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.”
This brings up the tantalizing comparison to be made between Abrams and Steve Jobs, an outsider who revolutionized the music industry. Abrams, while not an intellect or entrepreneur on Jobs’s level, is hunting the same Holy Grail: usability. He told the Tribune crowd that he wants the editors to examine every page with the eyes of a busy reader, to capture eyeballs. Corral content by subject for reader ease; write headlines that sell—not summarize—the story. And most of all, “We want to be graphically stunning,” he told the meeting, and each paper should find its own identity. “He told us the Trib has got to be so Chicago, it’s got to smell like a Vienna hot dog,” says the columnist. “I kind of like that.”
Before the meeting, there was a general feeling in the Tribune newsroom that a stance of disapproval should be maintained. “We must put on this public face, like, ‘This guy’s crazy,’ ” says the columnist. “But I think a lot of people who have spoken to him have said: ‘You know, he’s said some things that make sense, but we don’t necessarily want to tell the bosses that, because in a lot of ways this is very challenging. And a lot of what he says and a lot what’s going on here is going to result in people we know and admire and respect and love losing their jobs.’ That’s not up to him. He’s not the one who’s saying we’ve got to make more money. He’s the innovation guy, the ideas guy, who says, ‘How can we make this paper more engaging to people? How can we make it something people will want to buy?’ ”