Time Out Chicago goes strictly digital. And the Reader . . . ? | Bleader

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Time Out Chicago goes strictly digital. And the Reader . . . ?

Posted By on 03.21.13 at 10:17 AM

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The Reader has always watched Time Out Chicago with a wary eye, and that goes back to the months before TOC debuted here in 2005, when we knew it only as a formidable interloper that had taken aim at our market.

We are wary yet. Certainly I am. On Tuesday, it was learned that Morningstar's Joe Mansueto, who owns all but a small piece of TOC, was selling out, and it was going out of existence as a print publication. On Wednesday, TOC's media blogger, Rob Feder, reported that he understood "most of the 60 people who work here will lose their jobs."

By most, I hear three out of four—and by the end of next week.

There's a big picture this fits into, and it's not pretty. Last week the once-mighty Boston Phoenix, an alternative weekly that rivaled the Reader in size and stature, announced it was going out of business. A 2012 makeover, which turned it into a glossy magazine, hadn't worked, and it reportedly was losing a million dollars a year.

And then Jack Shafer, who edited Washington's City Paper back in the 80s and 90s—when times were good and that paper was owned by the original owners of the Reader—wrote a piece for Reuters headlined "The long, slow decline of alt-weeklies." Shafer said the alt "formula"—which "connected underserved readers with overcharged advertisers" in big cities—wasn't working any more. The collapse "came in spurts over the last decade, as a market shift destroyed whole advertising sectors." For instance, Craigslist took out the classifieds; record stores all but disappeared.

Time Out Chicago wasn't exactly an alt-weekly: it wasn't free, for one thing, and there was a lot less gravitas to its journalism than readers found and still find in the Reader. But as a go-to site for readers who wanted to find out what's going on in Chicago, and for advertisers who wanted to reach those readers, it was very serious competition.

The future is digital, everyone says. So has TOC just taken one hell of a beating, or did it jump to the head of the curve? And what's in store for the Reader? Is it a matter of time until we go the way of TOC—or even the Phoenix?

This question would be even more pointed if the fate of TOC had been decided a little bit differently. Wrapports LLC, the group of investors who own Sun-Times Media, which includes the Reader, wanted to buy TOC from Mansueto (who's a part of Wrapports). If that deal had gone through, TOC and the Reader would have wound up in the same tent. There were clearly savings to be had through shared listings; but beyond that, we'll never know what "synergies" would have been imposed on the two publications from above. Apprehensions among this newspaper's staff would have been sky-high as we wondered what in God's name would happen next.

But that sale fell through. As Feder explained, Oakley Capital Investments Limited of London, which controls Time Out North America, had a right to match the Wrapports offer, and did. A digital-only Time Out Chicago apparently suits Oakley's purposes, because it's pursuing a digital strategy in cities around the world. Crain's Chicago Business reports that Time Out is now in cities such as Los Angeles, Boston, Paris, and Berlin, but print versions survive only in London and New York.

You can't advance into the future by firing half your staff, I said to someone whose grasp of journalism's new realities I greatly respect. That depends on the future, he replied. If you think yours is to offer lots of listings lightly garnished with critical comment, "how many bodies does that take?" As a magazine, Time Out Chicago did just enough journalism to legitimize itself and attract an audience, but online that might not be necessary. Suppose nobody read TOC online but hotel concierges, but it was their bible. And what if Time Out North America could offer national advertisers absolutely standardized products reaching identical audiences in, say, the 20 largest American cities. Could that work? Well, nobody really knows yet what can work online, so it might and it might not. But Time Out Chicago is out of the gate already, and it's got a name everyone knows.

But the thing is, my friend went on, turning the question over in his mind: How much value is there in being first, if what you're doing is easy to reproduce? Groupon was first, but everyone else was second.

At about this time, I got an e-mail from someone who knows TOC from working there and dissed its website, calling it an "afterthought . . . whereas you guys at the Reader seem to have a lot more web-only content . . . If, god forbid, the Reader went only digital, people would still go to the site. You can't say the same thing for Time Out Chicago. Why?"

Time Out Chicago's new owners are betting that you can say the same thing, even if those people still going to the site won't be looking for what journalists like me would call journalism. Thinking dark thoughts, I called Mara Shalhoup, editor of the Reader, to get her reaction to the change at TOC and her take on the Reader's future.

She cheered me up. First of all—she did not have to tell me this because I knew it—the Reader, unlike the Phoenix, is not losing a million dollars a year. It is perhaps Sun-Times Media's healthiest title. The Reader actually makes money. But Shalhoup had more good news.

Readership of the print Reader during the period September through November of 2012 was recently compared by the firm Media Audit to the same periods of 2010 and 2011. Though the press run remained 90,000 copies, the cumulative number of print readers rose from 526,168 in 2010 to 612,843 in 2011 and to 730,029 last year. Says Jim Kirk, editor in chief of the Sun-Times Media papers, speaking of the Reader, "Our print audience is holding strong in an otherwise down market and we see no reason to change course.

"It may not be forever," said Shalhoup, "but at least the next five years look pretty solid for print. But the thing is, print has to change and has been changing." Print is now the best setting for long articles, special issues, and design-intensive issues, but there needs to be a "highly curated, tip-of-the-iceberg" tone to it that drives readers to the Web for everything else. I'll add on my own authority that if the print Reader is making money, its editors and owners don't have to panic. They can take their time thinking through digital and design a tablet version of the Reader that "mimics print"—as Shalhoup puts it—but offers the whole iceberg.

"I think the Reader has stayed true to its identity," said Shalhoup. This means serious articles that go on awhile (though nothing like they used to), and self-confident criticism that says, according to Shalhoup, "Here's what people we hope you can trust think."

That was the calming message from my editor, as all around us trees fall in the forest. "Nobody knows anything," screenwriter William Goldman once said about Hollywood. It might be just as true of the next ten years of journalism. But I want to think Shalhoup has some idea.

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