With the media company Wrapports owning both the Sun-Times and the Chicago Reader and now reportedly looking at a bid for the Tribune, any move they make to position their print properties for the digital age is of obvious importance to media observers. Which is why, from when we first broke the story of the Sun-Times’ food section being shuttered, we haven’t been content to run press releases verbatim, but have tried to find out their real plans. Well, their plans are on front porches all over Chicago as of this morning: the new section Taste, produced (as it acknowledges right by the logo) by the advertising department, debuted in this morning’s paper. What does it say about the future?
Well, it’s short— just eight pages, wrapped around an auto section. Much of that is ads, either for smaller grocers or liquor stores. The content too seems to be divided between those audiences. You could say that wine coverage shows they’re aiming at a more sophisticated upscale audience, but it’s hard to get more traditional homemaker than the piece on how to make tacos with your kids or about the best choices for dyeing everything in sight green for St. Patrick’s Day. In short, it’s hard to see how this is any different from the food section they had before— except that instead of being Chicago-specific, it could come from any woman’s magazine on the planet:
Having company? It can be tough to please every palate. Some are avoiding gluten, others won’t eat red meat. What to do? Try turning to that old standard, boneless chicken
And indeed the author of this syndicated piece, one Susan Nicholson, has written her generic (bad) advice for countless women’s magazines. Trading the local writers for this Stepford voice isn’t much of a trade— except, no doubt, in what it costs the paper to acquire her words. The one piece of actual local content is buried deep in the back— an article on wine turns out to actually involve talking to Jason Wagner, sommelier at The Gage, yet barely quotes anything he actually said. When we get to the author’s note, we find this:
W. Peter Hoyne has been a wine journalist for over 20 years, covering stories of national and international significance. While his professional relationships in the wine industry have allowed him to share a unique perspective of wine…
That’s a rather curious way of disclosing a relationship without actually specifying what’s being disclosed. Our best guess (though who can tell?) is that it means Mr. Hoyne is actually a PR professional writing articles for his winery/distributor clients. That sort of thing is very common in the small newspaper business, and you see these articles in the neighborhood freebie papers that dot certain parts of town, but not so much in the big papers (though Mr. Hoyne’s work has apparently been appearing in advertiser sections of the Sun-Times for a while).
Well, it’s a new world and we don’t begrudge the Sun-Times trying to figure out how to make it work financially when the Jewel and Dominick’s ads that carried the food section are gone. But as a frequent reader and linker of the old food section, we are hard-pressed to imagine the content in Taste commanding our attention for the long haul in its place. Sections like these can be sold to advertisers based on the paper’s full print circulation of hundreds of thousands, but their actual readership is a largely unknowable fraction of that. And being “advertising-friendly” only counts for so much without genuinely engaging and unique content that makes readers return week after week— and actually see the ads.