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Short-Term Memory Loss and the Chicago Tribune

(Graphic: I could have sworn I put that archive around here somewhere… Original Credit: Art by Rick Tuma.)

Last week, the Chicago Tribune won 14 Lisagor Awards for outstanding journalism. I know this because I read the story in the virtual pages of the online newspaper. Trouble is, try as I might to find links in the story to the award-winning past reporting, none were to be had. What a wasted opportunity to showcase older content and keep visitors clicking throughout the Trib’s website–not to mention being served ad content.

Any blogger worth their salt will tell you, if you want to play nice with the Google page-ranking algorithm and keep visitors on your site, given them a reason and a way to explore your site. CHICAGO CARLESS isn’t the top Google result out of 885,000 web pages that come up when you search the single word “carless” for nothing, friends. This blog is a tightly woven, interlinked, and ongoing story.

So why isn’t the Chicago Tribune website? It’s a question raised by fellow Twitterer and senior editor @ourmaninchicago that entered me (@chicagocarless) into a healthy debate with him, communications guru @LeahJones, and most critically, Tribune SEO (Search Engine Optimization) Director and rabid bacon fan @brentdpayne. (Trust me, you tweet about bacon and Chicago in the same sentence and see who comes running.)

For some time now, I’ve been of the opinion of media-watcher blog, Newspaper Death Watch: that is, journalistic hubris and an outdated refusal to change with the times have rendered the print-news industry immune to learning lessons from the people on the web who know full well how to build a community of visitors.

I said so during the debut of Huffington Post Chicago last August. I repeated my contention in an April piece about the failure of a local investigative journal (whom I dubbed the Anonymous Lectern) to thrive on the web. And I further beat the horse last week in my look at print’s future on the web.

As it turns out, journalistic hubris isn’t exactly the problem at the Tribune. And yet again, it is. After our group discussion, Brent Payne discussed the problem of expiring content in a detailed and informative post on his personal blog.

According to Payne, most content except is wiped from the Trib’s servers every 60 days for a variety of reasons including:

  • The immense server load from thousands of daily articles across all Tribune newspapers;
  • Contracts with third parties that (assumedly) require deletion of content after a set time; and
  • Until very recently, a lack of recognizing the SEO value and importance of maintaining full access to legacy content.

The Trib’s coming-to-Jesus realization regarding that last point is, of course, why they brought Payne on board in the first place. Considering his prolific knowledge of all things SEO (browse his Twitter timeline), it’s a good thing they did.

According to his blog, among other things, he’s in the process of creating stand-alone archive websites for all Trib papers. However, one sentence stood out as soon as I read it:

“By the end of the year I will have all of the newspaper sites with some sort of archive site.”

As I told the Anonymous Lectern earlier this month, what on earth makes the Tribune think they have that kind of time left? It’s not Payne’s fault. He’s hamstrung by the financial resources and staffing provided to him by his Tribune overlords.

And that brings me right back around to where I started. If the Trib is going to survive online, it needs to give people a reason to stick around and browse. Not eight months from now. Not tomorrow. But now. Right now. Yesterday if at all possible.

Whoever is controlling the SEO purse strings at the Tribune is probably going out of their way to refuse to understand that survival for the paper–any paper–is and only is going to be achieved through immediate and wholesale adherence to the expectations and standards that exist online. Any newspaper that thinks it can make SEO a long-term goal and not (to use a Buddhist term) a “burning turban” question of absolutely immediate importance is committing suicide. I don’t know how much finer a point I can put on that.

So we have SEO demi-god Brent Payne swimming upstream to try to kick-start an eight-month-long project that even by December will only just have begun. And we have a Tribune deathwatch clock ticking louder and louder.

During last week’s round of the Trib’s seemingly never-ending layoffs, Trib editor Gerould Kern said:

“With today’s actions, we are making the leap to a newsroom structure that we believe is sustainable barring further significant declines in advertising revenue.”

Right. Sustainable barring further significant declines in advertising revenue. Meanwhile, anyone else notice among those who got the axe last week was the Trib’s recession reporter? Oh, irony. I have three comments for Mr. Kern.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

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Mike Doyle

I’m an #OpenlyAutistic gay, Hispanic, urbanist, Disney World fan, New York native, politically independent, Jewish blogger in Chicago. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I write words and raise money for nonprofits. I’ve written this blog since 2005. And counting...

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8 replies

  1. I would counter that half the Trib’s revenue problems stem not from the recession and subsequent drop in advertising, but with Sam Zell who’s running the media company as if he’s a new cobbler shop owner on Maxwell Street who just had a flashier shoe shop open up down the block who are slowly stealing his customers. Zell paid so much money to buy and open his shop that he has little money to spend on updating his shop to keep up with the Joneses.

    So instead Zell does what little he can to keep his dwindling customers: keeps the prices the same but lowers the pay of his staff and penny-pinches wherever he can.

  2. I said by the end of the year. It may be considerably sooner. I’m not going to give details on timelines. Just addressing that it is something I know we need to change and are working to change.

  3. Aaron, that’s a really telling story. Very close to bait-and-switch on FT’s part. Moral for the print media being: the customer is always right. Especially if they’re a web-savvy customer. (Meaning, I would bet at this point, almost all customers.)

  4. This is a little OT, but the other killer thing is that newspapers have terrible customer service.. The customer is the advertiser I guess, certainly not the readers or subscribers.

    I was a loyal Financial Times print subscriber for years – paying $300/year to get it out of my own, not my company’s, pocket. (Of course, you don’t get online for that – you have to pay a separate charge just like the Journal). They routinely failed to deliver it on Saturday, the only day of the week I really cared about since the FT Weekend is the main reason I subscribed and there is no convenient place by my house to buy one.

    I would call and complain about this but they never once ever got me a paper or fixed their substandard delivery. So one Saturday when my paper didn’t come, I canceled my subscription. That’s a $300/yr annuity down the drain.

    Here’s the kicker. They said, “Hey, don’t cancel. We’ll put in an emergency redelivery order”. I told them they’ve done that several times in the past but I never once got a paper. I told them I’d make them a deal. I’d cancel my subscription, and if they got me a paper by the end of the weekend, I’d call back Monday and cancel my cancellation. They suddenly lost interest in the emergency redelivery request and just processed my cancellation. They knew the whole thing was fake, some placebo BS they just tell people.

    If you can’t even deliver the paper reliably to the dwindling number of people who actually like newspapers and are willing to pay a premium to get one, you know you have problems.

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