A recent event saw Wael Ghonim interviewed by the Chicago Tribune's culture critic Julia Keller at the Art Institute of Chicago's Rubloff Auditorium, in front of 500 people, followed by a reception and book-signing.
Other event series include Chicago Live, a comedy/discussion stage show which is also transmitted by radio, hosted by a well-known journalist, in partnership with The Second City. Chicago Forward presents 'conversations about the future,' moderated by the Tribune's journalists. TribU ('the university of you') events are held regularly at the paper on how to use social media, how to grow your blog, or how to start a successful book club, for example.
The newsroom will produce more than 100 events this year, with two to four happening in a week. Some are hosted at the Tribune, but larger ones are held at venues around the city.
"We began it as a way to engage readers - we were really seeking a way to have a connection that goes far beyond the written page, the website or the mobile app," said Joycelyn Winnecke, vice president and associate editor at the Chicago Tribune. "Talk with us" is the idea, she added, "the events provide a way for us to talk about the Chicago Tribune in a different tone and a different light."
Many of the events involve Tribune journalists and deal with current affairs that the paper covers, and ideas come directly from the newsroom. "We really see this as an extension of our journalism and as a new platform for 'publishing,'" Winnecke said.
The events are proving popular, she said: "People are just thrilled with these programmes and the opportunity to talk with us and each other and really engage in the content and with the issues and talk about what we do."
As well as providing a way to engage with readers face-to-face, the events are also making money for the paper. "It has turned into a successful revenue stream," Winnecke said, and specified in an INMA article that the programme is already profitable, with revenue expected to top seven figures in 2012. There is a charge to attend (most events on the site now are between $15 and $60), and the paper seeks sponsors for specific events or series. A dedicated editorial policy for events aims to ensure that the journalists' editorial integrity is preserved and the journalists are not involved in the business side of the events.
The events programme is already linked to one premium content initiative and may be connected to more in the future, Winnecke said. Printers Row is a membership programme for literature-lovers which offers them a 24-page supplement on books every Sunday and a free short story each week for $99 a year. Subscribers also get early notification about the paper's events focused around literature, and VIP access to 'Printers Row Live,' a series of monthly author discussions, and to the annual Printers Row Lit Fest. They can also contribute to members-only discussions on literature both online and live at the paper's headquarters.
The Tribune's editor, Gerould Kern, recently said that the paper intends to begin charging for some online content, Chicago Business reported. He declined to make a formal announcement, but commented that it was likely to be "selective" and that the paper was looking for a "creative way" to charge.
As Crain's Chicago Business pointed out, one of the Tribune's rivals, the Chicago Sun-Times, already operates a metered online payment model, as does one of the Tribune's sister publications, the Baltimore Sun.
The newsroom is enthusiastic about trying to connect with readers on more levels, Winnecke said, and given that the initiative is bringing in money at a time when the paper is trying to cut costs, it is likely to be highly welcome.
While social media are opening up one kind of communication channel with readers, several newspapers have been inspired to look for further ways to engage more directly with their readers.
As well as the events series, the paper invites smaller groups to the Tribune Tower for community conversations, Winnecke said. Fifteen members of the public who are particularly interested in a specific topic are invited to have lunch with 10-12 people from the newsroom for lunch and discussion. "It really brings the reader deeper into the process and ultimately makes our journalism more relevant," she explained.
The Journal Register Company, part of Digital First Media, is also betting on the value of real life contact with readers, with the creation of a 'newsroom café' at The Register Citizen in Torrington, Connecticut. Members of the local community are invited to visit the newsroom and to sit in on newsroom meetings, and have the chance to speak directly to reporters and editors.
Swedish daily Norran involves its readers directly in news stories via a live chat function called eEditor that operates on its site during newsroom hours, allowing readers to suggest ideas and discuss ongoing stories with journalists. The newspaper also regularly uses community experts for news articles, and gives them bylines and credit. And as part of its strategy to work for and befriend the community, the paper organises events such as a Christmas market in the main square of Skellefteå, where the paper is based, and ice hockey coaching for recent immigrants to the area given by the local team.
As newspapers battle for readers in times of unprecedented competition online, will this kind of deep engagement help to keep readers loyal to individual publications?