The Tribune announced Tuesday that it’s starting up a tabloid version of itself. Next Monday it becomes available in the Tribune‘s newspaper boxes and at newsstands and commuter stations. Says publisher Tony Hunter in a memo: “Many consumers have been telling us that they wanted more ‘friendly” packaging, while insisting the edition includes all the useful, high-quality news and information that’s in the broadsheet. They asked, and we will deliver.”

Hunter’s memo is addressed to “Fellow owners,” thus maintaining the fiction that the Tribune Company’s employees, who are suffering through large and continuing layoffs, have some say in the operation.

Several years ago, in the pre-Sam Zell era, Trib managers studied prototypes and seriously kicked around the idea of creating a tabloid version of the paper for the lucrative and growing west suburban market, where the paper wasn’t making headway. A debate raged over whether a tabloid Trib should be a more tabloidish Trib or should maintain the gray gravity of the broadsheet, and gravity won out. But in the end the idea was dropped as too big and expensive a gamble.

Today the picture’s very different. The Tribune Company’s in bankruptcy, the Sun-Times is clinging to life by its fingernails, weighing such extreme measures as outsourcing the copy editing to India, and more Chicagoans pick up RedEye for nothing than either the Tribune for 75 cents or the Sun-Times for 50. Gravity’s no longer the watchword, and the Tribune has been redesigned under Zell to lose mass but add chrome and now looks and reads a lot more like RedEye, its kid brother.

According to the most recent figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations, Tribune single-copy sales — sales that will now be of the tabloid version of the paper — amounted to only 9 percent of the paper’s average weekday circulation, about 46,000 papers out of 516,000. Sun-Times single copy sales were nearly 187,000, about 60 percent of its average 313,000 weekday circulation. 

So relatively few Tribune readers will see the tabloid. Of those who do, some will probably think, “Say, this is better!” while others think, “The Trib looks more like RedEye than ever, so maybe that’s what I should read and save my money.” But the tab Tribune also will look a lot more like the Sun-Times. How many of that paper’s single-copy readers — its lifeblood — will think, “I like a tab. Maybe I should spend an extra quarter and get a lot more newspaper”? 

And if the new and breezier Tribune discovers that the tab format suits it and its readers, it can take step two and become a tab all the way. Introducing a tab Tribune “smacks of desperation,” says someone who knows that paper well; but these days, what doesn’t? The Tribune is desperate, though not as desperate as the Sun-Times, which has been devastated by RedEye and now has another dragon to face.