Five Prescriptions For Sun Times Media’s Health

December 7, 2011

Yesterday Sun Times Media LLC announced it is adopting a metered paywall for the metro daily Sun Times and its suburban papers for $6.99 a month. Paywalls can be good, but judging by the plan’s execution so far, it’s clear that the paywall plan wasn’t entirely thought through.

Half-measures and dithering is endemic at Sun Times Media LLC, especially since it went private a few years back. Not that anyone’s asking, but here’s my prescription to the company’s leadership to turn Sun Times Media back into the great newspaper group it should be.

1. Decide what kind of newspaper you want to be.

It isn’t enough just to have “quality journalism.” Like everything else in this world, “Sun Times” is a brand and as such you need to make it clear to prospective readers what they’re going to get. Choosing what you want to be also provides focus to an organization and makes it clear to the team what’s important.

This means you also have to decide what kind of reader you want to buy your newspaper. It may mean cutting away some legacy properties that were once, or still are important to elements of your team. But once you have focus, your company can get down to making great work out of the limited products you still produce.

We live in a “long tail” world where consumers and readers have a thousand different options for everything they buy. To survive, companies have to produce products and services with a clear value for the consumer. What is the clear value the Sun Times offers to readers who can choose from a thousand different news sources every day?

Right now, the Sun Times is all over the place; the company defines itself in too many ways. A brief, incomplete survey in no particular order:

  • Blanket City Hall and courts coverage
  • Tons of columnists
  • Nationally-known tech writer Andy Ignako
  • Nationally-known movie reviewer Rogert Ebert and his reviews section
  • Home-grown, but now nationally-known Washington reporter Lynn Sweet because she’s from the President’s hometown
  • A group of profitable suburban daily newspapers (at least when you went private)
  • A group of money-losing suburban weeklies (ditto the above)

Look at this list! Is there any clear order in here?

Pick something. It means you’re going to have to get rid of some other things, and that choice will be emotionally painful and maybe temporarily economically painful. But to survive in this environment you need to be bold and do great things.

2. Stop the hemorrhaging.

This wouldn’t be a problem if you adequately executed #1, but it has been going on so long it needs to be said.

This whole drib-drab business with layoffs is terrible. Everyone talks about it. And I don’t mean just people in the news business. I mean EVERYONE.

From the outside it makes you look like the weak man on the field and that it’s just a matter of time before you disappear. From the industry-perspective the hemorrhaging warns good people away from working for you, because what kind of future would they have? From the inside of your company the hemorrhaging is so demoralizing as to be crippling. Your employees are asking every day: How much longer does this place have? When should I start looking for a new job?

I’m sure there’s still more losses to come. But really, stop the quarterly layoffs. Figure out how much you’re likely to lose, build in a cushion and cut so you can stay to a path for at least a whole year. Your people need some stability so they can move forward and start building a profitable company.

But also, don’t forget to do #1 first, otherwise #2 just won’t work for you long term.

3. Treat the web like it’s your future.

In case nobody’s told you since you relaunched your website this past year: It’s totally underwhelming. Yes, it’s serviceable, but guys, the design is taken from a WordPress template. It doesn’t demonstrate any real thought put into what special things you offer nor does it have any pizazz. There is nothing about the design that makes it look like a special destination.

And when I say “web” I mean, mobile, email, social media, the whole works. Some ideas:

  • Make a cool iPhone app. You could do it on the sly for less than $5k.  Sell it for 99-cents. Instant profit!
  • Create a specialized email list for a topic you really want to cover. Like the Bears, or the latest Ebert movie review or breaking City Hall news. Thousands will subscribe. Collect basic demographic info from the subscribers and sell advertising. Instant profit!
  • Make a better store for your photography and archives. Sell them as e-books on Amazon for $3.99 a piece. Instant profit!

Also, this is incidental, but I think it is important to tell you: Drop the whole pay wall idea. Read this piece by Clay Shirky. You are trying to escape the commodity news market. But the difference between you and the Times of London and the New York Times is that you are not a first-buy newspaper, for either advertisers or readers. Declaring that you are quality journalism isn’t enough unless the market agrees with you.

If you insist on keeping your current paywall plan, prepare to be ignored by readers and advertisers alike.

4. Go up market.

Getting back to #1, the Chicago Tribune has a clear plan: They want to be the USA Today of Chicago news. Not only Red Eye, but also the Blue Tribune, has become a quick read with sparse in depth writing.

Yes, Trib has their great data visualization/programming team and the occasional investigative reporting, but there’s not much in the middle between the big splashy investigation and the light brush over a topic. If you want to follow something in depth, like say Natasha Korecki’s killer Blagojevich trial coverage, you need to go elsewhere.

It’s not as if the Tribune hasn’t thought about it. Remember the five star edition they kicked around a year back? Looks like they gave up that idea. Make sense since they’re the first-buy newspaper and have more to lose. But you don’t.

And say…How about that group led by John Canning and Michael Ferro that’s talking about buying the Sun Times? Don’t Canning and Ferro sit on the board of the Chicago News Cooperative? CNC certainly knows how to go up market. But because they don’t have your marketing muscle, most Chicagoans haven’t heard of them and so don’t know where to get the good stuff.

Like Tribune, you could have your down-market free paper, let’s call that Red Streak for fun, and your up-market regular paper called Sun Times that’s super thin, charges $3.00 a day and has killer news. You could even fold in the CNC folks to run your up-market publication. Market your new website traffic to people that want to sell to the lakefront and North Shore.

5. Choose a strategic area of news and cover it like there’s no tomorrow.

I know. You think you’re already doing this with City Hall and courts coverage. The trouble is, that it’s what everyone thinks a newspaper is supposed to cover, so readers tune out. You really had something with Hired Truck, but now that Rich Daley has left the Fifth Floor, that one doesn’t work any more. You need to pick something that pervades the city consciousness, is important, full of intrigue, and you can market the crap out of it.

There’s plenty of things you could do, but I’m going to use the upcoming G-8/NATO conference as an example of bringing out the awesome:

  1. Assign one reporter full-time now. Get them to start writing two stories a week on the million different ways this conference will affect regular Chicagoans. Jobs created, police coverage, how Occupy Chicago is doing test runs, how big business thinks this will bring Chicago onto the world stage.
  2. Launch a pair of websites, and and point them to a special section on your website that contains all your coverage.
  3. Eventually, assign a national reporter to start pulling in the international/national angle on how global companies, Washington think tanks, Pentagon staff, Brussels people, etc. are all thinking about and preparing for the conferences.
  4. Create an email subscription for free news from the special section. Cold call places like RAND and international national think tanks to tell them about and get them subscribed to the email list.
  5. Sell ad space on the site and email list to big, national security companies like Lockheed, TRW, EDS. They love this kind of audience and will pay dearly for it.
  6. The week before the conferences, attack them with gang coverage. Get eight people to write the crap out of it from every angle. Be huge. Make coverage partnerships with CNN or MSNBC, Al Jazeera. Show the world how the Sun Times owns that conference.
  7. Publish a daily 16-page bulldog paper that is only distributed in the conference zone with nothing but conference news. Sell ads to the big defense companies.

It could be awesome. You have the ability and resources. You would make all Chicagoans proud and we’d want to read you every day because you showed the world how tough Chicago can really be.