“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.”
The Sentinel is the first Abrams relaunch, and it hints in broad strokes where the company will take its newspapers: bigger, brighter graphics, more maps and photos, a more organized and magazine-like approach to news and information. It’s a USA Today approach, but nothing more radical than that—at the moment. At the same time, Abrams is pushing each paper to increase reader-friendliness: ganging news in the same location every day in categories like crime, election, national security, with each one perhaps presided over by a writer/personality. To this end, he has suggestions for every page of every section, right down to concert reviews and classifieds. The question is, Will any of this be enough?
As will be true with all of the Tribune papers, the Sentinel has relaunched in a national recession, the difficulty compounded by the company’s grinding debt. The financial situation at the paper has been “horrible,” says one staff member. Indeed, the Sentinel eliminated twenty-four positions in 2007; already this year, it has cut fifty-two more. “We are in the middle of the housing crisis down here, and the publisher is constantly telling us how bad things are,” says this staff member. The Sentinel is now a shrinking paper with fewer sections, and the redesign has, of course, altered the overall mix of news. Editors are being asked to do more with less. “I definitely think there’s a smaller newshole, and there is more soft news,” says this source.
For the rest of Tribune’s employees, they wait their turn and check their inboxes for notes from Lee’s Blog. For these people, Abrams still operates behind a digital scrim, a cross between Yoda (when he makes sense) and the Great Oz (when he sounds imperious). But Abrams is out to win them over one meeting at a time. On the morning of July 23, he and Tribune’s new management team (with Zell on speakerphone) met with forty or so reporters, top editors, and executives of the Chicago Tribune. During the four-hour meeting, Abrams took more than an hour to deliver his vision of newspapers’ future, according to a columnist who was at the meeting. “I was surprised that I found myself sort of going, ‘Yeah!’ ” my source says, “in a way that you can have a conversation with a friend that you don’t always agree with and not bristle at everything he says. My opinion is that Abrams leaves room for conversation, that he wants some pushback, that he is engaged by that pushback, that this is why he’s doing this in a way.”