Chicago Live! is the product of discussions that began in 2009 among Tribune editors who were trying to figure out how to “build a bridge between the newsroom and our audience,” said Joycelyn Winnecke, Tribune vice president and associate editor. The idea of live events took off in April 2010, when the newspaper sponsored a panel discussion linked to a series of published stories about youth violence called “Seeking Safe Passage.” The event was a hit, packing the DuSable Museum of African American History with readers and concerned citizens.
Editors decided to try again about a month later, this time bringing the paper’s Washington bureau chief, White House correspondent, and Washington correspondent into town to sit on a panel at the Harold Washington Library Center moderated by top Tribune editor Kern. Once again, the public showed up. “The Windy City White House” event, as editors called it, was followed by a reception.
“We were flipping the lights on and off at the end,” Winnecke said. “No one wanted to leave.” Trib Nation’s programming now includes Chicago Live!, public policy forums, a literary series, TribU (a self-improvement section that includes stories, classes, and events on topics including photography and cooking), and Chicago Tribune personality-driven shows.
In that category, an “Ask Amy” live event was very popular. Tribune relationship advice columnist Amy Dickinson held an on-stage discussion, called “Relationships 101,” with a panel of experts at Chicago’s Chase Auditorium, which holds 500 people. The Tribune charged $20 a ticket and the event sold out, according to Winnecke.
“Cooking with Kass,” during which the columnist straps on an apron and grills beer can chicken while 200 of his readers crowd around the Weber and talk Chicago politics, has also been a sell-out success.
Kass said he was initially resistant to doing public events, mostly because he was afraid of disappointing people who liked his writing. “It’s like seeing a radio DJ at the mall, and they have a different voice in person,” he said. “You get a feeling for who a person is in the spaces between words. You get a sense of the person. I used to think, ‘What if I’m not the person they see? That might be jarring for them.’ ”
But Kass said he now enjoys meeting fans of his journalism. “I like our readers,” Kass said. “I want to have a connection with them.”
The ticket sales are encouraging both from a community-outreach perspective and as a new revenue stream. Tickets to a panel discussion with several local chief executives on economic recovery moderated by the paper’s editorial page editor and co-sponsored by pnc Bank were $10. Another event, co-sponsored by University of Phoenix on “Chicago’s Top Workplaces,” cost $35 to attend. In November, 2,700 people came out to two Tribune events celebrating writers Sam Shepard, Rebecca Skloot, and E. O. Wilson.
In an e-mail, Winnecke said, “some of the twelve events were financially profitable as well, and for the program overall, revenue covered expenses.”
Reporters and columnists are generally not paid extra for their participation in the events, which is considered “a further evolution of a newsroom job,” Winnecke said in an e-mail. Journalists who participate do so as part of their workweek.
Mindful of potential conflict-of-interest land mines, editors set up guidelines for events involving journalists, saying “the same rules apply to events as to our journalism in other forms.” Reporters and editors are to avoid offering opinion, and should not be the ones who invite their sources to sit on panels. The guidelines remind the newsroom that outside panelists and moderators are unpaid, but also equate outside sponsorship of the events with advertising in the paper and admission fees with a reader buying a copy at the newsstand.
The six Chicago Live! shows in the fall tested the waters to see what kind of feedback—and possible sponsorship partners—it would get. By the end of the run, the shows were selling out and reviews were good. At press time, the newspaper was close to announcing plans for Chicago Live! in 2011, according to Winnecke.