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?’ ”
In Los Angeles, there was no joy this summer at the prospect of rebirth. Little headway had been made on the relaunch by the end of July. When Abrams visited the paper in the spring, he detected what he called “low competitive drive.” Times reporter Ted Rohrlich chalks this up to something else. “People are doing their best to concentrate on their immediate tasks and put out the paper everyday,” he says, “but there is a pall over this place. We just lost a hundred and thirty-five colleagues and the last layoff was three months before. It seems like it’s been one continuous layoff at this point.” A co-worker of Rohrlich’s adds: “The bigger question is: What are we supposed to do with all of Abrams’s scattered thoughts? Shouldn’t he be giving papers a breathing space to regroup during these layoffs? He is sending out these long messages to a workforce that is demoralized and freaked out . . . and in no mood to digest anything he says.”
In many ways, the anger directed toward Abrams now seems misdirected, if understandable. Abrams may be the herald for change, but he is not responsible for the meltdown that led to this crisis. The problems facing newspapers in this transitional period come from every quarter and have been festering for a decade, for the most part unaddressed. And much of the change Abrams talks about will have to be translated into actual paper-and-ink innovation by real journalists working on deadline. Still, I came away believing that he is acting in good faith.
Only time will tell if readers will respond, Abrams knows, but there is no time to lose. With each buyout and budget cutback, experienced journalists walk away, resources shrink, and the Tribune newspapers become diminished versions of themselves. So he works away in his Chicago office, dreaming up new ways to connect readers to this rapidly changing content, cheering for innovation where it sprouts. “24 hours in photos (!!) Brilliant idea that the Sun is doing,” he wrote on his blog in late July. As Sam Zell’s emissary of change, he traverses the empire, selling the idea of a newspaper renaissance in the midst of a recession, bringing news of one paper’s victories to the others. Even this little bit of synergy is brand new, he says: there are new innovation Web sites for the Baltimore Sun, meetings to attend, planes to catch. Blogs to update. Got to get the word out.