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Is this a good story?

Tribune Co.'s bankruptcy and

at the

Baltimore Sun

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have obscured another troubling incident at the media giant: a market-test of stories that have not yet been published.

Editor & Publisher

about this on April 30, the day after 55

Chicago Tribune

reporters signed an e-mail to their editors protesting the practice. That was the same day

The Sun

laid off 40 union members, and the day after 21 manager-level folks were let go.

Someone sent the reporters' e-mail to the

Associated Press

, and a reporter there asked some questions of Tribune management, and they basically fessed-up.

It should not need to be said, but for those who don't know, newspaper reporters and editors take pains to keep their work product under wraps until it's ready to publish. The thinking is that premature sharing of the stuff reporters find out could cause sources to clam up, or be unfair to the subjects and sources involved in the news story at hand. It is also unfair to readers not in the loop.

Focus-group marketing has been an expensive and useless habit of newspapers for several decades. But until now, the focus groups would be set upon previously published material.

The AP piece links the Chicago incident with another stellar marketing coup the company had in Los Angeles:

People with long memories (like, say, 10 years) might remember the

L.A. Times

' infamous

. That happened under the previous management, and helped weaken Times-Mirror for Tribune's subsequent slaughter of it.

The A.P. story doesn't say it, but both of these recent gaffes stink strongly of radio-style ploys. Lee Abrams, Tribune's

Chief Innovation Officer, stakes his claim to fame on his popularization of the Album-Oriented Rock format adopted by FM radio stations in the 1970s and '80s. The repetitive playlists, the blaring, constant commercials, the stifling sameness of the stations, coast to coast--in short, everything that made once-cool radio stations suck--made Abrams into a multi-millionaire guru.

So now Abrams (or someone who thinks just like him) is mutating Tribune, its newspapers and its TV stations and its web sites, into a stunted, mechanized, marketing-driven analogue of the wretched radio world. Journalism? News? Investigations? They're just "content," no more or less compelling than a syndicated advice column, crossword puzzle, or an advertorial for a cool new movie.

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