Lee Abrams, Tribune Company’s chief innovation officer, doesn’t seem too impressed with the Los Angeles Times.
That’s the feeling I got when he appeared at the Los Angeles Press Club Thursday night on a panel with Ron Kaye, the former editor of the Daily News and club vice president Ezra Palmer.
Abrams is a round-faced, curly headed man. His attire was casual —jeans and a zippered blue sweater. His manner was pleasant; his voice surprisingly soft He doesn’t speak in the capital letters he uses in his memos.
But he does talk in the clichés of the media world. He wants stories that reflect the city, told with emotion, displayed with flair. Heart- tugging stories. Laugh-making stories. Or, as I used to think when I headed to the city desk each morning, give them “a little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants.”
The Times obviously wasn’t giving him all of what he wanted. Abrams, fresh from a visit to Times publisher Eddy Hartenstein and editor Russ Stanton, said the Times has “ a lot of baggage and a lot of friction and they will get through it.” The paper, he said at another point, is “not there” but “will get there.”
“In a year, it will be a pretty hot newspaper,” he said. The Times crew is “working at it but it is hard.” They must “make it happen but it’s going to happen slower” than he would like.
He likes the Sunday Times. “If they could do 365 days a year what they did on the last two Sundays, it would be great,” he said. He didn’t mention what Sunday stories or displays caught his fancy.
And, he doesn’t seem to think the Times shows its wares very well. As an example, he said entertainment business news is scattered around the paper. “Compartmentalize it, put it in one place,” he said
“I think they have the talent,” he said. “It is just how it is packaged and put together. It is called noticeability. It is just not noticeable.”
And finally he believes you can do a better job with a smaller staff. “I don’t think the L.A. Times has gotten there yet,” he said. The Chicago Tribune, on the other hand, “learned how to be better with a smaller staff.” He said Tribune staff members are so enthusiastic over the changes that “people are high fiving.”
After hearing Abrams, my advice to the remaining Times staff is to read the Chicago Tribune every day, dig out the last two Sunday editions of the Times and try to figure out what exactly he’s talking about. And let’s have more of those high fives.
Some sharp person running for office in Los Angeles next year ought to try Barack Obama’s style of grassroots politics, raising a lot of money and organizing supporters online.
Such an innovation could dispense with our partial public financing of city campaigns in LA. The partial system requires candidates to also solicit private donations.
With nobody who is anybody running against him, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has a lock on his re-election. But there are contests for L.A. city attorney, controller and for city council and school district seats.
The candidates will go through the time-worn exercise of hitting up the same old business and union hacks for donations, obligating themselves to be forever faithful to the wishes of their benefactors.
Obama did it differently. He raised huge amounts of money on the Internet. And his organizers went on line to put together a grassroots army that swept the field. I know Obama also leaned on rich movie people, investment bankers (when there was such a class) and other wealthy men and women. The hard working folks making phone calls for Obama in Culver City no doubt missed the $28,500 a person Greystone Mansion gathering of the super rich. And the super rich will come calling on the new president for favors. But what distinguished the campaign was the vast number of small contributions, raised online, plus the online organization of volunteers.
It permitted Obama to dispense with public financing. Actually, his system was broader and more reflective of our democracy than public financing.
Last week, I was discussing the past presidential campaign with the staff of the Center for Governmental Studies, the political reform organization which helped devise the present partial public financing system.
Most of the folks in the room were young, idealistic, articulate and technically adept. They reminded me of the Obama campaign. Why couldn’t a young candidate with a dream for LA, and a certain charisma organize such people into a campaign, just as Obama did?
They could use the Internet to raise money, organize the grassroots and communicate with voters. Candidates could turn down partial public financing and could be independent of big contributors and their compromising gifts. Candidates wouldn’t have to beg the increasingly disinterested media for coverage.
Skeptics will say it is impossible because nobody in L.A. cares about local politics. Nobody thought the Obama campaign was possible, either, until he tried.