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.
“A lot of his ideas sound hokey or demeaning, but there is a grain of truth to many of them,” says Marc Fisher. “We need to connect with readers, interact with readers, sell ourselves to readers. Those are not only legitimate ideas, but at this point probably essential. Lee despises snootiness and snobbery and anything that smacks of an elite—and we are an elite, especially print journalists. And if he can figure out ways to blow through that before the journalists gang up and blow him out of there, then he may succeed in some ways. He has a kid’s heart—a fan’s heart. He’s not the guy measuring how much someone’s written. He’s not the guy who has a secret formula for taking the newsroom down to six people. He wants newspapers to be something people love. He’s all about the emotion, which is the part that newspapers have traditionally been scared to death of.”