Into this morbid and rancorous atmosphere strode Abrams, a self-described “civilian” of print media, a man whose buoyancy can piss off a hard-shelled journalist in less than thirty seconds. And now he sits at the top of the corporate masthead of a media colossus employing more than 4,500 journalists worldwide. Tribune Company, the nation’s second-largest publisher of newspapers, is the very definition of a media giant: it owns the Trib, the Sun, and the L.A. Times, but also the Hartford Courant, the Orlando Sentinel, a handful of smaller-circulation papers, Chicago’s WGN-AM radio station, and more than twenty-seven television stations—all now in Abrams’s purview. But wait, there’s more. Tribune owns Hoy, a Spanish-language daily published in two major markets, and two Spanish-language weeklies in Florida. It owns the free paper amNewYork and the Chicago Cubs baseball team.
Tribune also owns the Cubs’ stadium—Wrigley Field—as well as the land and buildings beneath the Tribune and the Los Angeles Times and other sundry properties, which made the company a palatable acquisition for Chicago real-estate billionaire Sam Zell, who last year took the Tribune Company private and in the process accumulated approximately $13 billion in debt. Zell’s Tribune is selling assets to meet debt load and going through a painful downsizing in pages and personnel: the order came from Chicago in July to lose four hundred to five hundred jobs and five hundred pages of newshole companywide. The ad-edit ratio will hold at fifty-fifty. Clearly, these are the darkest of times for print journalists, but Abrams sees the light and the glory to come. “I strongly believe that News and Information is the NEW Rock n Roll,” wrote Abrams on March 14, 2008.
Rock n Roll! It had a street level connection to the Post War American Spirit. Tapped into the pulse of the American way of thinking. It was based on: imagination, looking forward, respecting but not praying to the musical playbook, moved fast . . . met the rhythm of America, worked at innovating—it was a mission to come up with the next cool thing, revolutionized the ‘look’ of people, etc. . . . Now fast forward to 2008, News and Information has been around since the dawn of Man, but it’s a lot like where music was in 1952: Poised for a dynamic breakthrough.
And on that note began one of the unlikeliest turns in modern newspaper history. Abrams, the lifelong radio man, took to his new assignment with characteristic avidity, studying newspapers 24/7. Ideas invaded his dreams (“I keep notepads by the bed and in the shower and everywhere else,” he says), and he produced memo upon memo through the spring and summer, each one more outlandish than the next, with blocks of capital letters mixed with radio lingo and loopy cheerleading. Example: “If we can morph the Soul of Dylan . . . with the innovation of Apple and the eccentric-all-the-way-to-the-bank of Bill Veeck, the WORLD will be a better place. WE have that opportunity.”
Only two months into his job, Abrams released companywide a fifteen-point memo on change in the newspaper business, in which he reels off what he finds to be newspapers’ most “glaring” problem: 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. Hell, papers should have photos of the reporter with Iraqi kids . . . be writing diaries. Before I joined Tribune, I had no idea that reporters were around the globe reporting the news . . . Because the paper “assumed” I knew.
One reporter at the Los Angeles Times, still shocked by Abrams’s lack of awareness, told me, “We don’t know what in the world these guys are thinking. That’s very disturbing. If Abrams’s stream-of-consciousness missives are the real indication of where this thing is going, then it’s going to not be a very sophisticated place. He polished the buffoon image with the observation that he was unaware until told recently that foreign reporters were actually in foreign lands.”