On a sunny afternoon in October, Tom Skilling, the popular meteorologist on Tribune Company’s WGN-TV, was in a stairwell of the famed Chicago Theater, rehearsing a skit with Tim Kazurinsky, a veteran of Chicago’s Second City comedy and improv theater. The longtime weatherman wasn’t completely comfortable in this one-night-only move away from WGN’s green-screen weather map and into the world of live comedy. He was nervous about his performance in the run-through. “I don’t know if that works,” he said, after reading a line. But he received enthusiastic reassurance from Kazurinsky.
“You nailed it!” said Kazurinsky, who starred in Saturday Night Live’s legendary “I Married a Monkey” skit.
The two were taking part in an ambitious series designed to reconnect Tribune journalists with the local community. Their performance—a parody of TV anchors announcing snow-day school cancellations that Kazurinsky originally wrote for Second City back in 1979—was part of Chicago Live!, one of several events Tribune hosts to showcase its journalists. The hour-long, weekly variety show takes on the news in performances structured somewhat like a daily paper—with local news, sports, and arts sections.
Chicago Tribune reporters and columnists interview local newsmakers on stage before a paying audience. Tribune sports writers chat, sports-radio-style, with a Second City cast member. Each show also includes live performances by local artists.
Tribune Company, whose flagship Chicago Tribune has suffered along with most big papers in recent readership and revenue losses, produces Chicago Live! in partnership with The Second City. The live shows are part of a reader engagement program that executives call “Trib Nation.” The ticketed events are also an attempt to build an alternative stream of revenue to subscriptions and advertising for the struggling media company.
“It connects our readers to us and us with them,” said Tribune editor Gerould Kern. “In some ways, that’s what newspapers were and should still be. We’re an old-fashioned newspaper company, trying to be in the middle of things.”
Public outreach programs under the Trib Nation umbrella are not intended to be the salvation of Tribune, which is mired in bankruptcy and being run by a committee after the exit of its executive team. But they may be a small step in the direction that longtime Tribune watchers believe the media company should take: back to the basics of delivering news in important and intriguing ways.
“A newspaper is both light and dark,” said Rick Kogan, a senior Tribune writer who uses his deep, gravelly voice to great effect as Chicago Live!’s emcee. “A lot of people buy the paper for the comics. [Chicago Live!] is a balancing act—the spirit of hard news with a Second City aesthetic. It’s a balance, and I think we pull it off.” Audiences seem to agree.
Tribune film critic Michael Phillips said that he was initially skeptical, but has come to like the notion of interviewing a source in the Chicago Live! format. “It’s a wonderful way of introducing yourself to an audience by way of introducing them to someone much more interesting than yourself,” he said. “For five or ten minutes, I can give the audience a taste of what I do for a living.”
October was a difficult month for the Tribune newsroom. Many journalists there believed a devastating, 4,000-word, front-page story in The New York Times early that month about the adolescent escapades that owner Sam Zell’s band of merry radio-industry men brought to the Tribune Tower failed to acknowledge the solid journalism coming out of the newsroom. At the same time, some Tribune veterans felt strongly that the paper’s editorial leadership was a bit late in standing up to the radio jocks.
But morale shot up when, less than a month after the Times story ran, many of those responsible, including chief executive Randy Michaels, had been shown the door. As Michaels and his team left the Tribune Tower, there were signs of renewed pride in the pages of the paper.
Columnist John Kass wrote that the newsroom “is not a frat house,” adding, “there are no beer bongs or toga parties at the City Desk. Editors don’t do keg stands in the page-one meetings.” Of the brief reign of Zell’s radio clowns, Kass wrote, “The whole thing has been embarrassing.”
October also marked the launch of Chicago Live!, with six events planned for the opening season. Performed on Thursday nights at the 252-seat black box stage in the basement of the Chicago Theater, the shows are replayed on Tribune’s WGN-AM on Friday nights. Tickets are $25, and after the show, the audience is invited to a reception in the theater’s grand lobby.