Tribune explores e-content

By Alex Stedman

Past Chicago Tribune content, including articles and photos, is being digitized into e-books to make its content more widely available and generate income.

In late spring, the Tribune partnered with Agate Publishing, located in Evanston, Ill., to develop The Chicago Tribune Ebook Collection, which was launched in October. Each e-book is available on Kindle, Nook and both the iPad and iPhone for $4.99.

While newspapers like The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times have taken on similar endeavors, the Tribune’s project has a larger scope, said Colin McMahon, national content editor for the newspaper.

“What we’d like to do is get a pretty sizeable inventory up and running, promote that inventory and things going in the [e-book] market,” he said. “As people become interested in different topics, our e-books will be there to satisfy that interest.”

Twenty titles have been published, including “The Best of Mary Schmich,” a collection of columns by the Pulitzer Prize winner;  “Capone,” which features previously unreleased photos of the infamous Chicago gangster Al Capone; and “The Rise of Rahm,” which chronicles Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s race to Chicago’s top political seat. According to Doug Seibold, founder of Agate, the publisher plans to have 50 e-books released by the end of the year.

“The idea is that a lot of this material is going to be of interest to a wider audience of readers,” Seibold said. “Using the e-book format is a great way to make this material accessible and affordable to a wider range of consumers.”

The Tribune worked with Agate on a print book in 2011. The e-book initiative is the project of Agate’s newest department, Agate Digital, which produces technology-based content. Seibold said he sees the potential of stand-alone e-books untethered to print limitations, such as cost constraints and storage.

McMahon said the newspaper looks at the partnership with Agate

as another way it has progressed and that it fits with their growing technological presence. He added that putting together collections, as opposed to creating new content, has made the production

process easier.

“The reporting, writing, editing, packaging—all that stuff … is already done,” he said. “Now it’s just a matter of efficiently [putting] that together in a way that’s coherent and enjoyable for the consumer.”

However, McMahon said combining new content with old stories for easy readability is difficult because many stories were penned by different writers at different times, and it was sometimes a struggle to create a comprehensible narrative flow. However, reworking headlines and including introductions remedied the situation, according to McMahon, and in some cases, articles were completely overhauled.

Seibold described the project as an experiment that aims to “create a new revenue stream where none has really existed before,” adding that the e-book market is still ambiguous. The Tribune has also attempted to monetize its website by setting up a paywall effective Nov. 2, and charging Internet users $14.99 per month to view

exclusive content.

McMahon said stepping into an indefinite marketplace has

been difficult.

“You don’t want to pour a lot of your resources into something without knowing what the market is, and we don’t know what the market is,” he said.

Seibold believes most people who are used to paying for print books will think $4.99 is a

reasonable price.

He added that e-books are less costly to produce and store because warehouses that hold print publications are expensive.

“People have been trying to figure out a way to monetize web publishing for 15 years and not finding a lot of success,” Seibold said. “One of the things I’ve learned about the e-book format so far is that readers are really embracing it.”

A new study released Oct. 23 by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project may back up his theory. According to the study, 47 percent of younger Americans have read long-form e-content, which includes certain types of newspaper and

magazine articles.

Kathryn Zickuhr, a research analyst for the Pew Internet project, said during the course of the study she and her colleagues have seen how society’s reading habits

have changed.

“We have seen a pretty rapid growth in tablet adoption as well as e-reader adoption,” she said. “It’s going to be really interesting to see how the rise of the economy affects libraries and reading habits in

the future.”

McMahon said the Tribune expects to have more extensive knowledge of the e-book marketplace as it emerges, possibly within the next six months. Seibold said beyond their 2012 goal of 50 e-books, Agate and the Tribune aim to publish as many as 100 more

in 2013.

“It just seems to make so much sense as a way to figure out how to get the most out of this enormous library of content that newspapers are creating,” he said. “To me, it seems like the sort of thing that most media-creating organizations would want to do.”