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Commentary

Old Media Looks To A Radio Guru

Right now, among the beleaguered employees of the Tribune Co., the prevalent question (besides "Will I still have a job tomorrow?") is, "Who the hell does Lee Abrams think he is?"
Right now, among the beleaguered employees of the Tribune Co., the prevalent question (besides "Will I still have a job tomorrow?") is, "Who the hell does Lee Abrams think he is?"Officially, Abrams is the newly hired "chief innovation officer" at Tribune, which owns the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Newsday, and a bunch of other newspapers plus 23 TV stations, including the WGN "Superstation." Abrams came over from XM Radio several months ago to try and revive Tribune's daily newspaper business, which is plummeting faster than an Indian rocket. Unfortunately, what he's done so far is mostly written a bunch of inane e-memos, which have inevitably made their way to the blogosphere.

As it happens, I spent a few days with Abrams a few years ago, trailing him for a feature on XM for Wired magazine. He's a roly-poly fellow with a Groucho Marx moustache, and he's a pioneer in "alternative" radio -- some would say he killed off alternative radio with the programmatic "adult-oriented rock" format, which he helped create. He's a very sharp guy, with a penchant for telling war tales about his hazy days with superbands like Yes, in the glory days of the 1970s. Unfortunately, judging from his Tribune memos, he also has a penchant for new-media clichés, often presented in ALL CAPS with lots of EXCLAMATION MARKS!!!

"Want to OWN categories better? Try a box. Every day. Same place. Reliable ... consistent. Updates the topic DAILY ... EVERY day!!"

More boxes. Now there's a radical innovation sure to galvanize readers and save the newspaper business.

"Bring out the 2x4. It's WAR out there!" "I DO see a lot of 'Whoa! GREAT idea...too bad we can't try it on our core brand.' WHY???!!!" And, my personal favorite, recommending that the L.A. Times (which has been riven by demands from the Tribune overlords for double-digit revenue increases, and departures/firings of respected editors, and buyouts/layoffs of veteran journalists), achieve a transcendent oneness with Southern California: "BE the city...in 2008."

He also made the riveting suggestion that the Times paint its vans a different color. That's just what old media needs: more out-of-the-box thinking ... about vehicle color schemes.

I happen to like Lee Abrams, but the idea that this kind of nonsense, from a guy who never had to write or edit a story in his life, is going to provide CPR for the Tribune's gasping print business, is, well, nonsense. I have no idea what his actual job description is, but I'll bet it's not providing rehashed editorial advice (what newspaper in the last 20 years hasn't tried more boxes?) to people who were reporting and writing when Abrams was doing bong hits with Ted Nugent.

What Abrams, and lots of media analysts, have wrong is the idea that what's wrong with newspapers is the content. It's not; it's the delivery mechanism. I would argue that plenty of U.S. newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, have responded well and forcefully (if not rapidly) to the challenges of the 24/7 digital media revolution. Their problem is that lots of people -- not just 20-somethings but over-45 geezers like me -- don't see any romance in dead-tree papers anymore. They get their news from the Web, from dozens of different sources, and that's not going to change -- no matter how many vans you repaint.

Abrams and his ilk (including, apparently, Trib management) are confusing an economic and a technological challenge (the death of newsprint, and the loss of subscribers and decrease in ad rates associated with it) with an editorial one (the supposed death of newspapers, and good reporting and writing). Seen as part of the digital media explosion, newspapers have never been more vital or more vibrant. And a few clownish memos from Lee Abrams ("THINK PIECE: BUSTING DENIALS AND ASSUMPTIONS") are not about to restore the economic prosperity they enjoyed two decades ago.