Right off the bat, Tribune's innovator-in-chief Lee Abrams wanted to get one thing straight: That 3,000-word memo he wrote about newspapers needing to be more rock 'n' roll? He meant that the business of gathering and disseminating news and information in the Internet age has as much raw potential as Elvis had in his pelvis in 1952. ("America needs a heartbeat, and we can deliver that on 21st Century terms," Abrams opined in March.)
The news biz "has never been more vibrant," Abrams said Thursday night during a Q&A at the Los Angeles Press Club. "It's alive. It's exciting. It's the place to be. Let's get on board this thing. The opportunities are stronger than ever."
To reiterate, "It's an exciting time to be reporting on all the shit that's going on in the world," Abrams observed. Abrams, senior veep and chief innovation officer for Tribune Co., was 50% of a panel on the future of news that also included former Los Angeles Daily News editor Ron Kaye, who has found his blogging calling at RonKayeLa.com since getting fired from the Daily Snooze in April. (Pictured from left, Abrams, Kaye and moderator Ezra Palmer)
Appointed to Sam Zell's extreme Tribune makeover team in April, Abrams is seen as the guy behind all of the redesigns and "rethinking" going on at the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and other Tribune-owned newspapers. He has a long resume in radio and marketing, but none in newspapering, which made journos in and outside of Tribune highly skeptical of his ideas for "reinventing" newspapers.
Abrams stressed on Thursday that he's an idea and inspiration guy, but final decisions on redesigns on content are left to the local management of each paper. ("Until they're not" -- You just could see the thought balloon hovering over the heads of the crowd, which numbered about 50.)
All in all, Abrams came off as affable, smart and well-meaning, though I couldn't get the image of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers out of my head as I tried to think of the character actor that he resembles.
Kaye was fiery and unstinting in reeling off the well-known woes facing old-fashioned newspapers: A broken business model, elitist attitude, lack of shoe-leather reporting in communities, declining influence in the 24/7 online news environment, etc.
"The crisis in newspapers (is), the news is old and you're not adding anything to what I want to know," Kaye said. "The problem with (fixing) that is, you really have to be creative and imaginative and unleash the energy that is in newsrooms. There are really smart people in newsrooms, and the energy is dampened down by the whole value system, by the editor system. If you want that creativity you're going to have to give people their head. You're going to have to make some mistakes. You're going to have to offend some people. But goddamn -- you cannot sell newspapers that are excruciatingly boring and out of date."
Abrams, on the other hand, was there to detail his efforts to help Tribune salvage its newspapers, starting with the redesigns rolled out in Chicago, Orlando and, to a lesser degree, in Los Angeles during the past few months. Boring stories are a big no-no, he agreed with Kaye.
Having spent the past six months parachuting into newsrooms, Abrams said he's identified the three stages of redesign grief:
"Complete fear: Oh my god, what are we doing to this great newspaper?
"Then it gets into acceptance: Well, I guess we're doing it.
"And then the third phase is excitement."
During the hourlong gabfest, you could almost feel Abrams straining to choose his words carefully in any discussion of the L.A. Times, despite diligent questioning by panel moderator Ezra Palmer. Abrams said he'd been in the inner sanctum at Times Mirror Square earlier in the day, meeting with new publisher Eddy Hartenstein and editor Russ Stanton.
Can't blame Abrams for not telling tales out of meetings or getting too specific on what ails the Times.
But he did allow that "there's a lot of baggage there with 300 publishers in the last couple of years."
The Times is "in the acceptance stage" of dealing with its gradual redesign and the shrinking of the print product. (Abrams got an earful from two in the aud about the shortcomings of the slimmed down Food section.)
"There's a lot of challenges, a lot of animosity, a lot of friction" within the Times, Abrams acknowledged. "If you look a year from now, it'll be a pretty hot newspaper. They're working hard on it."
Asked about his personal vision for the Times, Abrams demurred to the locals-only factor but then offered: "A paper that is so L.A. -- tied at the hip with the city. The whole thing should feel like non-elitist mainstream Los Angeles...Maybe in the past they tried to bite off too much, trying to be a West Coast New York Times."
Abrams had plenty of praise for how far the Chicago Tribune has come with its reinvention effort -- a sentiment that will sound a lot like the Tribune of old to many on 1st and Spring. He did criticize the Trib for historically taking a snooty approach to covering mostly white Chicago at the expense of other areas of the city. When Zell and Co. first arrived, it felt as through "certain parts of Chicago didn't exist in the Tribune world," Abrams said. But now they are pleased with its progress.
"The Chicago Tribune is where it should be," he said. "They just figured out 'How do we make this good'" even with a downsized staff.
Among other quotables from Abrams:
**Barack Obama's election victory and the clamor for Nov. 5 newspapers has been "a tremendous wakeup call on the value of print...it really has a very positive effect on newspapers' swagger."
**The long-term growth focus for Tribune's newspapers is in the 40-60 demographic. "You can't assume all of a sudden that 18-year-olds are going to be reading the Tribune, although smarter ones do...But I think there's still just a goldmine in 40-plus."
**Ignore Led Zeppelin at your peril. Abrams noted he's been perplexed at how some big pop culture things are ignored, like the Led Zeppelin reunion show that sold a bazillion tickets inside 60 seconds on the Internet. "I think that was symbolic of how they were missing the boat," he said.
**What the heck is a "superstation," anyway? Abrams talked up the very quick makeover of the cable/satellite channel now known as "WGN America." The previous WGN Superstation moniker was a "goofy '80s term."
**There's a ton of work to be done at Tribune's 23 TV stations, particularly on the newscasts. "I think there was a focus group done in 1978 who said 'Here's what a news promo has to look like, here's the music news intros have to have, here's what the anchors and everybody has to look like,' and nobody's challenged that in the past 30 years. We're challenging that focus group."