For Time Out, Chicago Signals Digital Future

In late March, rumors that entertainment listings magazine Time Out Chicago was going all-digital surfaced in the Chicago Sun-Times. A few weeks later when the magazine was sold back to its parent company, the reports were confirmed. The shift to digital has raised many questions and has some industry watchers wondering if the Chicago transition is a signal of a companywide move.
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In early April, when Time Out Chicago was sold back to its London parent company, it signaled a sea change for a scrappy Midwestern operation many observers though was thriving both in print and online.

Then Oakley Capital Investments Limited, the London-based private equity fund that controls Time Out North America, confirmed plans to cease the print publication of Time Out Chicago, an entertainment listings magazine and website.

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And with that move, more than 80% of Time Out Chicago staffers lost their jobs — reducing the workforce from 60-some employees to 11, and the newsroom from 30 people to 6. Among the casualties: Editor in Chief and President Frank Sennett, who lasted under former owner Joe Mansueto for more than five years. (Mansueto is also founder-CEO of Morningstar Inc. a Chicago-based financial data firm.)

On the surface, the story might sound familiar: another media outlet cleaning house as it morphs to digital only. But it also offers a rare glimpse beneath the hood of Time Out's worldwide operation, which shows all signs of following a digital-first strategy with aggressive movement into mobile, and the possibility of new rollouts skipping the print phase altogether.

"Chicago is not our first digital-only city; we’re already digital in L.A. and Paris as well and we’ve seen great success there," said Time Out's worldwide CEO, Aksel van der Wal. "The great thing about Time Out is that we're providing content that’s very suitable for the digital age — whether it’s soliciting information, recommendations, or really inspiring people to do more in their cities. So it’s uniquely positioned in that sense."

While van der Wal wouldn’t divulge any plans to end all print editions within a certain time frame, he did give a tantalizing glimpse of a future where Time Out could go exclusively online.

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"As with any publisher, you have to move to digital because that’s where the audience is moving," he said. "If you look at some stats in the U.S., by 2015 about 52% of all Internet users will be on a tablet, and 54% will have a smartphone. So you have to move where your audience goes. Investing as a global business in the digital platform is of course the way to go for us."

But don't junk the presses just yet. In London, Time Out's home base, the flagship print magazine became a freebie in September 2012. According to Time Out's figures, circulation shot up from 55,000 to 305,000 overnight, making it the biggest magazine circulation-wise in that city. But why do this? As van der Wal explained, all those free copies helped promote the Time Out London website, where traffic increased 25%.

Going free, he said, "really expanded the brand and has actually reinvigorated it in London. And it has also boosted our digital audience because we now have a stronger and larger reach."

Yet if that's the case, why not duplicate that move in Chicago? Different cities, van der Wal said, demand different strategies: "The London market is unique in itself. It is a well established free market with various free publications."

Of course, Chicago has the Reader, Newcity and RedEye — all in print, all free, all competing for the same eyeballs and all plumbing the same listings and entertainment space. Could it be Time Out's corporate leaders don't know the market so well? Or do they know it just fine and need a convenient excuse for thinning the newsroom and pulling the print edition?

Then again, you could blame it on traffic — not on the information superhighway, but Chicago's notoriously jammed interstates and crowded el trains.

"When we looked at this market, we found that the average Chicagoan spends about three hours a day commuting, which is substantial," said Jennifer Morgan, president of Time Out North America. So it’s a really big opportunity for us given that the majority of the commuting time is spent over-ground — a great opportunity for us to make their commuting time inspirational."

Meanwhile, Time Out is pouring lots of attention into its revamped mobile presence, which promises a new smartphone app in "several months" that follows a hub-and-spoke approach. That is, the new Time Out app will serve as a starting point where mobile users can access a Time Out in any city.

That plan follows Time Out's new iPad app, released last year and updated about three months ago with a city-switcher feature, "so once you’ve downloaded it, you can say ‘I’d like the contents for New York’ or ‘I'd like the contents for Barcelona,'" van der Wal said.

Yet this time last year, Time Out Chicago seemed laser focused on a much different course than the one Oakley has charted. No one knows this better than Jonathan Eig, best-selling sports author and former Wall Street Journal reporter turned new media entrepreneur.

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