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March 30, 2020, 11:23 a.m.

One way the Chicago Reader is tackling its coronavirus revenue problems: a coloring book

With revenues crashing, alt-weeklies and other outlets have been forced to get creative.

Considering the regimentation of pre-digital publishing — repeating the same workflows day after day, week after week — journalists are very adaptable animals. Many of the outlets whose revenue streams have been damaged by the coronavirus response have come up with nontraditional ways to fill that void. I want to highlight a few such ideas from one outlet — the nation’s first free alt-weekly, the Chicago Reader.

The Reader was already going through a different kind of transition when coronavirus hit, having announced its intention to become a nonprofit last November. When the mandate for social distancing shut down so many of Chicago’s bars, nightclubs, concert halls, and restaurants, the Reader “lost about 90 percent of its ongoing advertising revenue.” And, as with other free weeklies around the country, it also lost many of its most important points of distribution — those same bars, nightclubs, concert halls, and restaurants.

So what has the Reader done?

  • It made a coloring book.

    I love this idea for so many reasons. Adult coloring books can be an excellent stress reliever in stressful times. The Reader collaborated with 50 local artists for the illustrations, with both sides sharing the revenue (and both sides doing promotion). I suspect most people will pay $30 for the PDF instead of $45 for the print book, in which case the marginal cost of each new sale is $0; whatsever the cost of physical production is, I’d bet it’s under the $15 upsell difference.

    And it’s something tangible that people can get in return for their money — while feeling good about supporting both local media and local artists. Public media has all those tote bags for a reason — “give us money” and “give us money and we’ll give you this thing” are both messages that can work with different sets of people.

  • Similarly, it turned its March 26 issue into a “souvenir” edition. With distribution limited, last week’s issue was mostly distributed by PDF — but a limited set of 200 copies were printed and can be purchased for $15.

    Assuming civilization goes on, people will want keepsakes of this strange time, and the Reader turned a free weekly into a $15 souvenir. It’s about as good a spin you can put on “we can really only afford to print a few of these.”

    (Interestingly, the Reader appears to be using Memberful for its membership program, but for both one-time donations and coloring-book/souvenir-issue sales, it’s using the nonprofit arm of ActBlue, the fundraising company known primarily for working with Democratic candidates and causes.)

  • Along those same lines, it’s offering the cover of the previous week’s issue on mugs, coasters, t-shirts, buttons, and just about every other knickknackish thing you can put a picture on. They’re doing it through RedBubble, so upfront costs and fulfillment hassles are both nil.

  • With limited print distribution, the Reader (like a few other alt-weeklies I’ve seen) is moving to paid distribution by mail. Over the next 12 weeks, $50 will get you a copy of each issue, including a “souvenir” issue every other week when the broader print run is limited, as it was last week.

  • Finally — and no doubt most important to the bottom line — the Reader, like most alt-weeklies, has asked its readers to step up via one-time donations or by joining its membership program.

Is any one of these ideas going to fundamentally change the financial future of the Reader? Other than the membership program, no. And it’s certainly not the only news outlet thinking creatively about how to deal with this crisis. But I do want to applaud the Reader’s staff for the diversity of their efforts. Now, go get your crayons.

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email ( or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     March 30, 2020, 11:23 a.m.
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