Paid circulation of the Chicago Tribune has taken another dip, the Audit Bureau of Circulation just announced, and the Trib is citing last September’s redesign of the paper as a reason why. 

Media writer Phil Rosenthal, reporting a 7.5 percent weekday drop in circulation and a 4.5 percent Sunday drop, said that various readership-boosting maneuvers (the new tabloid newsstand format being one of them) “were more than offset by a serious of factors, including the Sunday price increase and a major redesign, a company executive said.”

Publisher Tony Hunter told his staff in a memo that “circulation declines were impacted by price increases, curtailment of distribution territories, the redesign, presidential endorsement and an overall reduction in subscription sales ‘pressure.'” 

It’s an interesting admission. In a letter to readers in January, editor Gerould Kern said that before launching the redesign, the Tribune “listened carefully to what you said you wanted in your Tribune, and the new format was created to meet those needs.” Not only that, “based on your comments and our own rigorous self-evaluations, we’ve made a number of important changes.”

This letter was headlined, “You spoke, we listened,” and it was construed in some quarters as an apology. “Clearly, this is not the case,” Kern memoed his staff. “We were fulfilling a promise made at the time of the launch — to listen to our readers and improve the new format. Companies that are responsive to their customers routinely do this. The new Chicago Tribune is a success. It is achieving the goals we set. I am proud of the reinvented newspaper and the work you are doing.”

Yes, some readers bailed out, Kern allowed. “Over the past 90 days, we’ve lost less than 1 percent of our subscribers because of objections to the new design.” However — “at the same time, we have been selling new subscriptions at a faster pace than before.” Kern went on, “A really encouraging indicator is something called voluntary starts. These are people who subscribe without being solicited. Voluntary subscriptions are up 17 percent over a year ago. Kathleen O’Hara, our VP/Marketing, believes the new design is a big reason for the increase.”

But for now the Tribune is pointing to that new design to help explain away a big loss of readers. 

To that and to the Obama endorsement. Kern said in his memo that “several thousand subscribers” cancelled over Obama — the first Democratic presidential nominee the paper ever supported. Kern as much as shrugged. Every presidential endorsement costs the Tribune subscribers “but usually we recover the losses. The endorsement was the right position to take and we were willing to pay the short-term price. It is the same with the redesign.”

I do believe the Obama endorsement also gained the Tribune new subscribers and helped it hang on to old ones. I haven’t heard from anyone whose reaction to the reformatted Tribune was, “About time.”