Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Yes, Lee Abrams Has Lots of Ideas. Good Ideas? Not So Fast

Tribune's Chief Innovation Officer Offers A Blueprint For Resuscitating Newspapers That's Fused With Vision -- And Ignorance

It'd be terribly easy to say that as a newspaper executive, Lee Abrams is a brilliant radio programmer.
That may indeed be the case. But at least give him credit, as Tribune's chief innovation officer, to stick a fork in conventional wisdom and offer up an outsider's perspective.

Now that Sam Zell gave him a challenge to help re-invent newspapers the same way Abrams transformed the FM dial, he's unleashed some observations about what newspapers could and should do better.
Some are intriguing. Others prompt head-scratching. Still more are just plain dumb.

Let's take at 10 of the 15 points from Abrams to see if he is on to something, or merely on something. Some of what Abrams wrote is edited here for space, but can be read in whole via the above link.

1. COMPARTMENTALIZING: Want baseball scores? It's all there on the baseball pages of the Sports section. Market report? It's all there on the stock market page. But why aren't other important categories compartmentalized?? [T]hink 10pm News on TV. It's organized. It's consistent. Newspapers are not--or at least not to the point they NEED to be in 2008. If grocery stores were organized like newspapers, you'd wear out your shoes looking for vegetables, as carrots would be in aisle 6, tomatoes in aisle 8, etc...

All well and good, but a lot easier said than done when newspapers keep trimming their news hole, which will have to happen if Zell succeeds in achieving his goal of a 50-50 editorial-ad mix in his newspaper. Soon Tribune properties will be compartmentalizing a whole lot of nothing.

2. ASSUMPTIONS: Possibly the biggest problem. Assuming. I met a reporter who spent 4 years in Baghdad. Dodging bullets...staying in Hotels protected by the Marines. Yet, I'll bet NO-one outside of the building knew this person was risking their life in Iraq to get YOU the news. If it were CNN, you'd see rockets and RPG's in the background as the reporter ducks shrapnel. In the paper, it's usually a small byline.

If Abrams wants reporters to have a higher profile, power to him, but I'm sure Tribune editors are chortling over this one. And while the CNN Iraq crew and others on the ground there are no doubt courageous and to be admired for their work, when's the last time you saw one of them ducking shrapnel or much of anything else?

3. THE NPR FEEL? Newspapers strike me as being a little TOO NPR. I like NPR, and their shows like Morning Edition do well. But NPR can also be a bit elitist ... It's all about being INTELLIGENT...not intellectual. We are in the mainstream business. The 2008 Mainstream business. SMART...but not elite....and we DO get a little NPR at times. (And I DO like NPR...)

Abrams would have done better here if he actually gave an example or two. My guess is he's referring to The Los Angeles Times, and its dogged insistence on maintaining a full international report, not to mention enterprise pieces that might actually require readers to turn a page to finish reading. Real elitist stuff, that.

4. BRAGGING RIGHTS: Ever watch ESPN? They OWN sports. Tiger Woods has a hangnail and they will have the exclusive report. Newspapers need to live in that world a little more.... The thing is---The content is there...but it's SO weakly packaged that the other guys are running right over the papers...we look tired next to 21st Century media...

Frankly, I have no idea what he's talking about. Does he? Sounds like, though, he's preaching more sizzle. But that's all for naught if there's no budget or staff to cook the steak.

5. LIBERATE THE DESIGNERS. I heard one paper had sections "off limits" to designers. Huh???!!! That makes NO sense... Eye power!! THE ENGAGEMENT IS NOT THE HEADLINE AS MUCH AS THE LOOK. The right headline AND an amazing look and you WILL get engagement into the content.

If the above statement rises above hearsay, then Abrams is right on target. I find it hard to believe, however. Any executive editor at Tribune who would sign off on that should be shown the door pronto.

6. THROWAWAYS: In 1958 maybe people had time to discover what's they don't. Or how about "For More...go to" More what??? ... In one re-design I saw an article followed by three web comments with a pointer to the website. That was great. Gave you a TASTE. A generic "For More..." is a waste of ink.

Here, Abrams correctly points out that despite all the improvements newspapers have made to their Web sites in recent years, many are still very much a work in progress.

7. CONSISTENCY: At most papers, the folks show me their greatest hits. Great pages they've done. Then--I'll look at the date and it was 2004 ... We need to do that every page...every day. Why?a) That's the ONLY way it'll get noticed.b) You HAVE survive...and grow. Difficult? Yes...I know. But a reality of competing in 2008....

Surely, Tribune is paying Abrams for more than just truisms.

8. LIVING IN THE NEWSPAPER WORLD: Being satisfied with a good traditional looking newspaper isn't going to do it. Gotta break free ... Don't look to other papers. (except foreign ones) YOU are in the position to re-invent. If you look at other'll continue to live in the past.

Sounds good on paper, but if the impending redesigns at the Orlando Sentinel and South Florida Sun-Sentinel are any indication, re-invention isn't always a good thing when what emerges is an incoherent mess.

9. GETTING NOTICED: An ongoing theme. Papers DO things that'll get noticed, but package it so it's a mystery. I already said this, but it warrants a repeat. The look...the intelligence...the in and day out. Tweaking will kill you. Aggressively and NOTICABLY [sic] changing the look and feel can and most likely WILL grow you.

It can't hurt, but will it help? Abrams seems to believe you can get people to read a newspaper who have never have done so. Such a task is next to impossible. You need to grab readers when they're young. If their parents didn't read a paper, chances are neither will they. Online doesn't count, given that Web revenues remain a small fraction of what newspapers gross and likely won't grow at rates newspapers want and need for some time, if ever.

10. MANANA: Urgency! It's a media war out there that is NOT being won...but CAN. Recipe for failure: Focus Group...evaluate the focusgroup...have a committee meeting to evaluate...more focus groups.

Abrams is right that companies use focus groups as excuses for not making the tough choices. Newspaper publishers have no time for that.

Abrams may not be on target with all of his thinking, but at least he's thinking. Whether Zell will let that translate into meaningful action is a very different matter.

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