Tribune Co. 'Chief Innovation Officer' Delivers More Laugh Lines

I'll say one thing for the Tribune Company's new "Chief Innovation Officer," Lee Abrams. He might not be able to solve the declining newspaper circulation problems but he is absolutely irrepressible in a very funny way. On the heels of his recent suggestion that the Los Angeles Times could solve some of its problems by repainting its news vans, we have yet another of Abrams' famous memos which goes in all directions powered by a generous dose of psychobabble. You might need to channel the late Timothy Leary to interpret Abrams' latest memo, THINK PIECE: BUSTING DENIALS AND ASSUMPTIONS,  issued last Monday which starts out with ideas about "re-imaging" the WGN Superstation, which is owned by the Tribune Co.,  and ultimately reaches the outer limits of the newspaper galaxy. So strap on your seat belts as we enter, like Astronaut Dave, the space/time continuum of Lee Abrams' fervid imagination (emphasis mine):

We are getting closer to the re-imaging of WGN Superstation. Sooner than later, it will evolve into a leader in their world, something that they haven't quite accomplished. The look and sound of the Network will be like nothing else out there. Some may think it's a little weird. It is. Their problem has been being too average....too "TV". Actually a TV guy said "Hey, what's wrong with being too TV...after all we ARE TV". To me--that's a big problem. You aren't TV. You are part of this complicated media pie and you need to think outside of where you "are" or else you define yourself by what everyone else is doing. A recipe for mediocrity.

My biggest challenge in helping with the re-imaging has been WORDING. De-hyping. Things like:

*Asking questions as if a viewer can reply. "Tired of the same old movies"? Very 1955 as in "Hey, Mom, Kids wearing you out? Try Geritol".

Would that be Geritol laced with acid? Because right now the reader of this memo must feel like he is on a very bizarre trip. However, Abrams is just getting warmed up as he proceeds to conjure up images of Nike and I-Pods:

Words are powerful. Media throws them away expecting people to buy into them. They wont. Maybe that's why Apple and Nike don't use every many of them in their sales message. Can you imagine if Apple worded I-Pod ads like a TV station (or radio or Newspaper) worded their ads: "Tired of the same old music? Hey,Try the great new I-Pod...the Best sound...the most songs"--aint gonna happen.

This seems to be Lee's comedic way of hyping less hype... I think. From his de-hyping hype about Superstation WGN, Abrams gives us a "few thoughts from the field" about newspapers:

WE TARGET OUR NEWSPAPER 40+. In reality, it's more like 70+. Today's 40 and 50 (and 60) year olds have never been more vibrant and alive. My parents were 40 and O-L-D. Today's 40 year old is living longer...more active and alive. BUT---I see newspapers fooling themselves by targeting 40+ but the content is clearly more 70+

INTENSITY: Why are most newspapers so subtle? I asked that question and the answer is that most newspapers are used to the monopoly environment were you don't HAVE to scream out. Interestingly, when a town had 5 newspapers battling it out, you saw far more "EXCLUSIVE!! 5 PART SERIES" sort of screaming out. Well, there aren't 5 newspapers, but there are about 50,000 websites and TV channels batting it out for attention. I'd urge papers to use the 2x4! I think it was Orlando that had a big line "SPECIAL WILDFIRE EDITION" for some fires in the area (big ones I assume)....It was great...grabbed you. It wasn't tacky or sensational...it was gutsy and cool. Part of that SWAGGER! scream out a little. Newspapers have the best journalism in the World...Its ok to flaunt it!!!!! (just think Apple not Joe's Department Store when wording it). This is one area where Papers should think more 1938...gotta fight back--it's just other media you're fighting, not other papers.

Okay, so you mean newspapers need to have bigger headlines? And that is somehow going to attract more readers? But let's not stop Abrams' now. He's on a roll...

OWNING CATEGORIES: Want to OWN categories better? Try a box. Every day. Same place. Reliable...consistent. Updates the topic DAILY..EVERY day. Topics might include:

Terrorism
Crime
The Election
Health
etc..

Would those boxes be placed next to the incredibly annoying reminders on every page that you suggested in your previous memo  about the newspapers  being printed on recycled paper? Now back to Abrams with his suggestions that suspiciously look like nothing more than forcing the newspapers to just run in place rather than actually increase circulation:

The idea here is that instead of ASSUMING people know that YOU have the goods on key topics, you have dedicated boxes with updates in a reliable place...every day. Even if there's no big news on that topic that day, you are there with an update. Then--when a big story DOES happen---they know exactly where to go. A lot of it is conditioning people to a location in the paper and more importantly using a subtle 2x4 to drive home the fact that you are ON it. And yes--I stole this idea DIRECTLY from News Radio who used to hide Weather and Traffic...but suddenly OWN it via "Traffic and Weather on the 8's" Maybe you could do "Crime on 2" meaning a local crime update is ALWAYS on page 2. Just a thought. But the point here is taking ALL your key topics and having a reliable location were there's a quick overview. Every day. When hell breaks loose on that topic---you have conditioned (not a bad word) your readers to know that YOU own gthat topic via consistent, reliable coverage and location.

Ouch! I feel like I just got hit over the head with a 2x4 just reading this. Earth to Abrams. Newspapers already have pages and sections where you can find certain types of news. Weather is on the Weather page. Sports is on the Sports page. Local News is on the Local News page. Etc... I believe you are about a century or so late in proposing this "innovation." If you think this "innovation" proposal was funny, just wait for what comes next:

THREE DAY PREVIEW: Why is it only weather can do three day previews? Newspapers tend to look at YESTERDAY. How about looking at TOMORROW..and the days after. You can't predict breaking news of course, but you CAN condition readers that there IS a tomorrow and YOU will be there. Instead of assuming that readers will know you have the (put upcoming event here) you can guarantee they'll know.

Huh? What does this even mean? Will there now be a Nostradamus section in the newspapers? Or will you just irritate readers by reminding them with the "shocking news" that there IS a tomorrow? Stand by now as Abrams completely contradicts himself:

ASSUMING: The above two points are "assumption busters". Newspapers are, in my opinion, WAY too subtle. If a paper tried any of those two ideas above, I'd guess they'd be buried or too subtle. Can't do that. DO...don't skew. Subtlety in today's environment is a major component in a slow death. Swagger and creating visually powerful looks that engage the reader in content that matters will help create a print renaissance.

This comes just a few paragraphs after Abrams criticized TV for not being subtle enough. The comedy script continues with the invocation of Diet Coke:

Because Newspapers are in every home and on every street corner. The better the paper IS and does, the stronger all of the other brands will be!!! Creating new brands to reach non traditional print demos is good...but the stronger and more potent the core paper is--the better EVERYTHING will be. Sorta like Diet Coke wouldn't have a prayer if COKE wasn't a powerhouse....sorta. I DO see a lot of "whoa! GREAT idea...too bad we can't try it on our core brand" Why???!!! Is it "assuming" that traditional readers won't like it?

From Diet Coke, Abrams jumps to sports logos:

LOGOS OF SPORTS TEAMS. I rarely see logos of Sports teams on the Sports pages? I'd think that those are powerful symbols you'd WANT on your page. Also maybe dividing local pro sports and local amateur sports, so you can suggest super coverage of both...I know that may be done right now, but it might just need that 2x4. Maybe you can better OWN each by dividing the section and really bringing those logos into front and center. Sports logos are flags for people...display their flag!

Then from sports logos to music artists and baseball parks:

Using my favorite music analogies--Imagine Newspaper CONTENT is a major artist. Currently they are performing in a old but reliable venue. What happens if the artist (Content) moves into a new super venue? Fans will love it--the music (content) will sound clearer...better seats...etc...If you create anew venue (look) and you do it RIGHT, people will love it. Not unlike a new baseball park. The old one was comfy, but the new one is amazing---attendance goes up. Fans love it. A lot of newspapers need to build that new park for the fans. Then there are the lights at Wrigley thing. Well, from what I can tell, Wrigley sells out EVERY night game.

Abrams' memo, in which he seems to toss everything at the wall to see what will stick, continues to drag on like this until he reaches his comedy gem about over-thinking:

DEATH BY COMMITEE: Pull triggers fast. Don't over-think. I've noticed more ideas getting over thought than I could imagine. Coming from other media, the degree of over analysis and slow reaction is astounding. Thinking through is good...dragging on for eternity and in many cases EVENTUALLY  delivering a watered down concept is EXACTLY what they are laughing about in other media. "Oh those old school media companies...so slow..." They ARE saying that sort of thing. It's all moving too fast to tarry.

What they seem to be laughing about in other media, Lee, are your memos which propose a plethora of very silly (but very funny) solutions to the deep problem of declining newspaper circulations. The overlong Abrams memo finishes up with a big comedic finale which, as Robert Feder of the Chicago Sun-Times pointed out, gets the facts completely wrong:

We CAN bring Newspapers and Local TV to NEW LEVELS of success...with fans (fka users) and advertisers. It's up to US to bust the thinking that's done nothing but kept us out of sync with the Speed of NOW. In 1956, the speed of the era was Ward
Cleaver, slippers and pipe in hand reading the Afternoon paper while Cronkite delivered the latest news.
Wonderful days for those who recall it...but that was the speed of then. There's a whole new pulse we gotta get in sync with....and it's A LOT more interesting and exciting to be a part of. It's do-able--with great results.

Here is Feder correcting the record:

Sorry, Lee, but Ward Cleaver didn't exist in 1956. "Leave It to Beaver," the show on which Hugh Beaumont played Ward Cleaver, first aired on Oct. 4, 1957.

And as for Walter Cronkite, he didn't begin his legendary run as anchorman of "The CBS Evening News" until six years later -- on April 16, 1962. If Abrams was watching Uncle Walter deliver "the latest news" in 1956, it must have been coming to him in a vision.

P.J. Gladnick
P.J. Gladnick
P.J. Gladnick is a freelance writer and creator of the DUmmie FUnnies blog.