In the September/October Columbia Journalism Review, there’s a long piece on Tribune’s Chief Innovation Officer, Lee Abrams. Although it makes the mistake of equating Abrams and Apple’s Steve Jobs (They both hunt “the same Holy Grail: usability.”), the article’s chief premise is sound: Don’t judge Lee Abrams only by his trippy, disjointed memos, emails and blog posts:
In person, Abrams is more thoughtful and low-key than he appears on his blog or in a big presentation… 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.
Abrams blew into Tribune in 2008 and did something nobody even tried to do before: he mandated that every paper reinvent itself. But then he did something equally amazing: he kept his hands off. He gave clues, he shepherded in certain directions and, by his reactions to early prototypes, he used praise to reinforce the directions he liked and silence (and the rare barb) to indicate a non-starter. But he insisted that the solution arise organically from the local market. There were no templates to follow other than this one: Build a newspaper that more people will want to read.
So far, redesigns have launched in Allentown, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale and Baltimore, each different from the other. The big two – Chicago and Los Angeles – are coming soon. None of these – as far as I know – was tested on a focus group. Each is something of a Hail Mary, lobbed at the readers in hopes of a new connection. But each is also attempting to turn the hard reality of shrinking news hole into an advantage by reducing the number of longer traditional articles in favor of graphics, photos and hybrid “charticles.”
At the end of the process, Tribune will have eight new approaches to daily newspaper design and something much more effective – and potentially dangerous – than a focus group: a live marketplace, where readers and advertisers will vote with their subscriptions and their dollars.
However this turns out, good or bad, Lee Abrams is the guy who made it happen.
Updates, as the saying goes, as they’re available.