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The Chicago Tribune bent over backwards to win back Coleen Davison. The paper did everything for her but the one thing she asked -- which was for it to turn itself into a newspaper she could take seriously again.
On March 2 Davison sent the Wall Street Journal a fan letter. "I simply wanted to write and tell you how thrilled we are with your paper," she wrote. "The caliber and depth of your reporting is incredible and easily surpasses the Chicago Tribune, to which until recently we had been long-time subscribers. Our growing discontent with the Tribune's diminishing quality became intolerable after their redesign last fall, and led us to explore other news options..."
On Wednesday Davison's entire letter was the centerpiece of a full-page ad for the Wall Street Journal that appeared in the Sun-Times. I commented on that ad in my blog.
Then I got in touch with Coleen Davison. "We'd been [Tribune] subscribers for 12 or 13 years," she told me. "Obviously we've seen changes we weren't thrilled by, but the last redesign was the final straw. It was sound-bite journalism -- all pictures, no stories."
Last September 29 the Tribune, exclaiming "It's a whole new day," presented its recreated self to Chicago, the fanfare and visual razzmatazz intended to mask the blunt reality that for financial reasons the Tribune was shrinking its news hole. Davison, who describes herself as a stay-at-home mom, and her husband Joel, a computer engineer, were already becoming disenchanted with the Tribune, she said: "It just sounded less and less intelligent as the years went by. The quality of the writing went down" -- John Kass being an exception she mentioned. She said she and her husband found themselves joking a little too often about typographical errors they'd spotted.
They gave the new Tribune a week and then decided to cancel the subscription to their Naperville home. At the suggestion of the woman in circulation she spoke to about that, Coleen participated in a readers' phone survey. "As I recall," she told me, "almost all of the questions were extremely vague and general. The respondee was asked to answer on a scale of 1 to 5 whether they agreed or disagreed. The only question that came remotely close to allowing me to voice my displeasure was something like 'I think the redesign contains too many pictures.' I was frustrated that the survey seemed designed to only allow for positive feedback."
So she wrote a redesign feedback link she found at the Tribune Web site and complained. She told the paper that although its survey hadn't let her say so, she was "also appalled by the significant drop in the quality of what little news is reported. Rearranging and renaming the sections I can deal with, but the new Tribune looks and reads like a tabloid magazine."
She went on, "I understand the need to update your look periodically, and I also understand the desire to attract more readers. It's just terribly sad that the way you chose to do this was to pander to those who prefer tabloid journalism to real news." Her long note, which I'm merely excerpting here, she signed "Sadly and sincerely."
She heard back from John McCormick of the Tribune editorial board. McCormick wants his letters to Davison to remain between them, but much of the first letter can be inferred from her response to it. Thanking McCormick for the attention he'd given her, she nevertheless felt that he'd confirmed her suspicions -- "the new redesign was indeed intended to appeal to younger readers with (in my opinion) limited attention spans and a strong interest in popular culture...
"You mentioned the popularity of Red Eye," she told McCormick. "I guestion, if your Red Eye readership numbers 200,000 while the daily Tribune readership is close to 2 million, why you would pander to 10% of your potential readers...while ignoring the bulk of the other 90% of your daily readers...? I realize from your email you disagree that the quality of the paper has declined with the redesign, but to acknowledge the changes of 'bolder design' and 'more efficient story-telling' seem to me to be putting a pleasant spin on what are truly dressed up, dumbed down news sound bites."
She closed with a suggestion: "Since the new goal seems to be having the Tribune appeal to the younger, bold and efficient crowd, perhaps the editorial board could consider changing the Red Eye to serve as the newspaper for serious readers."
A month went by, and McCormick wrote Davison again. He referred her to an analysis of the Tribune redesign posted online by Jeremy Gilbert, an assistant professor at the Medill School of Journalism. Gilbert gave the new Trib a "qualified thumbs up," and in my view his ambivalence shines through. On the one hand, in an age when no one wakes up wondering what happened the day before because we already know, "the ability of newspapers in general to analyze the news, to think critically and act essentially like daily magazines is the most compelling case you could make for their survival." On the other hand, the new Tribune is an improvement because on busy mornings "I can skim it without feeling like I've missed something."
Davison told McCormick in reply, "I read [Gilbert] with interest and while it further clarifies the intentions behind the redesign, I'm afraid I still respectfully disagree with both the intentions and the results. Mr. Gilbert simply restates my concerns with comments such as, 'The goal . . . is to attract casual readers', '. . . hip and lively', '. . . to offer you enough so you can get by' and 'Increasingly our culture is becoming more visual.'"
(By this point, she tells me, "I felt I was beating a dead horse.")
But Davison closed by telling McCormick she was "genuinely honored" by an invitation he'd extended her. Would she like to visit the paper and sit in on the editors' daily page-one conference? She said, "I think it would be fascinating to observe the process."
She made the trip on January 29.
Standards editor Margaret Holt, who has a a sort of quasi-ombudsman role as liaison between editors and readers, showed Davison around and took her into the editors' meeting. It was a huge news day -- the Illinois Senate was in the process of kicking Governor Blagojevich out of office. But Davison met everyone, felt included during the meeting, and got to talk about the evolution of the front page with a couple of editors who hung around after it was over. Then Holt led her to McCormick's office, mentioning that he was the editorial writer Blagojevich had allegedly tried to muscle Sam Zell into firing.
"He was very modest about it," Davison told me. "That impressed me. He impressed me." The one thing Davison insisted on when we talked was that I make it clear she has no criticism of the Tribune people she met -- especially McCormick. She found him dignified, gracious, and "just lovely in all my exchanges with him. I can't say enough about him."
But Davison left the Tower that day knowing three things: She'd just been treated extremely well. The Tribune would not be going back to what it was. She would not be going back to the Tribune.
And she had something to wonder about: She told me, "Margaret Holt was very very positive about their changes to me. I could not tell if it was because she bought in or if that was her job. Whereas with John, I felt he was not completely on board with the changes though he did his best to argue for them."
McCormick replies, "We're not going back. I'm as bought in as bought in gets. The market spoke on what we were doing. That discussion's over."
Davison had left the Tower with an open invitation to sit in on a meeting of the Tribune editorial board -- and to bring along her son, a high school senior. Despite the Wall Street Journal ad, McCormick says the invitation stands. "She's a gracious lady. I'd like to win her back. I don't know how anybody lives with only one newspaper." He says Davison gave the Tribune a chance to make its case, and "you're not going to get anybody who writes editorials for a free-market newspaper" to beef about that.
Here's a link to Davison's complete correspondence with the Tribune.