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.