Journalism used to be prix fixe. You paid one price for your morning paper and everything came with it: news, sports, stock tables, and comic strips. Culture, scandal, and punditry.
These days, to quote the Tribune‘s Elizabeth Taylor, “Everything’s a la carte.” The new way of the world is to turn each course into a separate profit center. The Skyway? Privatize it. Parking meters? Sell the contract to some outfit in Spain. El stops? Ask local businesses to pay to put their names on the stations. Journalism proceeds apace. We can’t quite accuse a private business of privatizing, but the Tribune is exploring the theory that even if today’s consumers don’t want to pay for news of value, maybe they’ll cough up for value plus. A couple of years ago the Tribune played around with the idea of offering subscribers an enhanced Sunday product called Five Star for five bucks beyond the cost of the standard Sunday paper. That project didn’t get past the dummy stage. But the Tribune scaled it back and tried again. In February it launched Printers Row, a 24-page Sunday literary supplement that costs Tribune subscribers $99 a year, nonsubscribers $149. Included with the section is a booklet offering a short work of original fiction.
Taylor edits Printers Row. The Tribune chooses to call its subscribers “members,” and I’m told—not by Taylor—that there aren’t enough of them yet to cover the section’s costs. Senior editors will decide one day whether Printers Row has earned its keep or must shut down. It’s up to Taylor, fully aware of how precarious everything is in journalism, to see to it that readers who wonder why they have to pay any surcharge at all for a books section nevertheless feel they’re getting their money’s worth. Her big strength is that she’s as nuts about reading as they are.
“Literature is another form of news,” she tells me, “and with fewer and fewer newspapers, books are taking up the cause of educating people and enlightening them.” In her view, Printers Row has two big jobs to do. “We need to offer critical appraisal of new books,” she says. “I also think it’s important to inspire people to read widely and encounter new authors and ideas—to feel invested and follow literature as they would follow news, to think of authors as people to follow.”
On April 1, Printers Row published what Taylor considers a “perfect feature story.” The Tribune’s Mary Schmich wrote about Clare Cavanagh, a professor of Slavic languages at Northwestern and the translator, from Polish into English, of the late poet Wislawa Szymborska, who won a Nobel Prize in 1996.
“We never think of the translator—I don’t,” says Taylor. But a conversation with Schmich changed that. Schmich admires Szymborska so much that she praised her in Poetry magazine as the author of “my most dog-eared book of poems,” and when she died two months ago eulogized her in the Tribune as “my constant companion.” It was Cavanagh’s translations Schmich was reading. And last year a book by Cavanagh on Polish poets won the National Book Critics award for criticism.
“Basically, I’m a literary matchmaker,” Taylor tells me. “I have set three couples up on blind dates and they’ve married—and I feel the same way about books.” Schmich’s piece on Cavanagh was matchmaking squared. Taylor introduced readers of Printers Row to the Chicagoan whose translations “introduced Szymborska’s poetry to a whole new audience.”
She has other blind dates in mind. “My literary heroine of the moment is Edith Pearlman,” says Taylor. “She’s an example of a writer who didn’t rush to publish a book but kept laboring, writing these short stories, getting them published in small journals. Ann Patchett told me about her. She wrote the introduction to [Pearlman’s] Binocular Vision, her new and collected short stories. She hoped Pearlman would move beyond what she called ‘secret handshake status.'”
Taylor will do what she can to change that. She invited Pearlman to the Tribune’s next Printers Row Lit Fest in June. “And I’m going to try my best to persuade her to offer one of her stories for the insert in Printers Row.” Taylor can’t afford to pay for the stories she inserts, but she hopes that won’t keep her from getting good ones from writers like Pearlman who are used to getting next to nothing for their fiction anyway.
“One thing I didn’t expect to be as popular as it is is the fiction insert,” Taylor continues. When the Tribune stopped publishing the winners of its annual Nelson Algren Awards competition, it built up a stockpile of unprinted short stories, and Printers Row gives Taylor a chance to tap it. “Even the 2011 winner, ‘Clover,’ by Billy Lombardo hadn’t been printed,” she says. “I love this contest. It’s completely blind. The judges never see the names. So a famous writer or somebody just starting out—it’s an even playing field.”
Taylor wants to make Printers Row the hub of a literary community whose members meet authors she wants them to know at events she hosts, most of them in Tribune Tower. She’s building out from the Lit Fest and Nelson Algren Awards, not starting from scratch. But doubters surround her. When the latest wave of layoffs swept the newsroom last month some colleagues wondered whether the Tribune had its priorities straight, plowing resources into a books section. But from the Tribune‘s point of view, Printers Row is important R&D. “It’s a new model we think will broaden the range of news coverage we can offer,” said editor Gerould Kern when the section was launched.
I’m reminded of Book magazine, launched in 1998 and published from an apartment on my block until the operation moved to New York in 2001. When Barnes & Noble bought half the magazine and gave it away to new members of its Readers’ Advantage program, Book was hugely successful; when Barnes & Noble decided it had better ways to spend its money Book collapsed. “I really liked Book magazine,” says Taylor. “It should have stayed in Chicago. There’s another magazine I really felt had great energy to it—Wigwag.”
Founded by disaffected New Yorker staffers, Wigwag, which published reviews and essays, lasted from 1988 to 1991. Energy is not enough. Neither is ardor. But without them I suppose there is nothing, and Taylor provides both.
We have a BAT winner!
The last night of Major League Baseball’s 2011 regular season will long be recalled as one of the most dramatic in the national pastime’s history—two wild card playoff positions determined by four games, three of them decided by one run, two in extra innings. But far more hung in the balance than just a couple of postseason berths. To the baseball writers of Chicago, virtual immortality was at stake.
Suppose those four games had ended differently. Or suppose the season had ended two days earlier than it did. In either case, the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves would have been the AL and NL’s respective wild card entries and not the Tampa Bay Rays and Saint Louis Cardinals. And the Golden BAT champion I am at this moment announcing to a swell of (virtual) ruffles and flourishes would be Baseball Prospectus. We would be agreeing that 2011 was a good year for science and algorithms, specifically BP’s celebrated PECOTA (for Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm, though I don’t need to tell you that).
But in its final days, 2011 became a good year for dumbfoundingly improbable turns of fate. When the dust had settled, the new world champions were the Cardinals—lucky to make the playoffs and twice a strike away from elimination in the sixth game of the World Series—and the Golden BAT belonged to Gordon Wittenmyer, the Cubs beat reporter for the Sun-Times. The margin of his victory: he picked the Rays to be the AL wild card, which they became that last night by overcoming a 7-0 eighth-inning deficit to beat the Yankees in 12 innings as the Bosox blew a ninth-inning lead against the Orioles. And the BP’s PECOTA picked not only Boston to win a wild card but also the Braves, who were swept as the season ended by the Phillies and overtaken by Saint Louis.
The Golden BAT has been a proud Chicago tradition since Neil Tesser introduced it in the Reader in 1981. The BAT (which during its long, storied career has stood variously for Baseball Achievement/Aptitude/Accountability/Acumen Test, and perhaps one or two others) was created to underline Tesser’s notion that pixilated gerbils could do as good a job of picking pennant races as our press box deities. Evidence favoring that conclusion was not slow in coming, yet it’s been four years since the pixelated hyperrationalism of PECOTA prevailed. “It’s probably as much guesswork for me as anyone else,” said last year’s winner, the Tribune‘s Phil Rogers, and though back in Tesser’s day that might have been heard as a shocking confession, to us, now, it’s a welcome reminder that fate is no mere numbers cruncher. Or to bring this discussion down to earth, in addition to the Atlanta collapse, the Cardinals owe their championship to midseason trades that at the beginning of the year neither Baseball Prospectus nor Wittenmyer could possibly have predicted.
And who was last? Who receives our virtual booby prize, the Whiffle BAT? It was a particularly tough year for multiple BAT winner and constant contender Toni Ginnetti of the Sun-Times. She correctly placed both the Cardinals and New York Yankees in the postseason, though incorrectly penciling in the Cards to win the NL Central and the Yanks the AL wild card. But she had the Braves and Red Sox winning their divisions, and neither finished in the money.
Ginnetti was in good company. Eleven of the 12 Golden BAT contenders picked at least one of those two teams to make the playoffs, and seven picked both. Only Wittenmyer didn’t think either one would make the playoffs. He was wrong almost all year long, but at the wire he was right.