Live From Chicago, It’s the Tribune Company!

Putting its talent on stage to reconnect with a local audience
January 8, 2011

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.”

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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.”

Tough Times
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.

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.

At the opening curtain of the second Chicago Live! on October 21, emcee Kogan took the stage, tie loosened and shirtsleeves rolled precisely once up his forearms. Kogan looked like what he is: a Chicago newspaper guy. Just like his dad, a renowned Sun-Times reporter.

Obviously brimming with the same emotions many in the Trib newsroom were feeling about getting their paper back from what they considered to be a troop of buffoons, Kogan made an impassioned case for newspaper journalism as a foundation for civic discourse and modern democracy.

“All I’ve done in my life is work for newspapers,” he told the crowd. “I will tell you now, in the same way I could have when I was sixteen, that the Chicago Tribune, as was the Sun-Times when I worked there, as was the Daily News when I worked there—these things are what they have always been.” He paused. “A daily miracle.”

Crickets. Maybe one person clapped.

“Okay,” Kogan quipped. “One newspaper reader in the crowd.” 

Tim Townsend is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.