Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Abrams brings his act to L.A. — and likes it

The road trip continues with a visit to Los Angeles and a brainstorm session on the future of Superstation WGN. For years I have heard the Industry dirt on the Los Angeles Times. Got a lot of "good luck...you'll need it" advice.

With Los Angeles probably being the Popular Culture and Media capital of the Universe, it was one trip I was pretty excited to make. Expecting a beehive of hostility and rage, I found the place to be the exact opposite. I'm sure there's some strange historical things lurking in the hallways, but I found, as with the other papers I've visited so far, that the LA Times is loaded with people that are smart, passionate and ready to fight the war.

We had some great discussions, and while many of the points we talked through wouldn't be appropriate for a widely distributed email, there were some things that I thought warrant mentioning:

*I think we all agree that the way for local newspapers to survive is to completely, totally and passionately tap into the soul of a city. To be connected at the hip with everything the city is. Well, LA is electric with identity. To some it may be everything that is wrong with our culture, but my view is that it is an expansive, pulsating melting pot of cultural energy.

What an incredible opportunity to be the newspaper of record in a city like that! If WSJ reflects the vibe of Wall Street and the Washington Post is Capitol Hill, USA Today is the All Star Game in any city big stadium USA, the LAT can be...Southern California. That, done right, is heady, exciting stuff. That is the MAGIC of newspapers...having the ability to BE the print arm of what a city IS...and aspires to be. Quite honestly, I don't think there's a paper in the Country that REALLY does this right....at least not in 2008 terms. It's not a swipe -- it's an opportunity--A BIG one. BE the city...in 2008. Look forward. Combine Passion with character and muscle. Operate with a sense of swagger that YOU are the city...on today's terms.

*Blowing up Newspapers in the name of change? NO! as with most papers I've talked to, there's a fear of blowing off the existing core in an effort to reach new readers. NO! Firstly, it’s all about accepting what a newspapers "natural" audience is. 50+? Fine. Now, lets own ALL of them. 100% share. Complete and total domination. That's the idea. And...Funny thing, by re-igniting this 'natural' audience, lower demos will follow....but not by TRYING too hard to reach them. I call it cult and fringe.

Cult is your natural reader aka core. For a RedEye it's young, a mainstream paper old. I think RedEye does a fantastic job with its cult. They are new and pure. The fringe is the secondary reader target that follows along even though you aren't targeting them...but because you do such a compelling job with your cult. Take an old guy like me---Here in Chicago, I tend to read the Tribune...but Redeye does such a good job, that there are more than a few times I pick it up and really get into it.

The reverse effect is possible. I see that in LA. A paper that the cult loves MORE than ever, but a paper that is SO tied into 21st Century LA, that there's a younger reader that engages because it's so perfectly in sync with the era and IS the timeless ALL demographic paper of record that is 2008 and not living on the fumes of an expired era. Creating new papers to attract different targets is great, but MAXIMIZING and more completely owning the traditional and 'natural' target is gold.

*The content is there. As with all of our papers, the content is there. It's amazing. In LA they have some star columnists. Now---how do we turn them into print celebrities? How do we re-think the design so they scream out better? LA IS kinda celebrity conscious.

*LA is THE entertainment Mecca of the planet. Maybe they should be THE intelligent source for Entertainment info, much like the WSJ is for business news. There's no shortage of STUPID entertainment news in every grocery store...but imagine if they were known Globally as THE source for compelling, thought provoking nerve touching entertainment info and data.

*Some of their best content is on the web...maybe more of that should migrate to print. (I DO hear a lot of "oh THAT!? It's on the website)...That is shortchanging the luddite who still lives for print. LET THEM EXPERIENCE THE FANTASTIC WEB CONTENT...In print. Drives me nuts when there's great material...but ONLY on the web.

...my point here is that the LAT like most papers DOES this stuff...but it's a mystery due to 1938 navigation and look. Bring out the 2x4. It's WAR out there.

*Being too close to it. LAT has about 20 vans...but they're all Black? Hmmm. Maybe they should be painted in LAT colors. There ARE more than a few commuters driving around down there. They use soy based ink and recycled paper. Hmmm...maybe they should be bragging about that on every page as LA is the home of green.

I walked away from LA with nothing but optimism in a big way. They have everything they need--An unbelievably vibrant locale...some very very strong people. they are in position to do some remarkable things in a remarkable city.

Then we had a meeting of the minds for WGN Superstation. Like the LAT, this thing is ready for supersonic flight. The biggest challenge other than acquiring the shows that work is "de-televisioning" the thinking. TV and Radio are cousins and like radio, there are a lot of TV guys that are really smart but need to liberate themselves from "TV thinking"--I think we are on our way at Superstation. There's one lady named Carrie King who is their creative director. I met her expecting to be bored to tears. She's a fireball of AFDI. She needed to be liberated. Sean Compton and I did that and she is on fire. Charged her with re-thinking the logo and the sound, so there's "magic between the shows"...so we are totally and completely different in EVERY area that WE control. She came back with some TV looking logos and audio. Sent her a few Pink Floyd albums and asked her to go back to work. She did--and delivered some completely new, cerebral (for the right reasons) and magical looks and sounds.

On the sound guy, we went to {Peter Gabriel's keyboard player and said "what would you do wit TV sound"? He delivered something that is INFINITELY better and cooler than the god awful, clichéd TV sounds that everyone except those in TV actually laughs about. Bottom line: There's going to be some exciting things happening there.

Fear: We revert to "TV thinking"...If we do that, we’re screwed. BUT if we stick with the MISSION of REALLY TRULY and WITHOUT BENDING TO THE "RULES OF TV" THINKING, we will prevail and write the blueprint for 21st Century TV. Just like the LAT and newspapers can reek the vibe of their cities, a station like WGN Superstation can reflect the mood--good, bad and ugly... of AMERICA. That's the key--instead of being a collection of Cubs games and shows...it can be more--and a big part of that is the magic between the shows. Like with print, it’s all about a 21st Century:


That defines WHAT a newspaper (or TV station...or website) IS in 2008. An important exercise because it ain't what it WAS.

...and getting in sync with the speed of 2008 with fast, medium and deep options... and STIMULATING THE EYE.

On Eye stimulation, I think some of our greatest assets are our designers. We gotta LIBERATE them. In LA there's a guy who did some redesigns of the Business page. WOW! It was amazing. He also did their front page last Thursday with some inventive graphics. even the LAT staff told me "my neighbor actually BOUGHT the paper last Thursday". I asked did he buy Fridays. Answer: No. The point:

CONSISTENCY. We tend to trickle. Can't trickle! I can imagine that if EVERY day...EVERY page had that Thursday effect. Look out!!! It gets back to "we tried that already". Gotta use the 2x4 or it won’t get noticed. It's a media war...pull out the big guns. The Thursday cover of the LAT is a big gun. Do that EVERY day...every PAGE...24/7/365--and THAT will make things happen...we gotta think that way!

Someone told me before I joined up "Your optimism will wane once you experience the problems in print and TV". Man, are they wrong!


LA Observed
Kevin Roderick • BioEmail

Not new ideas, of course — and without convincing evidence anywhere in the country that his way can lure the masses back to newspapers. But at least this clarification makes more sense than some of Abrams' previous messages. Still to be clarified — and it's crucial because they are in competition — is which "soul" and electric identity should inform the paper's future? The non-white city of upwardly aspiring immigrants that shapes almost everything in L.A. except media coverage? The mostly white Downtown-to-Westside niche that drives the local media today? The relatively few wired yuppies the Times' website and entertainment coverage increasingly target? Or the millions beyond L.A. in the SoCal suburbs who look to Downtown for approximately nothing in the way of culture, lifestyle or soul? I don't know, but if it's the first one they've got a problem because the Times of today doesn't have many, if any, leaders with feet in that Los Angeles.

Lee Abrams Surprised LAT Staffers Didn't Take Him Out Back

Chicago Sun Times

Tribune Co.’s chief innovation officer Lee Abrams, who carries quite possibly the most obnoxious title in newspaper land, and who should generally place a moratorium on delivering sound bites about his company, says the “beehive of hostility and rage” he expected during a visit to the Los Angeles Times was anything but uncomfortable. Instead, he found the place “loaded with people that are smart, passionate and ready to fight the war.” Now, would that be the war in Iraq, the war on newspapers ad revenue, or the war Sam Zell is launching against his own company?

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