Pioneer hopes to blaze new trail in suburbs

Can the new owners of Pioneer Press restore luster to their tarnished brand and transform the company into a robust online operation?

It won’t be easy — especially after a mass exodus of editors, reporters and writers, who quit rather than accept redefined positions and pay cuts from the publisher of 32 suburban weekly newspapers. Among them were longtime managing editors Gary Taylor, Rick Hibbert, Mike Martinez, David Sweet, Marc Alberts, Liza Roche and Jennifer Clark.

If we’ve learned anything from the Journatic scandal that turned TribLocal into a worthless piece of garbage overnight, it’s that without knowledgeable, experienced professionals to create and edit content, all the fancy new systems in the world are useless.

But there in my mailbox at home Thursday was the future of “hyperlocal community news” as envisioned by Sun-Times Media and parent company Wrapports LLC: The redesigned, reformatted and reinvented Pioneer Press.

“For the past six months — through focus groups, hundreds of street interviews and direct contact with our readers — we have been in an open dialogue with our readers in an attempt to create the best possible local news experience for you,” publisher Chris Krug wrote in a note to readers. “The format and design that we unveiled today is born of those conversations, and intended to better reflect the vibrancy of your hometown.”

Krug’s note directed readers to “start your reading experience with the Inside Guide on Page 6 — a deep index that will allow you to easily find the content that you want to read first.” But it wasn’t that easy to find the Inside Guide. It was on Page 4.

Though identical in size and shape to last week’s Pioneer Press, the new-and-improved version was clean and attractive, featuring fresh new type faces and graphics, and color-coded sections that were simple to navigate. It also boasted several new sections and columns. (Thank goodness they didn’t mess with Chuck Wenk.) A separate insert devoted to weekend planning and entertainment was convenient and nicely organized.

Six of the first nine pages of the main paper were full-page ads, which seemed top-heavy. You shouldn’t have to wade back to Page 13 before you get to the real news in earnest. I was also disappointed by what passed for a business story — a puff piece on the Evanston design firm that handled the makeover for Pioneer Press. Executive editor Jason Schaumburg should know better.

When asked about the resignations of editors and reporters in recent weeks, Krug did not comment on specific employees or the numbers involved, but said through a spokeswoman:  "As our business undergoes a rapid transformation, Pioneer Press is committed to a digital-first approach to meet the changing needs of our readers, which has dictated a restructuring of our news operation. New roles and skill sets are necessary to align with the modern news cycle, as our goal is to provide the most relevant and timely content to our local communities. The newly introduced roles represented pay increases for many professionals that were interested in developing new skills. Our staff grew in size through this process as well. Not everyone chose to make the transition with us."

Judging from the look of Pioneer’s cheap and unimpressive website, Krug & Co. still have a long way to go to achieve their “digital-first” goals. Sources said the latest version is only an interim step, with plans in the works for more sophisticated online and mobile products.

“We’re making a big push on that front,” one insider said of the company’s strategy. “It’s a very lucrative market for us, and there’s a lot more money to be made.”


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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)