United States Project

Fuel for subscription gains in Chicago: Cubs, not Trump

December 26, 2016
Photo courtesy of Jackie Spinner

The election of Donald Trump may be driving a surprising bump in newspaper subscriptions in New York and Washington, DC. But in Chicago, the batter is the Cubbies.

While it’s impossible to say exactly why more people signed up for print and digital newspaper subscriptions since November, in Chicago, publishers at the city’s top dailies credit the Cubs Effect for giving a bigger boost to revenue than the Trump Effect. (This is the town, after all, where the city’s biggest paper of record bizarrely endorsed Gary Johnson for president).

On Nov. 2, the day after the Cubs won the World Series, the Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times both saw single-copy street sales surpass levels from President Barack Obama’s election in 2008.

The Tribune sold roughly 600,000 single copies the day after the big win. (It sold just over 400,000 when Obama won in 2008). The paper sold 25,000 copies during a Cubs victory rally on Nov. 4 that drew as many as five million people. But who’s counting? (Besides this guy, who disputed reports that the rally was one of the world’s largest-ever gatherings.) The newspaper also has sold 30,999 copies online, a number that is still climbing, says Dana Meyer, spokeswoman for Tronc Inc., formerly Tribune Publishing.

On a typical weekday, the Chicago Sun-Times sells about 75,000 street copies. On the day after the World Series win, the Sun-Times sold about a 500,000 copies, says Jim Kirk, publisher and editor in chief at Sun-Times Media Group.

But it wasn’t just single-copy sales. Home delivery and digital subscriptions went up, too. (The Tribune reported a 42 percent increase in new digital subscribers for the month).

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Both papers had been planning (and hoping) for this postseason run since the Cubs got knocked out of the National League championship in 2015 by the New York Mets. That was their first postseason championship since 2003, and things looked good for at least a another postseason chance.

“When you have 108 years, you ought to be ready,” Bruce Dold, the Tribune’s top editor, told CJR.

Both newspapers report brisk sales of commemorative books about the big win. The Tribune’s paperback Won for the Ages; How the Chicago Cubs Became the 2016 World Series Champions, is the No. 1 seller in the Midwest travel-guide category on Amazon. It was published on November 4, two days after the championship win. The Sun-Times published its hardcover Believe It: Chicago Cubs World Series Champions on the day of the win.

“We’ve seen a slight uptick in subscriptions,” Kirk says. “I  think the beauty of that great story, which transcended sports, is that a lot of people picked us up who hadn’t in a long time. That helped drive some subscriptions and tied with good trial offers.”

The Tribune’s Dold says the paper’s visuals helped drive people to the paper’s coverage in print and online.

The Tribune, which once owned the Chicago Cubs, also had a sponsorship deal with the Cubs that it extended through the postseason, says Trevor Gibbons, Chicago Tribune merchandising and promotions manager. That enabled the newspaper to put a free “W” flag insert into the paper.

The sponsorship also enabled the company to sell Cubs merchandise along with its Chicago Tribune merchandise. “After we tallied everything up, there was a pretty even split between consumer revenue, ad revenue, and merchandise sales,” Gibbons says.

One of the Tribune promotions to subscribe to the newspaper included a free flag, T-shirt, and press plate of the winning front page. The media company has sold more than 24,000 press plates, which are produced in the Chicago area plant where the paper is printed.

Although as Dold notes it will be hard to top the end of a 108-year losing streak, both papers will be back on the Cubs beat well before spring training begins.

Kirk, of the Sun-Times, says the paper will put resources particularly into online content.

“The Cubs were one of highest traffic drivers online for us, so there’s just a lot of high interest even in years when they don’t do well,” he says. “We expect people are going to come to us well before the start  of the season. We’ll do a lot more Cubs content than we usually do leading up to the opening of spring training, and wall-to-wall coverage again” during the season.

Jackie Spinner is CJR’s correspondent for Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin. She is an associate journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former staff writer for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.