When I spoke to Abrams in July, I asked him to explain his apparent lack of basic knowledge about his new world. “I knew that,” he says about the existence of foreign reporters, “but the point was, when I lived in Washington—and I think I was a pretty typical avid newspaper reader—I just didn’t think about it. It was off the radar, another newspaper assumption. As a reader, before I joined Tribune, I knew that there were news bureaus, but it just wasn’t top of mind. Whereas, you watch CNN, and they hit you over the head with it—the fact that they are live there and it’s noon here and it’s midnight there and it’s dark.”
Newspapers must learn to “hit people over the head” with what they have and who they are, he says again and again. “The newspaper is part of the life experience,” says Abrams. “It’s an intelligent look at the community and the world—something that you can absorb at your own pace. It’s a place to find information that appeals to you. I’m a baseball fan, so not only seeing the stats, but getting the inside information from reporters who cover my teams is pretty important to my day. Investigative reporting has never been more important to newspapers. We’re not alone anymore, as bloggers, TV, and other media are also investigating, but historically papers have done the best and most credible job, and I think continuing to do so is key to the future.”
But newspapers seem to have forgotten how to shout and swagger and barnstorm, he says. Scream EXCLUSIVE! like they did at the turn of the nineteenth century. Liberate the photographers. Engage the designers. Promote the columnists and reporters like celebrities. “Papers have star writers and they don’t publicize them properly,” he says. And the changes must start now. To that end, he keeps on the windowsill in his office a white length of lumber, a two-by-four, naturally, left over from his days in radio, bearing the acronym afdi. When I ask him what it means, he says that the talking days are past, that newspapers must let go of their history.
“Now we’re AFDI—actually fucking doing it. Internally, my mission is to liberate people to do their best work and, as a result, create the newspapers that are going to succeed. I think my main job is helping inspire people to think differently and to liberate themselves from some of the things that may not work anymore that newspapers have been doing for a long time.” Abrams has but a few specific pet peeves. One is the use of unnecessary jumps followed by great, gray fields of unadorned type. (“It’s like, ‘Oh my god. I don’t have time for that.’ ”) He questions the use of traditional rubrics like “From the news wire,” a phrase that is meaningless to modern readers and sounds like the nineteenth century. The specific fixes he leaves up to the editors and designers. “I don’t really have the ideas as much as a lot of passion for change and the ability to help people to break out,” he says.
In person, Abrams is more thoughtful and low-key than he appears on his blog or in a big presentation. He loves to talk, talk fast, talk in sports metaphors, talk in voices, mimicking several sides of a conversation to make a point. “I was in Hartford and they were bragging about how the newspaper helped take down the governor,” he says. “But I don’t think the average person in Hartford knew that. I asked cocktail waitresses and taxi drivers and the guy at the airport, all who lived in Hartford, if they knew about this. And not one person knew . . . . Newspapers used to scream out much louder. Exclusive!! . . . But that was many years ago when there were three or four newspapers in a market. Now there’s only one or two. My point is, Yeah, that’s true, but there are two million Web sites and three hundred cable channels, so it’s more competitive now than ever.”
Newspapers must compete in a news-rich environment or go home. “We have to focus on our strengths to reclaim ground,” he says. “It does mean doing fewer things unquestionably better. Newspapers often suffer from being generic in a ‘specificity-driven’ media environment. One of the reasons I’m so focused on the graphic element and the intellect—newspapers own those. We need to push our attributes better.”
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