As the senior vice president and first ever chief innovation officer of the Tribune Company, Lee Abrams is spearheading some major changes in the newspaper business. This is Abrams' first foray into journalism and his leadership style is, well, different. Abrams discusses his
infamous staff memos and his vision for the future of the newspaper business.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. It’s been quite the summer for Lee Abrams, the Tribune Company’s senior vice-president and first-ever chief innovation officer. Over the past six months, Abrams has spearheaded redesigns at The Orlando Sentinel, The Baltimore Sun, The Chicago Tribune and The Hartford Courant.
He enjoyed many years of success in commercial and satellite radio, but he had never before worked in newspapers. However, now that he is, he’s overflowing with ideas, ideas he often sends in the form of long, emphatic memos studded with all caps and exclamation points. Abrams says that today newspapers face competition from all media – TV, radio and the Internet – and his job is to make all the ink-stained wretches in his employ understand that. LEE ABRAMS: So I think a lot of it is really just trying to inspire people in the papers to really, without prejudice, evaluate where the paper’s been, where it is now and how to do the best possible version of it for 2008. BOB GARFIELD: Well, your means of inspiration have substantially, although not entirely, been through your staff memos, sprinkled with all-caps words and phrases - LEE ABRAMS: [LAUGHS] BOB GARFIELD: - and a kind of rah-rah style that journalists are destined to roll their eyes at, or worse. In fact, it appears from just reading the blogosphere that some of your employees think that you’re slightly unhinged. Are you slightly unhinged? LEE ABRAMS: Maybe, I mean, if that’s what it takes. They're really geared more to just get people thinking. Disagreeing is fine. Let's get a dialogue going here, ‘cause there are things I bring up that were sacred, and certainly upset some people and just created all sort of havoc. BOB GARFIELD: Well, yeah. Permit me to cite one example, your memo that suggested that special advertising sections which are labeled as ads – because they're ads – somehow be identified in a way that makes them less off-putting. Tell me why. LEE ABRAMS: I was in Baltimore, at Baltimore Sun, and noticed they had some special sections that were about things like the environment. And I read ‘em, and they were great. But then all very prominently highlighted was “Special Advertising Section,” and I think a lot of people would look at that and go, uh, just throw it out, it’s a bunch of ads, whereas it could be named something a little differently, a little more inventively, and still be clearly non-editorial but just a little more engaging.
And I think that’s just one of those newspaperisms, you know, have called it that for years: Special Advertising Section, don't read me. BOB GARFIELD: But Lee, it performs exactly the function that it’s designed to perform. It tells the reader that this has nothing to do with the editorial processes of the newspaper. It does not bear its imprimatur. It offers none of the credibility that you've come to expect from The Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, what have you. That’s why it’s there, no? LEE ABRAMS: No, I think some of the special advertising sections are just a series of ads, but some of ‘em are actually very well written and informative, and I think it'll be better for the readers ‘cause there might be something in there they'd actually read, certainly better for the advertisers; it'll get ‘em more eyes. BOB GARFIELD: There was another memo that made you the object of some ridicule internally, when you expressed surprise that The Chicago Tribune actually had reporters on the ground in Baghdad. You thought that was undersold. LEE ABRAMS: Absolutely. It was just so underplayed that it didn't register. You know, you watch television and, you know, there’s a guy reporting from Iraq and there’s missiles in the background and it’s obviously in a desert in Iraq, and you really get the feel they're taking you there, whereas newspapers are so subtle about it. You'd think they'd have pictures of the reporters in the battle zone with Iraqi children or whatever.
And it was actually in L.A. I was there just meeting with some people and met with one of the reporters who just came back from years in Iraq and was talking to her. And she was telling me all these stories, you know, very vivid, about being escorted by Marines and living in these special safe houses and all that, and it was fantastic. Then I looked at her stories and they gave her really no credit.
You know, I think it’s important to push some of the values that newspapers have home a little harder, and that’s one of ‘em. BOB GARFIELD: Well, one of the values of journalism traditionally has been to take the focus off of the reporter and onto the story that he or she is covering. But to see your memos - elsewhere I've seen this emphasis on more self-promotion, more blaring headlines, shorter stories, more hype – in short, a more tabloidish approach. Is that the way to save newspaper journalism, by making it louder? LEE ABRAMS: I think it’s important to figure out what people like and tell ‘em about it, unabashedly. I don't know if you've seen The Chicago Tribune. It’s pretty dramatically different from what it was a month ago, and louder, but it’s, you know, very intelligent and well written, and compared to a typical tabloid, I mean, there’s no comparison. BOB GARFIELD: It’s bolder without being vulgar, at least from the editions I've seen. LEE ABRAMS: Exactly. And again, you know, the myth that if you do bolder things, oh, that means dumbing it down or making it a tabloid, when that’s, again, I just think, one of those old newspaperisms that just isn't true. BOB GARFIELD: One of the criticisms of the redesigned Chicago Tribune came from Editor and Publisher who observed the following. “For all the interesting navigation tools The Chicago Tribune has incorporated in its new design, the fact to keep remembering is that this makeover is intended not to be, primarily, anyway, a newly reader-friendly paper but one that can be put out cheaper with fewer hands and less editorial content.” LEE ABRAMS: That’s typical of the whole newspaper business’ point of view on any kind of change. I mean, I've never seen a business more negative. That article is just symbolic of that. BOB GARFIELD: Isn't the industry negative not only because it’s filled with cynical reporters and journalists, but because it is in freefall? LEE ABRAMS: Well, you'd think if it was in freefall there'd be more positive commitment to change, people trying things. It’s amazing. The [LAUGHS] - just the feedback we get is like, oh, my God, you guys are ruining these institutions. And I've never seen anything like it. BOB GARFIELD: Do you not believe that the declining revenue and the constant cutbacks, the layoffs and buyouts and shrinkage of news holes and shift in ad-edit ratios and all of the above aren't harming the editorial product? LEE ABRAMS: Just look at The Chicago Tribune. I think it’s as intelligent and deep as ever. And, you know, they certainly had to cut back and make a lot of changes, in that respect. I think that’s a big excuse, in fact. BOB GARFIELD: Will you join us again in six months’ time, whereupon I certainly hope that I can apologize to you for my negativism? LEE ABRAMS: I would love to. Six months, any time, and in six months hopefully it'll have worked. If not, you know, at least we gave it a try. But I’m pretty optimistic about it, but I'd love to talk to you in six months. BOB GARFIELD: Thank you for joining us. LEE ABRAMS: Thank you. BOB GARFIELD: Lee Abrams is the senior vice-president and chief innovation officer at the Tribune Company.