By mid-September, a source at the Chicago Tribune tells me, that paper “will look and feel vastly different.” But however much the Trib changes, it won’t be presenting its reconfigured self as the newspaper of the future. The newspaper business has pretty well conceded that its future is online, which means the print Tribune is deciding how to dress smartly for its funeral.

On Tuesday the funeral felt more imminent than ever, as editors announced that some 60 editorial jobs—out of a budgeted total of about 600—would be terminated by the end of August and 20 existing vacancies wouldn’t be filled. But if death is inevitable, the Tribune—along with the other Tribune Company dailies, many of which have announced more draconian staff cuts—are determined to hold it off long enough to prepare for it. The redesign is important work. If readers and advertisers—their numbers already dwindling—recoil in dismay from a shriveled, diminished paper, the death spiral will accelerate. Something about the new Tribune will have to look like an improvement.

Seven years ago the Tribune labored for months to redesign itself to accommodate what today seems like a trifling exigency—the paper was narrowing its page by an inch to save on newsprint. Expensive design consultants were brought in and much of their advice was ignored—editors and readers alike wanted the new Tribune to look a lot like the old one. Today’s redesign is a crash project being done in-house, and nothing’s sacred. “Here’s the deal, Mike,” said the staffer I’ve traded e-mails with. “It’s not that the old guard is cautiously inching their way towards change. It’s a bunch of radio guys in an ivory tower telling us: you have to change. And you have 90 days to do it. Call me an eternal optimist, but that can be a great thing. It shakes us to the core.”

The head “radio guy” is new COO Randy Michaels, former chairman and CEO of Clear Channel Communications. On June 5 Michaels announced that the Tribune Company papers would shrink their news holes to the size of the advertising holes. (The traditional ratio is about 60-40.) Another new guy, from XM Satellite Radio, is innovation officer Lee Abrams, who in the course of a long, rambling, occasionally incoherent memo to staff last April said this:

“RE-THINKING MEANS DUMBING DOWN: Usually does. But that’s the last thing we need to do in this era. Someone told me that the editorial people are not going to like what I offer, assuming re-thinking and re-inventing means introducing cheap tricks to jack up circulation. Ah.. . not exactly. It’s really all about looking at re-formatting so quality can have some breathing room and get seen more effectively. It’s unfortunate that in media, it usually IS dumbing down that is the quick fix. But I think our future is more about what some other industries are doing, or trying to do—Smarten.”

Some 30 Tribune editorial employees have been appointed to the various committees that now meet daily to reimagine their paper. These committees take seriously the idea of giving quality some room to breathe, and they’re looking hard at Britain’s Guardian for inspiration. “If we can be anything like the Guardian,” my source wrote in an e-mail, “I’d be over the moon.”

Reading the Guardian is one of the pleasures of visiting Europe, where it’s on sale in all the big cities. It’s a paper that flatters the eye as it flatters the mind. There’s little chaff, which allows handsome display of its longish, nuanced articles. I come home imagining that I’ve been exposed to not only what Europe is doing but what it’s thinking.

Ron Reason, a Chicago-based newspaper designer who’s as curious about the next Tribune as I am, reminded me that “the outfit has to match the personality.” So what will that be? Because he wants “more of a provocative local conversation,” he’s all for the Guardian model. “I was in the UK twice last year,” he e-mailed me, “and was compelled to pick up several papers each day because of the colorful, daring, opinionated writing styles of many of the columnists. Would that go over here?”

Reason and I read the Guardian as travelers passing through who are easily impressed by big-picture reporting and stylish writing. Could a Guardian-like Tribune command the same respect among a hometown constituency with quotidian, parochial concerns? I don’t know. What’s certain is that the Tribune‘s long reports are its heart and soul. If they go it won’t matter how audaciously it redecorates itself—it won’t be the Tribune.

If they stay, then what goes instead? The chaff, I suppose: old-school news stories larded with detail and striving for “balance” yet reporting nothing that a reader who cares hasn’t already found on the Web; formulaic, celebrity-driven features.

Crime stories will survive. The committees are working from a two-inch-thick study of readers’ tastes and wishes, and one thing readers want more of is crime coverage. They’re not asking for sensationalism or even length. They simply want to know how much crime there is and how close it comes to their own backyards.

In last week’s Crain’s Chicago Business, Ann Saphir noted that the Orlando Sentinel, another Tribune paper, had just finished a redesign that brought it “punchier headlines, bigger visuals and shorter stories.” A Boston-based consultant named Peter Kreisky who worked on a Tribune redesign back in 1992 told Saphir that “the trend is very much toward bigger pictures, more color, a more staccato kind of design.”

Fortunately, each of Sam Zell’s papers is being allowed to choose its own path, and the Tribune’s being overhauled by staffers open to bucking the trend. Kreisky did say, according to Crain’s, that one design option is for the Tribune “to adopt the ‘European’ size used by London’s Guardian.” That size has a name—”Berliner”—and it’s in wide use in Europe. A Berliner measures 18.5 inches long by 12.4 inches wide, making it a little wider and a lot shorter than the 22-by-12 Tribune, and according to Kreisky it has “a lower cost to produce but doesn’t have the down-market feel of a tabloid.” Perhaps because the proportions of the printed area aren’t far from those of the so-called golden rectangle, the Berliner has proved itself exceptionally hospitable to upmarket design. Unfortunately, it’s a size the Tribune‘s printing presses can’t handle. The Tribune might be inspired by the Guardian design format, but it won’t adopt it.

Another inspiration, I hear, is the Guardian‘s second section, G2. A smartly written mix of feature stories and cultural coverage, it’s something the Tribune could emulate at a huge savings in space and salaries by throwing out everything and everybody who doesn’t measure up. And with all the throwing out of pages and sections, this new section could actually come off the presses the day of publication, unlike today’s Tempo, which the Tribune‘s overtaxed presses print a day in advance. “One good thing that might come out of all this,” my Tribune contact told me, “is that we may finally have a live entertainment section, which means breaking entertainment news on a Monday may finally show up in the Tuesday entertainment section, instead of being in the Personals space in the A section.”

That’s a transformational reform right there, even if it’s not significant enough on its own to blind readers to the collateral damage. Bottom line, my contact observed, is that “sections are getting cut and people are losing their jobs. We’ll be seeing the combination of sections. There is no word on how many people will be leaving, but the number on everybody’s lips is 100.”

“The most troubling thing about this process,” my contact added, is why no one’s “talked about how this new print product will integrate with the Web. These committees are focused solely on the paper, which I think is a futile exercise, because in order to survive we have to figure out how the two complement each other.” But at least it’s the staff making the decisions that might not matter in the long run, not “a bunch of executive-suite suits.” And even though “people are freaking out about the impending downsizing,” reinventing the Tribune is a “noble and worthy task.”v

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