McGuire on Media

Line between desperation and clever innovation is thin one

The East Valley Tribune is about to prove that the line between desperation and bold innovation is mighty thin.  The Tribune late Monday announced its rumored decision to make the A section a tabloid wrap around broadsheet sections for home delivery and then use that tabloid wrap as a stand-alone free section to be distributed throughout designated areas.

Here’s how the official announcement reads: “On Wednesday, October 17, 2007, the East Valley Tribune will introduce a new format that prioritizes local news coverage, by moving all of its local news to the front section. Four local editions will now be offered, as new editions for Gilbert and the SanTan region join the current East Valley and Scottsdale editions. The Tribune will also be converting its front local news section to a compact size and make it available for free in selected areas. Paid subscribers will continue to get the full newspaper content which also includes national and world news, sports, classifieds and the many weekly features in their premium package.”

I am sure many Valley critics and the competition at the Arizona Republic are going to smell desperation in this move.  That is not a far-fetched assumption. The East Valley Tribune has struggled for a long time for recognition, market significance and advertising dollars.

I think the newspaper has been too easily dismissed.  It is not a bad sheet. Editor Jim Ripley is no babe in the woods, and he has genuine newspapering skills, even though he has to have Sisyphus feelings (the rolling the stone uphill with his nose guy) on most days. The staff struggles with a real bad Avis complex, but they do some good work, and the Tribune website is a cut above many.

This is definitely a long touchdown pass attempt, but it is no Hail Mary. The paper has good local content, and this decision to trumpet that content in a free distribution vehicle is, for my money, more  clever and imaginative than desperate. 

Bloggers and media critics have been complaining for a long time that newspapers are unwilling to try anything new.  This is new. This is also bold.

Essentially, the newspaper is going to move to two businesses.  The paid model will still sell audited circulation to advertisers.  A second business model will depend on selling advertising to marketers interested in reaching a broader “free circulation” audience. 

Anybody who has ever worked in a newspaper should have a headache about now thinking about the operational issues this will create in advertising, production and distribution.  I can only imagine the list of “can’t do this” and “can’t do that”  management had to overcome to get sign-on for this effort.  

This move has been rumored for weeks and those rumors came from staff members who were under the impression they were told they could talk about it.  But then the new publisher and CEO, Julie Moreno, came on board and my speculation is she wanted some time to make sure things were buttoned up to her satisfaction before the move was made public. It would appear any potential concerns have been alleviated. 

There is simply no question that the Arizona Republic is firmly entrenched throughout the Valley, and this new strategy probably won’t even cause the Republic to break a sweat.

Moreno, Ripley and Freedom Newspapers still deserve some credit for trying to innovate before all the critics pile on with reasons this won’t work. Personally I am going to be cheering for the Tribune just so innovation gets rewarded.