Newspapers: The Bennigan’s of the Digital Era?

Maybe the newspaper industry’s troubles have me thinking too much, but I’m finding echoes of our dilemma many places.
 
The other morning, for instance, I was skimming The New York Times business page, which had a feature on keeping the menu fresh at Applebee’s. Just then up popped the following television commercial for competitor Ruby Tuesday.
 
(For those of you without a video player handy, it shows two women eating in a generic casual restaurant with one of those faux-Tiffany lamps on the edge of their booth. A server materializes, reaches to take it away and says, “The seventies called and they want their lamp back.”)
 
You don’t need to connect too many dots to see the Ruby Tuesday campaign in the context of the recent bankruptcy of Bennigan’s, one-time king of the casual dining group. Bennigan’s, the obituaries agreed, had grown predictable and was serving up formulaic stuff that was cheap but had nothing else much going for it. A tough economy finished the chain off and a few others like it (for instance, Florida-based Shells).
 
Ruby Tuesday, tweaking decor and adding some new items, and Applebee’s, with a sort of continuous improvement strategy for their menu, want us to take notice that they are not falling into the same rut.
 
So are current hard times also the occasion for newspapers to signal ostentatiously that rethinking is in progress? Perhaps, this once, to change for the sake of change? I take that to be a big point of Tribune innovation chief Lee Abrams and his much maligned ramble-gram memos. Flashy redesigns like the one in place at the Orlando Sentinel and the one coming soon to the Chicago Tribune are a result.
 
Other, more conservative redesigns reduce news space, try to wedge as much as possible in the remaining pages and keep the basic look reassuringly the same. I’m not sure who’s right – though it may be worth remembering that the famous “not your father’s Oldsmobile” not only failed to rescue the brand but was not considered a very effective ad at the time.
 
I also think it is genuinely debatable whether there are opportunities for addition by subtraction in the current newspaper crunch — or is that just a cover story? What is the newspaper equivalent of the faux Tiffany lamp? Stock tables? The feature section?
 
I’m a middle-ground sort of guy. I do think the case can be made that busy readers are well-served by a more compact paper, especially early in the week. And fresh story formats, in print and online, are always welcome.
 
On the other hand, the smarter casual dining restaurants realize that at the end of the day they need to serve the same kind of food, create the same “dining experience,” if you will, that attracted a base of reasonably loyal followers in the first place.

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