up to Sunday's launch. Like other newspaper makeovers, the redesigned Sentinel reflects a new industry reality: to avoid looking dowdy to readers used to the pizzazz and immediacy of the Web, newspapers must be eye-catching and full of alluring and indispensable stories.

"Our community is fast moving, very modern. It's changing and growing," says Sentinel Editor Charlotte Hall. "We need to have a paper that feels like that, too." The Sentinel, Florida's third-largest newspaper by weekday circulation, has seen circulation hold essentially flat in the last year to 227,593. Times Publishing Co.'s St. Petersburg Times leads in Florida with a weekday circulation of more than 300,000 and McClatchy Co.'s Miami Herald is at No. 2 with circulation of about 240,000.

Newspapers and magazines looking for new life frequently turn to makeovers. Since the introduction of USA Today in 1982, newspaper redesigns have followed a similar pattern: splashier color, simpler layouts and more digestible stories for busy readers.

The new Sentinel has drawn on many of these same design elements, and even Ms. Hall concedes the redesign isn't as radical as it could be. But some of the new touches are less common: Lee Abrams, Tribune's new chief innovation officer, encouraged the paper to do more to emphasize its "stars," and that idea made it into the new look, in the form of front-page pictures of columnists accompanied by blurbs from their columns.

The paper has also bolstered its coverage of local news, consumer information and government-watchdog stories, and has coached reporters on different ways to tell stories. A feature about a troubled school turned into an emotional first-person account of the reporter's year spent in the classrooms and hallways.

New Tribune management has been encouraging fresh thinking from company properties. Tribune's newspaper division in particular has been slammed by Mr. Zell and his team as being stuck in the past. Mr. Abrams, a radio-industry veteran, has raised eyebrows with stream-of-consciousness memos tossing out ideas from front pages consisting entirely of maps to more flexible sizes for wedding announcements so wealthy people can drop big money to trumpet their big day. A frequent target of Mr. Abrams's ire is newspapers' staid look. Talk of revolution, however, has translated into few specific prescriptions from the Zell camp to cure Tribune's ills.

It remains unclear whether thinner, jazzier newspapers can bolster Tribune's precarious financial health. Ad sales are in free-fall across the industry, and Tribune is faring even worse. Newspaper advertising dropped 13% in the first quarter, according to the Newspaper Association of America, while Tribune's ad revenue fell 15%. By virtue of its $13 billion debt load, largely stemming from Mr. Zell's buyout, Tribune has little room to maneuver. Already the company's $1 billion in annual cash flow has the company close to the edge of its lending commitments.

Past experience shows newspaper makeovers don't necessarily translate into financial success. After the Bakersfield Californian underwent a drastic redesign two years ago, the 60,000-circulation paper in California's Central Valley saw a small initial jolt to circulation and revenue, sparked by the brighter look and expanded coverage of hot topics like immigration. But the gains have been erased as the area economy struggles. Bakersfield Californian Chief Executive Richard Beene says the steps were necessary to keep the paper relevant, but he has advice for others considering a similar redesign: "Don't expect it to turn around circulation or revenue overnight. It's not a magic bullet."

Orlando will be a petri dish as eight of Tribune's major dailies plan their redesigns. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel and the Baltimore Sun are teed up next. The Chicago Tribune has named leadership teams to oversee its revamp planned for September, according to an internal memo in recent days, and will use its Saturday editions to test new ideas. Mr. Abrams says Orlando's prototypes are being shared as he and other Tribune officials jet across the country visiting the newspapers. He says, however, that every paper will be left to chart its own course. "I think there will be similarities, but it won't look like a national template by any means," Mr. Abrams says.

Newspaper design experts who saw prototypes of the new-look Sentinel generally gave it high marks. Howard Greenberg, publisher of the Sentinel and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, says Orlando advertisers are excited about the redesign, and he is hopeful the makeover can help reverse sliding ad revenue dented by the souring Florida housing market. "If we could get everyone reading the paper one more day a week, this will be a financial home run for us," he says.

The Sentinel, whose Sunday circulation is 332,000, set up a phone line and email address to handle feedback on the redesign. Early reader response appeared to be light, but Ms. Hall said the impact of a redesign would take months to pin down. "We will be listening to our readers carefully," she said.

By: Shira Ovide
Wall Street Journal; June 23, 2008