The Lee Abrams Experience

How to hear the man who would transform Tribune

Abrams Unbound
In a modest, cluttered office on the sixth floor of Chicago’s Tribune Tower, the future of American newspapers looks to its past. It is here that Lee Abrams, a former radio consultant and the new “chief innovation officer” for the Tribune Company, seeks inspiration in stacks of yellowing front pages. He likes old-school screaming headlines, he says, front-page cartoons, the tradition of reporters as stars. Then, on his computer screen, he clicks through PDFs showing bold new page designs for what he calls the “relaunching” of the Baltimore Sun, the Chicago Tribune, and eight other American newspapers that came under his creative aegis in April of this year.

Abrams, silver-haired and mustachioed, talks about the future of newspapers with the unbound enthusiasm of a college student. In his day-to-day uniform of black long-sleeved T-shirt and dark slacks, he finds himself a stranger among the oxford-cloth inhabitants of the newsroom. He doesn’t look like them and he doesn’t speak their language, but to his and everyone’s surprise, Abrams is suddenly one of the most prominent people in newspaper publishing—and certainly among the busiest.

This summer, just past the midpoint in print journalism’s annus horribilis—an analyst quoted in The New York Times called it “the worst year for the newspaper business since the Depression”—you would have needed a GPS to track the frenetic, fifty-five-year-old Abrams: en route from Chicago to Baltimore to see the redesigns at the Sun, descending through the smoggy skies above lax, ready to bust through the creative vapor lock at the Los Angeles Times—meeting-and-greeting and piping up about the need for the newspaper to “own” entertainment coverage (and paint their executives’ big black SUVS with colorful logos). In Hartford and Allentown, as well as Orlando and Fort Lauderdale, he flew in on similar missions. And if his corporeal presence was missing, his brainstorms bounced off the satellites carrying Tribune’s newly revamped TV superstation,WGN-America. Meanwhile, and more to the point of this story, his ebullient and exhortative memos—some have called them jaw-droppingly crazy—were landing softly in the inboxes of cringing journalists and editors from coast to coast.

Urgency! It’s a media war out there that is not being won . . . but can. Recipe for failure: Focus Group . . . evaluate the focus . . . group . . . have a committee meeting to evaluate . . . more focus groups. This isn’t rocket science. It’s hard logistically . . . but growing isn’t rocket science. The biggest problem is lack of urgency.

Based on these stream-of-consciousness blog entries-turned-e-mails, Abrams has been dismissed by his new colleagues as a “lunatic,” a “barbarian,” a buffoon whose writing style is Ted Kaczynski-meets-Dan Quayle. With the arrival of this alien change agent, there have been mutterings about the end of journalism as we know it. A certain amount of anxious animosity might well be expected from shell-shocked newsroom vets in 2008. Even as they parodied and forwarded Abrams’s memos to one another in disbelief, they sifted his ravings for omens that might reveal something about the future of their jobs.

In the first half of the year, newspaper revenue went into free fall, damaged by long-term (Craigslist) and short-term (housing bust) trends. Gannett, the country’s largest newspaper chain, saw its second quarter ad revenue drop 13.5 percent from a year earlier and in August announced that it would cut a thousand jobs from its newspapers; the New York Times Media Group dropped 9.5 percent in ad revenue. Profits fell; layoffs followed buyouts. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution cut almost two hundred jobs—8 percent of its total workforce. The Wall Street Journal eliminated fifty editing positions. The Chicago Tribune announced cuts of 120 newsroom jobs, 14 percent of its staff. The Los Angeles Times will lose 135 newsroom jobs, the Baltimore Sun sixty, the Orlando Sentinel fifty-two. In the month of July 2008, some one thousand American newspapermen and women were told to find other employment.

Into this morbid and rancorous atmosphere strode Abrams, a self-described “civilian” of print media, a man whose buoyancy can piss off a hard-shelled journalist in less than thirty seconds. And now he sits at the top of the corporate masthead of a media colossus employing more than 4,500 journalists worldwide. Tribune Company, the nation’s second-largest publisher of newspapers, is the very definition of a media giant: it owns the Trib, the Sun, and the L.A. Times, but also the Hartford Courant, the Orlando Sentinel, a handful of smaller-circulation papers, Chicago’s WGN-AM radio station, and more than twenty-seven television stations—all now in Abrams’s purview. But wait, there’s more. Tribune owns Hoy, a Spanish-language daily published in two major markets, and two Spanish-language weeklies in Florida. It owns the free paper amNewYork and the Chicago Cubs baseball team.

Tribune also owns the Cubs’ stadium—Wrigley Field—as well as the land and buildings beneath the Tribune and the Los Angeles Times and other sundry properties, which made the company a palatable acquisition for Chicago real-estate billionaire Sam Zell, who last year took the Tribune Company private and in the process accumulated approximately $13 billion in debt. Zell’s Tribune is selling assets to meet debt load and going through a painful downsizing in pages and personnel: the order came from Chicago in July to lose four hundred to five hundred jobs and five hundred pages of newshole companywide. The ad-edit ratio will hold at fifty-fifty. Clearly, these are the darkest of times for print journalists, but Abrams sees the light and the glory to come. “I strongly believe that News and Information is the NEW Rock n Roll,” wrote Abrams on March 14, 2008.

Rock n Roll! It had a street level connection to the Post War American Spirit. Tapped into the pulse of the American way of thinking. It was based on: imagination, looking forward, respecting but not praying to the musical playbook, moved fast . . . met the rhythm of America, worked at innovating—it was a mission to come up with the next cool thing, revolutionized the ‘look’ of people, etc. . . . Now fast forward to 2008, News and Information has been around since the dawn of Man, but it’s a lot like where music was in 1952: Poised for a dynamic breakthrough.

And on that note began one of the unlikeliest turns in modern newspaper history. Abrams, the lifelong radio man, took to his new assignment with characteristic avidity, studying newspapers 24/7. Ideas invaded his dreams (“I keep notepads by the bed and in the shower and everywhere else,” he says), and he produced memo upon memo through the spring and summer, each one more outlandish than the next, with blocks of capital letters mixed with radio lingo and loopy cheerleading. Example: “If we can morph the Soul of Dylan . . . with the innovation of Apple and the eccentric-all-the-way-to-the-bank of Bill Veeck, the WORLD will be a better place. WE have that opportunity.”

Only two months into his job, Abrams released companywide a fifteen-point memo on change in the newspaper business, in which he reels off what he finds to be newspapers’ most “glaring” problem: assumptions.

Possibly the biggest problem. Assuming. I met a reporter who spent 4 years in Baghdad. Dodging bullets . . . staying in Hotels protected by the Marines. Yet, I’ll bet no-one outside of the building knew this person was risking their life in Iraq to get you the news. If it were CNN, you’d see rockets and RPG’s in the background as the reporter ducks shrapnel. In the paper, it’s usually a small byline. Hell, papers should have photos of the reporter with Iraqi kids . . . be writing diaries. Before I joined Tribune, I had no idea that reporters were around the globe reporting the news . . . Because the paper “assumed” I knew.

One reporter at the Los Angeles Times, still shocked by Abrams’s lack of awareness, told me, “We don’t know what in the world these guys are thinking. That’s very disturbing. If Abrams’s stream-of-consciousness missives are the real indication of where this thing is going, then it’s going to not be a very sophisticated place. He polished the buffoon image with the observation that he was unaware until told recently that foreign reporters were actually in foreign lands.”

When I spoke to Abrams in July, I asked him to explain his apparent lack of basic knowledge about his new world. “I knew that,” he says about the existence of foreign reporters, “but the point was, when I lived in Washington—and I think I was a pretty typical avid newspaper reader—I just didn’t think about it. It was off the radar, another newspaper assumption. As a reader, before I joined Tribune, I knew that there were news bureaus, but it just wasn’t top of mind. Whereas, you watch CNN, and they hit you over the head with it—the fact that they are live there and it’s noon here and it’s midnight there and it’s dark.”

Newspapers must learn to “hit people over the head” with what they have and who they are, he says again and again. “The newspaper is part of the life experience,” says Abrams. “It’s an intelligent look at the community and the world—something that you can absorb at your own pace. It’s a place to find information that appeals to you. I’m a baseball fan, so not only seeing the stats, but getting the inside information from reporters who cover my teams is pretty important to my day. Investigative reporting has never been more important to newspapers. We’re not alone anymore, as bloggers, TV, and other media are also investigating, but historically papers have done the best and most credible job, and I think continuing to do so is key to the future.”

But newspapers seem to have forgotten how to shout and swagger and barnstorm, he says. Scream EXCLUSIVE! like they did at the turn of the nineteenth century. Liberate the photographers. Engage the designers. Promote the columnists and reporters like celebrities. “Papers have star writers and they don’t publicize them properly,” he says. And the changes must start now. To that end, he keeps on the windowsill in his office a white length of lumber, a two-by-four, naturally, left over from his days in radio, bearing the acronym afdi. When I ask him what it means, he says that the talking days are past, that newspapers must let go of their history.

“Now we’re AFDI—actually fucking doing it. Internally, my mission is to liberate people to do their best work and, as a result, create the newspapers that are going to succeed. I think my main job is helping inspire people to think differently and to liberate themselves from some of the things that may not work anymore that newspapers have been doing for a long time.” Abrams has but a few specific pet peeves. One is the use of unnecessary jumps followed by great, gray fields of unadorned type. (“It’s like, ‘Oh my god. I don’t have time for that.’ ”) He questions the use of traditional rubrics like “From the news wire,” a phrase that is meaningless to modern readers and sounds like the nineteenth century. The specific fixes he leaves up to the editors and designers. “I don’t really have the ideas as much as a lot of passion for change and the ability to help people to break out,” he says.

In person, Abrams is more thoughtful and low-key than he appears on his blog or in a big presentation. He loves to talk, talk fast, talk in sports metaphors, talk in voices, mimicking several sides of a conversation to make a point. “I was in Hartford and they were bragging about how the newspaper helped take down the governor,” he says. “But I don’t think the average person in Hartford knew that. I asked cocktail waitresses and taxi drivers and the guy at the airport, all who lived in Hartford, if they knew about this. And not one person knew . . . . Newspapers used to scream out much louder. Exclusive!! . . . But that was many years ago when there were three or four newspapers in a market. Now there’s only one or two. My point is, Yeah, that’s true, but there are two million Web sites and three hundred cable channels, so it’s more competitive now than ever.”

Newspapers must compete in a news-rich environment or go home. “We have to focus on our strengths to reclaim ground,” he says. “It does mean doing fewer things unquestionably better. Newspapers often suffer from being generic in a ‘specificity-driven’ media environment. One of the reasons I’m so focused on the graphic element and the intellect—newspapers own those. We need to push our attributes better.”

All We Hear Is Radio Ga Ga
Abrams is routinely called a legend in the music industry. Though popular music is a business that hands out such accolades with regularity, there is truth to the statement. As a Chicago wunderkind, Abrams did his own street-corner research for top-forty AM radio stations in the 1960s, but found himself drawn to the harder rock of underground FM radio. He loved the music, but despised the hipper-than-thou elitism of the FM disc jockeys. So in 1971, just a year out of high school, he combined research and psychographics with his knowledge of album cuts (not singles!) and invented the album-oriented rock format for FM. Mandatory playlists superseded deejays’ whims, a massive cultural shift followed which finished off Top 40 radio and produced a financial windfall for all who followed him. At one point, Abrams and his partner Kent Burkhart programmed more than 125 separate U.S. radio stations.

In Marc Fisher’s lively history of post-World War II radio, Something in the Air, he describes Abrams’s youthful achievement in the strongest terms: “Lee Abrams was not old enough to drink or vote, but he was well on his way toward reinventing radio and restructuring pop culture.”

Three decades later, radio had survived MTV, and had devolved into a formulaic but still profitable business—and a creative wasteland. Abrams, blamed by critics for ruining FM radio by straitjacketing deejays with research, looked up and saw the future. In 1998, he signed on to became the first employee of XM Satellite Radio, overseeing programming for more than 150 pay “channels” and convincing Bob Dylan to host the wonderful Theme Time Radio Hour. Abrams had a hand in reinventing radio once again: now it was satellite versus terrestrial, with XM setting off a creative efflorescence. Abrams brought in Willie Nelson and Tom Petty to run their own shows, added eleven national news channels, twice as many all-talk channels, and three times as many sports channels. “The first couple of years at XM were just magical,” he says, noting that he stepped off in March as XM was about to merge with its competitor Sirius in order to cut overhead and boost profits.

In the course of creating XM, Abrams kept employee headcount to a barebones minimum, running a channel with one or two staffers instead of ten. The reason was competitive pressure. He tells me he met with executives from Google and Yahoo and other Internet titans and says, “They are in a warlike stance. They want to put everybody out of business.” Thus, he maintains that he was surprised at the lack of urgency he found at newspapers during these challenging times. “For me it’s like, ‘Let’s fight back and reclaim that turf.’ But we gotta use modern day weapons and not World War I weaponry.”

Enter his old friend, Randy Michaels, a radio man since his college days at SUNY-Buffalo. Michaels worked for Sam Zell as early as 1993, and by the time Zell promoted him from vice president and chief executive officer of Tribune’s interactive and broadcast divisions to be his corporate chief operating officer, Abrams had become Tribune’s secret weapon. Michaels and Abrams are close and understand each other deeply, says Abrams, though both men are admittedly strangers to print.

Marc Fisher explains how newspaper people would have a hard time translating a radio genius like Abrams. “Lee is a quintessential radio guy, which means he is something of a fan,” says Fisher, who is also a columnist and blogger at The Washington Post. “He has extraordinary enthusiasm and is accustomed to motivating deejays and salespeople into making their short moments on the air something distinctive and alluring. And radio is really a sales business. The advertising and the programming are entirely intermeshed. There is no church-state divide as we know in newspapers, so he is a cheerleader and a visionary. And what generations of radio people have taken as pearls of wisdom appear to be almost illiterate ravings to people in a newsroom. Lee writes and speaks in all caps with lots of ellipses and lots of slogans and what the radio world calls ‘liners,’ which are the brief mottos and sayings which make a radio show.”

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, 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.”

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?’ ”

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.”

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Robert Love is an adjunct professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and the executive editor of Best Life.