Let's assume that the Times forgetting to print the top part of the shark-kills-man story on Saturday — necessitating a reprint in Sunday papers — is not the kind of innovation that Lee Abrams has in mind for the Tribune company. What he does have on his mind is making celebrities out of columnists, injecting more point of view and crafting stories, headlines and other content to ensure they are "hits." He's also talking to Bob Dylan about doing something for Tribune, because of course, "The guy DOES know how to write." Today's memo from the Tribune innovation guru, which proclaims there's a media war on, follows. Meanwhile, Tribune innovator-in-chief Sam Zell was the subject of a TV report in the Bay Area over his mobile home parks and campaign against rent control.
There is a media war out there and we need to think on that level. At my previous mission, I was privy to many meetings at Yahoo, Google (everybody wanted bandwidth) and other competing Information companies. Those guys are out to kill us....and a senior guy at Google said "The Old media companies are asleep...living in the past...that's why we'll win". Well...time to fight back...and recapture the ground. I can't stress this enough. It's the spirit of engagement. We need to pull out the stops in terms of waging war. I wish there was a better way to put it, but that's really what it is.
The road trip continues. Visited the Orlando Sentinel. Impressive group. They are very much into Re-thinking the look to better mobilize their content in today's environment. I was especially impressed with a re-working design they did on their Editorial page. They took the EXACT content from the existing page and gave it a good re-think and re-design and it evolved from rather tedious to absolutely compelling...without changing as much as a comma of the actual content. This in my opinion is what it's all about. Modernizing the look and feel so MORE people can dive into the smart and compelling content.
One exercise we're going through is "page by page" evaluation. As I learn more about the production of a newspaper, it is amazing to me how so much is put together on a daily basis. In other media you often have time to sit back and evaluate. I get the impression that there's literally no time for that luxury. SO---there are some things that might be on autopilot, simply because there's no TIME to step back. I'm into helping with the "page by page" exercise. The idea is to discover things that can be better, but because of the breakneck pace of putting out a newspaper, they get overlooked.
I find the idea of re-thinking very exciting...not to mention critical...and I continue to see no reason that print can't GROW. Regardless of demographic target. People won't stop reading. And newspapers are one of the last bastions of smart media in an increasingly dumb era. I still believe in this Big three...incredibly basic and simple--probably SO basic and simple that they are probably subject to assumptions:
LOOK: Sure, there’s a comfort to tradition...but I'd hope we are smart enough to move forward, deliver a compelling modern look that is in sync with the navigation realities of 2008... And remain comfortable. Stimulating the eye on 2008 terms is the first step in stimulating minds.
POV: Not necessarily politics...but "something" that speaks LOUDLY to what you are. "We're the reliable local paper" isn't strong enough.
HITS: Hit stories. Hit headlines. YOUR hits. What touches nerves? That's what people need to see.
Sometimes it's that simple, but simple is avoided as it seems...too simple. Basics...with a tasteful 2x4. A 2x4 is visually arresting, tastefully screams out and is consistent done so it gets NOTICED and absorbed. It is a very bad time to be bland and generic.
Fear of evolving...happy with the current declines...afraid of blowing it...are a few of the things that will help the continuing decline in newspapers. Then, I need to mention another thing. Misuse of research. Personally, I think there's a balance of SCIENCE and EMOTION. They gotta work together. All emotion and there's an excellent change of arts and crafting yourself off the map. All science and you will just keep re-enforcing the status quo. But with powerful creative/emotion leading the parade...and science/research identifying issues and verifying the creative is the way to go.
Best stuff on the web? Our websites need to be invented...and they are/will be. But some things I notice include:
*We don't use a big enough 2x4 to tie the web and paper (and TV stations) together at the hip. I think there's too much assumption that people know to go to newspaper.com . They don't. We are not this sacred thing where people KNOW. Maybe 30 years ago...but today you need that 2x4 to get a message across. We are WAY WAY too subtle. And, being intense doesn't mean being gaudy. In fact, you can use that 2x4 in extremely tasteful ways. I think Apple is pretty effective there. My point is that we can't ASSUME anything. This is a media war out there and we need to think on that level.
*Some amazing material is on the web. I wonder why some of it isn't in print too. I understand newsprint costs, but there are ways to do it. Check Data Central on the Orlando Sentinel web...I was impressed with the depth of their "numbers"...There are other elements like this too. I don't think newspapers can ASSUME that people will find stuff on the web. Maybe print should look at what the web is creating and use it in print. Again, I wonder if we're not ASSUMING that story X or data X is a "web" thing and assuming people will find it there. I'm thinking that more COOL (cool being a universal term) Web 'stuff' can be VERY compelling in print...and blogs---sometime the best writing is ONLY on the web. I think we need to avoid assuming that ‘people will find it on the web’…Some will, but many won’t.
*Photos. Maybe there should be more selective amazing photography where you drive people to the Web for MORE eye candy. Hubble Space Photos for example. Universes colliding. Why should you HAVE to go to the web...give 'em a taste in print then the whole experience online.
*Maps. We're in the map age...MapQuest, Google Maps and others have forced this...We have to catch up and do it BettER and best.. "We have the map online"...why just online? I think Print, Web and TV should all be mapping wherever appropriate.
Some other thoughts:
*BOB DYLAN & Tribune? Had a great meeting with the Dylan folks. There is big potential to have Bob on our team. The guy DOES know how to write.
Got me thinking----Are we creating our own stars? we have them...and we should continue to recruit them. Online, on TV and In print. We live in a celebrity era...columnists CAN be stars IF we position them that way. When I was growing up, there was Kupcinet, Royko, Holtzman and others here in Chicago. I asked several people about this in the company and didn't really get a consistent answer on creating celebrities out of our writers. Quality celebrity. well--we are missing a massive opportunity if we don't identify the "stars" and go OTT (over-the-top) in positioning them that way. Is it the newspaper inferiority complex? Bull! Newspapers have muscle. Flex it. And WEB STARS! NOW is the time to create Star "personalities on the web....and cross promote them in print...and on TV!
*THE SMOKING GUN: A favorite site of mine. I'll bet the vast majority of newspaper readers and TV viewers have no idea that the type of information on these type sites exist. Bruce Springsteen review? You add highlights from his backstage rider. Important? No---Interesting...Yes. It's that interesting information that we GOTTA capture...and not just on the web. On TV...online. We have to break out of any ASSUMPTIONS and RE-THINK literally everything we do. TheSmokingGun.com type information isn't going to make or break us...but it is symbolic of the TYPES of information we need to own...IN PRINT...ONLINE and ON TV.
*THE MUSIC INDUSTRY: A Led Zeppelin fan is the same age as the typical newspaper reader. I asked one person why they didn't cover the historic Led Zeppelin reunion concert in London...the one that got 63 million ticket requests. The answer was "Too young skewing" Huh? The band is all 60 and they're fans the same age...and they are community leaders. "Classic Rock" and other "upper end" music forms are wide open. These people aren't reading Rolling Stone...they are reading WSJ and Tribune papers. Do we ASSUME that older music fans are still 18 and pissed off at Nixon? They are 55 and into NASDAQ.
We are engaging many music companies for revenue...because of this very point.
*SECTION NAMES: Maybe it's time to re-think the names and WHAT they are. It's the exercise of "what if newspapers never existed"....what would the sections be...and named? Again, we have to fight the ASSUMPTION that they're right, and the assumption that the focus group is giving you even remotely valid feedback if you go that route. Maybe it's that there's been no time to really sit back and think about that. Maybe a Sports section should be in two parts: LOCAL SPORTS (with team logos and a totally local centric feel) and a National Sports...maybe there are "newspaper" section names that no longer resonate. All things we need to AGGRESSIVELY think...and ACT on. Time is not an ally.
DAY-PARTING: Should Monday's paper be a different format? Same paper, but maybe Super scannable? Take ADVANTAGE of this weaker day? Preview of the week/Highlights of the weekend sorta thing? If it's a weak day---There are probably ways to re-think it so it's maximized. Special. not just a weak day. (-please don't say we tried that...because I don't think it's been tried beyond a subtle non 2x4 way that wasn't noticed)
CROSS BRANDING: We need to push this...make it instinctive to cross promote each other. I'm surprised that it seems like: A) Pulling teeth
B) Underplayed and too subtle. I don't have any answers here, but I think it needs to be in everyone's DNA to instinctively and aggressively tie it all together. We have News Super brands in most markets. I think we ASSUME that people know Metro mix (for example) is part of the family...they don't.
This is a war we can win...but we gotta get engaged in it.