When I describe the Tribune's top-secret project, everybody makes the same snarky comment. The Tribune is designing a weekly edition that it will offer subscribers for a surcharge. The premium content will consist of long, thoughtful reporting and commentary—local in its focus—on the news and cultural affairs. The inevitable comment is this: That's what the Tribune is already supposed to be doing.
Once upon a time perhaps it did. But the abbreviated coverage a diminished staff has been offering readers since Sam Zell took over has cleared out plenty of room for the Tribune to create a new product that's a quantum improvement. The Tribune is calling this new product by a rich and ancient name, Five Star—signifying the final edition, the one with the ball scores and theater reviews, the one a big city wakes up to in the morning. Sources tell me the Trib hopes to roll it out in January.
I've obtained a partial copy of a dummy. Five Star consists of four sections printed on heavy, expensive stock. They're called the A Section, Culture, Focus, and Words, and the first three—all but the tabloid literary section—are broadsheets, roughly 13 by 23 inches. That was a pretty standard size in the day when newspapers were newspapers, but it's zaftig by current standards, two inches wider than the present Tribune, which was narrowed by half an inch in 2007 and another inch in February. The dummy's 56 pages in all, with a coffee-table heft that sends a message: read me or don't, but your home will feel tonier for having me in it.
Maybe I'm groping for analogies, but Five Star suggests to me the day Hollywood's knees stopped knocking and it hit back at television with CinemaScope. Five Star is the antithesis of RedEye. It's not portable and it's not disposable. For one thing, the pages are simply too big and heavy to negotiate on a bus or train; for another, you'd be barely done with one article when you pulled into your stop.
There are no ads.
Two Tribune editors I called about the Five Star project said the only thing they could tell me was that they couldn't tell me anything. The Trib's top editor, Gerould Kern, didn't return my call. What I hear from less official sources is that the plan is to offer Five Star to Sunday subscribers for an extra $5 a week, beginning with a print run of 25,000 copies. Sunday is the day when newspapers make whatever money they're still able to make; but the Tribune reported in April that over a six-month measuring period its Sunday circulation had dropped 7.5 percent from the year before. Meanwhile the Sunday circulation of the New York Times had dropped just 5.2 percent. And circulation of the Times's Chicago edition had actually increased a little—or so I was told in May by the Times editor in New York who oversees the two pages of Chicago news prepared every Friday and Sunday for the Times by the Chicago News Cooperative.
Those two pages on Sunday don't sound like much, but they could be nudging some readers to the tipping point. This is the point where they decide that Sunday isn't Sunday without the $6 New York Times but the Tribune is one paper too many. Five Star looks to me like the Tribune's ambitious attempt to hold its ground.
The gravitas and handsome design of Five Star reminds me of upscale British Sunday papers like the Times and
Guardian Observer. Its size suggests Panorama, the 320-page one-off Dave Eggers published last December in San Francisco. Panorama was Eggers's tribute to the old-fashioned American newspaper and an assertion of what print journalism is still capable of when a thousand compromises haven't eviscerated it.
Can the Tribune pull this off? Can it round up a stable of dazzling contributors? The articles in the dummy promise intellectual firepower, but few came from the Tribune. In the Culture section, for instance, I spotted articles poached from recent editions of the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Guardian, and Salon.
At the back of Culture are two pages of puzzles and comics, including a comic by Chris Ware. I asked Ware if he'd signed on with the Tribune and would be drawing for Five Star when it comes out. He didn't know anything about it. So we shouldn't think Chris Ware—we should think Chris Ware-ish. And what about the Jeff Tweedy byline over a column on typographical errors that tosses around names like Max Beerbohm and Delmore Schwartz? That turns out to be an exercise in hopeful thinking. The actual text was written by Joseph Epstein for the Weekly Standard.
But then, a dummy isn't a newspaper. It's a collage titled Newspaper.
Another thing: how will anyone who reads Five Star find the time to read the regular Sunday Tribune? Advertisers in the Sunday Trib won't enjoy knowing, or at least suspecting, that the cream of the audience they thought they'd purchased is recycling, unread, the edition their ads are found in.
Well, R&D is for working through these issues.
Another project in the hopper at the Tribune is Chicago Live!, which will find the Trib and Second City teaming up for a "lively weekly stage and radio show bringing the hottest stories, newsmakers and entertainers in Chicago to the stage." I'm quoting a draft of a Tribune Media Group flyer here.
Chicago Live! is supposed to be up and running sometime this fall. The idea is to monetize news by sending it up across platforms—a 90-minute stage show before a paying audience that's recycled on radio and the Internet. Last I heard a venue hadn't been chosen, but the Tribune was looking at a space in the basement of the Chicago Theatre. v
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