But Fisher insists, and it appears to be true, that Abrams harbors a great deal of respect for institutions that have greater depth than radio. “Newspapers are one of the last places for smart people,” says Abrams. “I just want to bust the myth that change means dumbing it down.” Downsized staffs, reduced budgets, and shrinking newsholes, Abrams says, are things the industry must learn to work with. “Doing more with important stories at the expense of marginally interesting ones” is one way to address it, he says. “Like TV, where there’s limited time and you need to hit the hot button, story after story, the new reality of newspapers is limited space.”
Fisher predicts that Abrams’s first response will be “to lard on a whole bunch of showbiz. He definitely believes in sizzle, but he also believes in steak. The problem is he has never worked in a field where there is so much steak. In radio, the news department is usually one guy and virtually all of the content in radio news is repurposed, which is a polite way of saying ripped off, and the idea that you would have this enormous infrastructure doing newsgathering is fairly alien.”
And yet, Fisher believes that Abrams possesses a savant’s talent for connecting content to consumers. The radio man’s preternatural confidence comes from decades of hearing from all sides that he is a revolutionary. “He has all sorts of theories,” says Fisher, who, in the course of researching his book, read hundreds of pages of Abrams’s XM strategy memos. “They tend to be fairly abstract, and they tend to be off-the-cuff, and he tends to write them on napkins. So for him to make the transition from the very small world of radio—where a station is run by a handful of people—into massive metropolitan newsrooms, which have lots of specialties, is an almost unfathomable leap.”
In the Time of the Buyout
The lunatic is in the hall. The lunatics are in my hall. The paper holds their folded faces to the floor And every day the paper boy brings more. — Pink Floyd, “Brain Damage” Dark Side of the Moon, 1973
There is fear and anger in the Tribune Company’s newsrooms. I spoke to a half dozen reporters and editors, but only one agreed to go on the record. The possibility of reprisals from management or fellow journalists has silenced normally voluble media types. So they snicker over parodies of Abrams’s memos and point me toward Web sites like tellzell.com, which collects dispatches from Tribune Company trenches. Longtime employees fret that if they say something negative, their severance may be affected; if they say something positive—and there was plenty of anonymous praise for Abrams—they may be perceived as suck-ups.
“Staffers who’ve been here for a long time, we’re middle-aged, and so this is very threatening to us,” says one woman, a reporter with the Chicago Tribune. “A revolution is happening, and we know something needs to happen but we don’t know what. So these guys, who are even older than us, come in. And even though Lee in my opinion does have some good ideas, he doesn’t understand the future any more than we do. If we’re going to have a revolution, let’s put somebody of a different generation in charge of it.”
At the Orlando Sentinel, the revolution has begun. During the spring, Abrams rolled into town, a wild-eyed Einstein in a black T-shirt, his head full of new ideas. After meeting with a group of editors, he pronounced himself pleased with their reaction to his call to arms. He told me the reaction to his ideas in general runs this way: “Eighty percent of people are, ‘Yes! This is what we need.’ Ten percent are just, ‘What is this guy talking about?’ And then there’s 10 percent open resistance—‘This is nonsense.’ ” According to one Sentinel staff member who met with him, Abrams is definitely more effective when presenting himself in person than through his memos: “He was approachable, eager to listen to ideas, and pleased with the redesign that our staff had come up with. He was genuinely enthusiastic.”