In a move that is both cutting-edge and a throwback, the Chicago Tribune is introducing a new Sunday books section, to be offered to subscribers at an additional cost.
The literary publication represents an effort by the newspaper to explore the concept of premium paid content as a means to bolster revenue beyond the traditional subscription and advertising model.
“It’s a new approach to content creation and delivery,” said Gerould Kern, senior vice president and editor of the Chicago Tribune. “Audiences want very specialized information, and we are going to give them that.”
Slated to roll out next month, Printers Row will feature 24 pages of book reviews, author interviews and Chicago-focused literary news, along with a weekly bonus book of short fiction. The journal will be delivered with the Sunday paper and online beginning Feb. 26 to Tribune subscribers who pay an additional $99 per year. Subscriptions also will include access to member-only book events, such as the Tribune series of author conversations, and discussion groups.
Single copies will be available for $2.99 through Amazon.com.
Paid premium content represents a new potential revenue stream for newspapers, which have struggled to adapt in an increasingly fragmented media landscape. Different from a digital pay wall, where newspapers charge for access to basic content online, the Tribune’s model may more closely resemble cable television, which charges an additional monthly fee for a variety of premium channels.
Though praising the model as innovative, media analyst Ken Doctor was skeptical that the Printers Row subscriber base could reach critical mass, particularly in light of an abundance of free online book sites.
“I think $99 per year is a pretty rich price point for something like that,” Doctor said. “It needs to be a product that really stands out in the marketplace, given that readers can get reviews so many other places.”
A free sample issue of Printers Row will be distributed to 100,000 Tribune subscribers on Sunday, testing the waters for a niche publication targeting a passionate subset of readers.
Chicago does have a reputation as a strong literary town. Last June, some 125,000 people attended the Printers Row Lit Fest, an event the Tribune has produced since 2002. Executives are hoping to find at least 10,000 book fans willing to pay for the Tribune’s new publication, which will include some advertising but depend on subscribers to remain viable.
Once a Sunday staple, the stand-alone books section has all but disappeared in recent years, whittled down to a page or two and buried deep in another section at many major newspapers. Never a profit center, the proliferation of red ink and the migration of book sales — and reviews — to the Web hastened the decline, Doctor said. The cost of printing and distributing a weekly section that only a small number of readers wanted was simply too high.
“Largely, the Sunday book sections never supported themselves,” Doctor said. “The book sections were there because it was considered that daily newspapers, of course, wrote about books — their readers cared about books.”
Launched with great fanfare in 1946, the Tribune’s book section went through a variety of formats but remained an integral part of the Sunday paper for more than 60 years. Downsized to a tabloid, it was moved to Saturdays in 2007 and folded into another section the following year. Now a page in the main Saturday section, the regular books feature will continue, Kern said.
Asking subscribers to pay $2 extra per week for a books section may seem like a gamble, but Kern said he is banking on pent-up demand among local literati to put the project in the black — and perhaps open the door to other niche publications on an a la carte basis.
“This is an innovation,” Kern said. “We’re being aggressive and moving forward. We’re trying to develop new ideas and get them into play. We’re not going to just stand still. We’re very hopeful that this is part of a new publishing approach that is right for the times.”