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Weighing the Tribune

A.J. Liebling came to mind Friday when the new Tribune bosses told Phil Rosenthal of plans to cut the size of the news staffs — and the physical heft of their newspapers.

Liebling set the standard for media criticism with his Wayward Press column in the New Yorker from 1945 to 1963 (collected in two books, “The Press” and “The Wayward Pressman”) — and his concerns remain relevant, from concentration of newspaper ownership by chains to extensive coverage of trivia to biases enforced by owners. (“With the word ‘labor,’ the newspaper association…is ‘stubborn.’To Government, ‘wasteful.’ To the poor ‘pampered’ — or malingering or undeserving.”)

He also had great fun at the expense of the eccentric owner of the Chicago Tribune at the time, the legendary Colonel Robert R. McCormick.

Today’s owners might be pleased to find that their methodology for assessing the value of newspapers was pioneered years ago by McCormick’s Tribune, as celebrated by Liebling.  (Though back then the paper seemed to take more pride in its impressive physical dimensions.)

Sam Zell and Randy Michaels, late of Clear Channel, cite statistics on journalistic output (presumably they use column inches) to show that “you can eliminate…a fair number of people without eliminating much content.”(Rosenthal quotes an industry analyst about the problem of “trying to measure journalists’ output by quantity when what matters most is quality.”)

Then they talk about reducing the size the newspapers themselves, pointing out that the Chicago Tribune is typically an 80-page paper, and the Wall Street Journal is typically 48 pages.”Nobody picks up the Wall Street Journal and says: ‘Wow, what a lousy paper.I’ve been ripped off,'” Michaels says.It doesn’t seem to occur to him that what’s on the pages might have something to do with it.

In 1946 Liebling wrote about a three-part series in the Chicago Tribune on east coast newspapers and magazines (Liebling’s column is reprinted in both books mentioned above).  Tribune correspondent Charles Gotthart found them “Anti-American,” among other things.

“When Mr. Gotthart got on the Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s, he made what I was quick to recognize as a major contribution to the apparatus of criticism.’Pink has colored the formerly great weeklies of large circulation — the Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s,” the Man from America wrote, restating his thesis.’Lacking in qualities inspired by the midwest brand of Americanism, these weeklies fail to offer their readers anything remotely approaching the physical content of a good Sunday newspaper.The CHICAGO SUNDAY TRIBUNE, for example, weighs 32 ounces; these magazines, five.’The italics are mine; I use them because I immediately realized that Gotthart had discovered a tangible basis for the appraisal of journalistic values, and, what was equally important, a procedure for its application.

“Under Gotthart’s Law, it was no longer necessary to read a publication in order to evaluate its contents.It was enough to weigh it.There had been no comparable boon to humanity since the discovery of anesthesia.I raced to the laboratory and, picking up the first magazine that came to hand, the then current issue of The New Yorker, I threw it on the scales.I was slightly chagrined to find that it weighed but ten ounces, which put it in the same relation to the Sunday Tribune as a pan fish is to a two-pound sucker.It was scant consolation that, as I directly ascertained, the Morning Telegraph weighed only five and a half ounces, Marvel Comics three, and Laff three and a half.A Daily Worker I borrowed from the polo editor weighed but two ounces, a figure that should reassure Colonel McCormick.But when I placed the latest Sunday Times on the scales, I began to wonder whether the Tribune proprietor would stand by la methode Gotthart.The Times weighed two pounds and fifteen ounces, exceeding the Tribune cited by Gotthart by just one ounce less than a pound.

“I then weighed a Chicago Telephone Directory for June, 1943, the latest available in the laboratory.It came to four pounds, fourteen ounces.A Manhattan Telephone Directory weighed three pounds, eight ounces; a Brooklyn one two pounds, five ounces; a Queens one a pound, twelve and a half ounces; a Bronx one a pound, five and a half ounces [Liebling is by now producing quantities of copy at a pace that would certainly impress Mr. Michaels].Aggregate for the city, exclusive of Richmond, whose directory I couldn’t find in the laboratory: eight pounds, fifteen ounces, or as much as the Chicago Telephone Directory and two complete Sunday Tribunes combined!I didn’t know what to make of these findings until I decided that Mr. Gotthart might have had in mind the division of publications into weight classes, like boxers or game chickens.The New Yorker might be O.K., after all, for a welterweight periodical.I hope so.

Post scriptum:Pursuing the subject of weights, I have just learned from the Museum of Natural History that Mr. Gotthart’s brain, if of normal size, weighs approximately forty-nine ounces, or as much as one complete Sunday Tribune and the news, sports, theatre, and first advertising sections of a second.”

Elsewhere Liebling asks “how many important stories never get into the newspapers at all” and writes:”The American press makes me think of a gigantic, supermodern fish cannery, a hundred floors high, capitalized at eleven billion dollars, and with tens of thousands of workers standing ready at the canning machines, but relying for its raw material on an inadequate number of handline fishermen in leaky rowboats….

“The owner of the fishery…undermans his boats not because he doesn’t want them to catch fish, but because he hopes the fish will jump into the boats unassisted, the cost of nets being what it is.”

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One Response

  1. […] revived a media analysis tool pioneered by the paper (and satirized by A.J. Liebling, as noted here) 60 years ago — counting pages and column inches to measure […]

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