Sam Zell

Lee Abrams memos again

New week, new pearls of official innovation-ness from Tribune's chief research scientist. The graduate of the FM radio school of higher thinking sent out 1,238 words this time. Before I post it, I just saw some funny responses to his last sermon from the ink-stained scribes at My favorite: "For half the price and a steady supply of Bekaa valley hash, anyone on this board could come up with weirder and better ideas."

Today's memo, which appeared earlier on Romensko, after the jump:

THINK PIECE: COMING TO TERMS WITH 2008. I was looking at newspapers from long ago. A few things struck me:

*They were more competitive LOOKING. A lot of "EXCLUSIVE!!...sort of wording that screamed out "buy me"! I asked around about this and was told that in the days of 3 or 4 local papers, each one had to get intense in the battle for customers, but nowadays that wasn't as necessary as there are usually 1 or 2 local papers. To me, this symbolized a big problem: There may be only one competitive newspaper, but there are about six million websites and 300 TV channels! It's MORE competitive now than it was!

*The big headline....editorial cartoons on the front page and other enticing visuals seemed more prevalent. There seemed to be more aggressive eye adventure (at least relative to that era) than there is now.

Led me to think that we are in a modern Media War, but using World War Two era tactics.
I'll be quite upfront and say that I am surprised that Newspapers in general are so low key about evolving. I've noticed that at newspapers:

*Changes are made but they are SO subtle that no-one outside of the building notices.
*Writers and Editors content is undermined by a generally dated and tired look, that is tweaked but not noticeably evolved.

*Are rife with assumptions. That people will find great stories...that the paper will get credit for breaking stories...that the writers are known commodities...that the paper is the center of the local news universe. Well---not necessarily. Historically yes, but in 2008, not a given. Gotta REALIZE WAR HAS BEEN DECLARED by the Google's and Fox's...and FIGHT BACK...RECLAIM YOUR TURF! Ain't gonna happen by osmosis.

*Are not very aggressive. At least by today's standards. If a radio station had the circulation declines facing newspapers, all hell would break loose and you'd see the big guns pulled out. I don't see that in newspapers. When AOL started declining, they blew up the company. My point is that we gotta fight back....fight back to reclaim. It'll never be 1938 again, but there's no reason newspapers can't aggressively get in the 2008 competitive groove and grow again. Another committee meeting...another focus group...more debate? WHY? Ad revenue and circulation are down...consistently. Our choice: Slow drip to death by irrelevancy OR grab this thing by the hair and fight back.

*Are so tied to the classic definition of what a newspaper is. Maybe that's part of the baggage that's holding growth back. Maybe we need to throw out the newspaper playbook and re-think it for 2008. That's a BIG advantage Internet guys have. No rule book.
*Deflection. Fear of coming to terms with the core paper's issues. Deflecting blame to everything from a soft ad market to youth using Internet to denial that everything is OK and will bounce back because you are "the paper". All real issues...but NOTHING is more powerful than a buzzy, 2008, dead-on-the-money core brand.

*Equate change to sensationalism! That's not it. You can be postively engaging, exciting and stimulating with noticable change without going the sensational route.

*The need to cover EVERYthing. Maybe covering your content trademarks with NOTICEABLE (key word) brilliance will get you further faster. If it's crime coverage, the election. local sports and self help that REALLY move can't 'assume that you are known for that and all is well. You gotta step out and do it BETTER than you've ever done it. I can help if you'd like. I think content trademarks are handled with such subtlety that we are generally losing the war in areas we a)Do the best job in b)Are trademarks. It gets down to 2x4 noticability. The "crime bureau" or the daily update boxes I mentioned last week are two examples. A very bad time to be subtle when it comes to "owning" your trademarks. THe fact is---Assumptions of ownership and owning on newspaper terms ain't going to cut it.

...Six weeks into this, I can't help thinking that we have 70 years of catching up to do...and we gotta do it.

Some additional thoughts:

AIR & SPACE: One commonality among the new designs we look at is "Air and Space" Many newspapers are too damn hard to read in today's environment....

DESIGN/EDITORIAL Union. I think a big part of the future is Design and Editorial REALLY working together. Editorial is often chained to the past by design. Great modern design can liberate the content. Get more people engaged! Can't stress this enough.

RADIO/TV/NEWSPAPER SPEAK : My favorite is "Classifieds". Where DID this term come from?? It's a newspaper term that hardly resonates. In Hartford, we decided to blow up Classifieds. Some of the thinking:

It'll never be Craig's List, but you CAN reinvent and rename this so it's a viable and immensely readable section. Wont go into great detail, but keys include:

*New NAME. Suggest that it's a cool place to explore. A living room flea market...
*A Hook as in "Personal Shopping Mall"

*Wording: "Place Classified Ad Here call_____" instead---"JOIN THE PERSONAL SHOPPING COMMUNITY" angle. SELL the magic.

*Bragging. Post Sell. Big ad: Joe Scmo sold his lawnmower and is HE happy"! Swagger!

*Promote the Best Buys: Beatle memorabilia on E-6"! $100 Dell Laptop on Page E-7" mentions throughout the paper. Promote TO the section., Swagger!

*Where the jobs and stuff is presented via MAPS. So you can see what's available in YOUR area.

*Events. Take the section to the streets. Co-branded Flea markets.

OK--you get the idea. Blow it up and re-introduce as a really cool home flea to to bargain hunt. HUGE opportunity and classic example of a section newspapers seem to let die instead of AGGRESSIVE action.

...and the web isn't the answer. well, it IS the answer in many respects, but don't give up on print!

The idea here is NOT giving up. Instead re-invent.

Then, I need to re-stress these two assumptions:

*Core readers will hate change. If you have 100,000 core readers and 1,000 complain. That's not bad ...1%. If 100 complain, that's statistically irrelevant. BUT---Why focus on complainers. How about the 99,000 that like it? The bottom line is that it's a GOOD thing for the core readers to evolve...if done right...and noticably.

*Change means dumb. Exactly the opposite. In fact, I think it's dumber to NOT change. SO many new products are all about "smart"--there's NO reason a 2008 newspaper can't be radically different from the old model...and be SMART.

*Exciting is a bad word because newspapers are supposed to be comfortable and reliable, not exciting. Hmmm....I think that another "exciting means flashy and whacky". Not exactly. A 1966 Bordeaux can be exciting. A poem can be exciting. Think stimulating as a form of exciting. But stimulating on 2008 terms.

I see nothing but incredible opportunity. Overly positive, crazy and naive? Sure! With that's up to us to THINK 2008...accept that war for our revenue and eyes has been declared...and FIGHT BACK!

LOOK: A 21st Century intelligent, NOTICABLE change that engages and stimulates...and makes other newspapers look tired or over sensational.

THE HITS: Every apge is "hit" stories. The ones that resonate with the masses...presented (using web ingrediants) to electrify.

POV: You aren't a generic old school newspaper. But you are one that uses the history as a foundation to build a stunning new venue of information.

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