Tribune Co. Chief Innovation Officer Seems to Drop Acid as Newspapers Fail

Today the Seattle Post-Intelligencer publishes its final print edition. So what kind of advice are newspapers getting from people whose job it is to help them remain in business? If they are relying upon advice from Lee Abrams, the Chief Innovation Officer of the Tribune Company,  the future of newspapers is indeed bleak. The advice offered by Abrams sounds like nothing more than the street corner rantings of an aging hippie who has endured way too many acid trips. Is your humble correspondent perhaps exaggerating a bit? Check out the latest Lee Abrams memo via The Daily Pulp and you be the judge:

THINK PIECE: CHANGE

First off, WGN-AMERICA is going through a significant redesign:

There's a great deal of excitement behind the scenes with the evolution of WGN-AMERICA. Below is a little sneak peek at the attitude. Sean & his group will certainly be filling everyone in on the details, but we thought you might like to check out this brief preview.

It should be noted that all of the rebranding has been done over a period of a few weeks. Amazing audio logo...sonic treatments...graphics, etc...

THE NEW AMERICA

WHY "AMERICA"? Because there's more to life than Hollywood and Manhattan. The channel will speak to Middle America. TV for the average person living in the average community. Interesting and exciting, but on Middle America terms.

THE PROGRAMMING: As diverse as America itself. From Wrestling to Star Trek to the Beverly Hillbillies. All over the road...and proud of it!

THE LOOK: America. From the inside out. Capturing the span of America from the urban factory to the small town motel. This is America. A video postcard of the American vista.

THE SOUND: Aaron Copeland meets Stevie Wonder meets Garth Brooks. Big...open...diverse and powerful. Cerebral and moving...just like the America itself. A single audio logo ties a WORLD of sound together into a station "soundtrack" that NO other station has....anywhere.

WHAT IT'S NOT: Forced patriotism, Church and Family. Those are clichés. This isn't County & Western TV. The REAL American experience is more about a powerful heartbeat that is alive with the good, the bad and the ugly.

THE HEROES:

John Wayne

Captain Kirk

Baseball

Clint Eastwood

Ronald Reagan

James Earl Jones

Aretha Franklin

....Timeless. All demographic. Not pop culture, but American Culture.

Um, Lee. I thought your primary job was to help the Tribune Co. newspapers. You seem to be way too absorbed with WGN. Oh well, you are having too much fun with your TV toy so go ahead and enjoy...

Coming from the music side, I've always found music to be a strong cultural barometer. One way to look at it is through periods of intensity and lull. This doesn't have anything directly to do with newspapers and TV, BUT---It illustrates how the vast majority of major artists hit brick walls, and become irrelivent by not engaging change. A handful survive change because THEY continually evolve or make such a powerful intitial statement that they are timeless. This very general style of thinking can be be applied to what we do

Hooray! Finally a mention about newspapers. But don't worry, folks. Lee quickly goes completely off-track again:

In the early 50's, it was Doggie in the Window era. Mitch Miller, Doris Day and the like were making snappy and happy songs. The underground was brewing with a sonic gumbo of Black artists and Hillbillies, but in the mainstream, it was all pretty, safe and happy. A musical LULL. During lulls, the mainstream music culture:

*Generic lyrics by dispoable short term artists dominate mainstream charts.

*Moguls are in control of the mainstream and the formula is followed closely followed.

*The "look" is pop fashion driven and contrived.

*Dancing is at a popularity peak as people dance and hum...but don't really LISTEN.

*Music has minimal impact on culture other than being a soundtrack

*There's an underground happening, but it is still out of reach to the masses.

*It's about tabloids more than musical notes.

*Music media is on autopilot.

*Mc Donalds Pop rules. Predictable...safe...consistent with few surprises. Musical originators are copied, cleansed for mass consumption and formularized.

It is at about this point in the movie that astronaut Dave entered an entirely different space/time continuum. Oops! Sorry for interrrupting your trip through an alternate dimension, Lee. Please continue. The doctor is taking notes:

*Artists have short life spans....and become trivia questions

Then--There are intense periods. Periods of tremendous change compressed into a short period of time. During Intense periods:

*The old wave hits a brick wall.

*The "sound" changes. New instruments...new techniques...new recording methods.

*The "look" is new...different and scary to many.

*Satan is responsible in many circles.

*Listening Technology changes.

*Music impacts culture profoundly. There are fights over music.

*Artists are in control.

*People dance less and start listening more

*The "next generation" of long term artists emerge

*Music Media goes through explosive evolution.

*Not a lot of copying artists--everyone is too busy creating their own sound or contributing to the movement.

Is this a Chief Innovation Officer of a major periodical conglomerate commenting about something that is even remotely related to the newspaper business or does this sound more like Grandpa Abe ranting wildly as he spins around on the church aisle in "The Simpsons Movie?"

The intense periods happened: 1955 (Rock n Roll); 1964 (Liverpool); 1969 (Everything); 1980 (New Wave); 1993 (Grunge). All of the above characteristics happened during these periods...and all of the 'lull' characteristics happened between these periods. Take the intense period of '69:

--All over for the old wave. Paul Revere and the Raiders hit the wall.

--Fuzz tones to synths to an arms race over number of tracks and amplifier output changed the sound. The modification and enlargement of traditional instruments.

--Musicianship was a selling point

--Lyrics were social statements

--Junior came home from college looking like a hippie and got thrown out of the house.

--Satan was responsible for the Iron Butterfly

--Stereo revolutionized listening as it became mainstream.

--FM emerged as a force

--Walk into the wrong bar and play Hendrix on the jukebox and a fight would ensue

--No one told Cream how to write a song or to keep it 3 minutes.

The next generation of artists is created. Lasting artists.

*You don't DANCE to Abbey Road. You LISTEN.

All this professorial insight attained by Abrams during those lost years following the Grateful Dead around the country. Please resume your psychedelic journey that never really ends:

This is all highly CONDENSED and highly arguable, but due to space and finger strength limitations I can't get into all of the details, but suffice to say, we are IN a musical lull...live with it (and of course some prosper mightily from it)--or try to be part of the change. There WILL be another intense period. In '62 amidst every singer named Bobby, in '66 amidst the canned Monkees, in '76 amongst the sappy pop, 86 with mindless hair bands, and now---it's a lull. Like before--the lull makers hit the wall. Lulls still create fans! If you were in your musically formative 16-20 years during a lull--you still LOVE that music--but BIG PICTURE--the intense periods are where the shocking change happens. And of course there are a few artists that cut through. Elvis, Beatles, Pink Floyd, U-2, Sinatra--but those are the RARE 'timeless' artists that will be revered in 200 years...can't say that about more than a handful. 

Highly condensed? Thank your for your "brevity." But it continues on and on and...

The point here is looking at culture from different view points to get a better fix on evolution and relevancy.

...I was in one of our markets recently and we talked about change. The station was in a little identity funk and needed to re-think itself. Items discussed:


*NOTICEABILITY: Thats so damn important. I fear that changes will go un-noticed unless they are packaged together into a single relaunch date. A day that the NEW station appears in complete form. We learned this from newspapers. They reinvented so incrementally that no-one outside of the building noticed. OR--they kept delaying changes...over-thinking them until they were either forgotten or simply not executed. A firm change date will:

*Create pressure to deliver. You commit to that date and the staff HAS to deliver ON that day.

*Do it ALL. So an advertiser or Joe Average Viewer WILL notice. "They said there'd be your ver 2.0 on April 15...well, damn it really IS new!!!"

The key is a realistic date. The worst thing is setting a date and delivering half the new stuff. Not good enough. Buzz kill. It ALL has to b presesented on that ONE day, so you are THE talk of the market.
The "other" way tobe the talk is to spend a ton. Bad idea. This single day reinvent cost NOTHING but brainpower, sweat and a WILL TO AFDI.

*MOTIVATION: I understand internal motivational issues, but I think its worth doing it as we did at papers. Orders from the top that this IS happening..You can be IN or out. A dynamic Reinvention session explaining it to the entire staff...then DAILY reinvent meetings....every day at 9am...progress reports...accountability...an action plan. Military like planning. Done right you can dramaticaly ratchet up the vibe. I truly believe even the quiet ones will come alive (or quickly ID themselves as ones to lose). You CAN create an amazing energy...but I think this approach will be most effective.

*TRADEMARKS: Imagine a FAST paced news show that integrates all of those ideas: N.O by Numbers; 60 Seconds with; Right/Left; Tabloid Trash; Sex in THE city; etc....WOW! It would MOVE! and be sooooooodifferent and more exciting and interesting than ANYone in the market. Face it---ALL the TV News looks the same. Unfortunately, the historic competition does quite well with that --- so why try to out do THEM. . RADICIALLY change the approach and give yourself a chance to create something special.

*DE BULLSHIT the station.

*USE SOUND: A soundtrack...an audio logo...cerebral presenation of sound thats in your head and not in your face. SUGGESTION: Dont use a TV package! Those guys simply dont get it---most of their clients WANT the tired old TV sound. Use people with NO TV experience to create the sound...otherwise, I guarantee, you will be stuck with a new version of the same old crap. Sound is an extra layer of identification. If you have branding and awareness trouble. USE SOUND to help dramatically fix that.

*A VO sound that is your city not ANYWHERE USA forced. Sound like it...Easy...soulful...real---a voice(es) that sound like your region instead of slick "pro" TV---aka anywhere USA.

*GRAPHICS. Stop the addiction to focusing on other TV stations. The innovation is more on YouTube, not the other stations. Kill the addiction to corporate, slick, hyper professional glossy TV....It ain't us.

*WRITING & WORDING. Pleeeeeease lose the "Hey We'll be right back"..."Dont forget--this Friday...." Its a joke. It's not YOU...it's TV in it's most generic and dated way. So hilariously cliched and hokey. We can write better. We can write 10 seconds of copy for a 30 and let sound tell the story. Lose the "!" in everything you say. Just talk. Dont "annouce" Just talk. And write with;

...INTELLECT. TV can be SO dumb. It's our own fault. We deliver our image like K-Mart and package our news based on the 1988 consultant Playbook. It's over. At least its over stations that are struggling using it. Been done. Time to reinvent it. Intellect doesnt mean NPR or CSPAN. Intellect is Apple, Lexus, Coldplay, 60 Minutes. Hardly elite...just smart...on todays terms.

People of Springfield! Heed this warning. Twisted tail! A thousand eyes! Trapped forever!!

*SECRETS: Expose them. Anchors positioned and promoted like plastic manniquins? Probably. Admit it and change it. News set right out of News Set 101 playbook. Admit it and change it. But again...do it all at once so its NOTICABLE. There IS a way to balance engaging journalism without cheesing it up.

*PEOPLE: The station is bigger than individuals.. Dont let them delay what you GOTTA do! Evolve.Reinvent as an entity without non believers compromising the mission.

*CLICHES: Spent a lot of time on those. Can't stress that enough. I counted over 30 cliches this morning on the air---not bad the competition had 40!

*TWEAKS: Not good. Why? Because no-one notices them outside the building. Theres WAAAAAY too much competition in other media not to mention TV. In 2009 you need to be DRAMATICALLY AND RADICALLY DIFFERENT to simply cut through.

Beware! Beware! Time is short. Eeepa! Eeepa! Eeeeeeepaaaaa! Believe me! Believe me!

*DRAMATIC & RADICAL IS:

a)Good. Actually its critical. Theres no other way to cut through.

b)The only way you'll get attention and ratings at this point.

c)Needed and wanted. Americans want change!!!

d)Necessary. Google and watch Onion TV. They are brilliantly making fun of us. We need to wake up and realize...they're right!

*YOUR CITY DESERVES A 21ST CENTURY TV STATION. Your city DOESNT need another station doing average TV.

*CREATE MAGIC BETWEEN THE SHOWS...and in news and areas you control. Get off autopilot as most stations are on and create FANS not users. You have the talent to do that.

*YOU UNDERMINE YOUR WEBSITE when you save everything for the web. Doing a loocal YouTube thing? Put it ON THE AIR. Its crazy how there's, around the country, this thing where papers and TV stations channel all the innovation to the web. The stronger the core product is, the stronger EVERYTHING will be...the web, the revenue, the buzz. If your TV people had a fraction of the innovation drive the average web person had, we'd be #1.

I want bananas on my waffles!

 *THE NUMBER ONE TOOL FOR REVENUE? (or at least a huge tool)---A dramatically reinvented station that lances on April_____ (or whenever) that SLAMS IN THE CITY WITH THE FORCE OF AN A -BOMB. A statement. I really believe picking that date...and treating it with the same intensity and intellect that Schwartzkopf planned the Gulf War is in order. It IS a media war out there...gotta play to win. Plan...plan...motivate...prepare...throw out WW2 (aka the 1988 TV playbook) weaponry...and attack. One spring evening--WHAM! The New station hits and its TV shock and awe.

Abrams' memo isn't even close to being done but if you are a glutton for punishment, you can view the rest of his acid trip here.  And for all you newspaper personnel out there worried about your jobs; doesn't it make you feel secure to know that your employment future rests in the hands of Chief Innovation Officers like Lee Abrams?

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