Lee Abrams on the Future of Newspapers

I spoke yesterday with Lee Abrams, the chief innovation officer at Sam Zell's Tribune company, about his seemingly endless string of controversial statements about the future of the newspaper business, which he expresses in memos that sometime contain all-cap sentences. Abrams came to the Tribune from XM Radio, and he's never worked in newspapers before. The edited interview is below. Some highlights: When I asked him if the mission of newspapers was still to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, he said, "Probably not as much as it did." He thinks reporters should separate themselves from the past as quickly as possible, and he continues to express surprise that reporters are on the ground in Iraq.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Talk for a minute about the 21st century mission of journalism.
Lee Abrams: There’s a lot of aspects to it. One is, there’s a lot of amazingly well done content inside of newspapers, but I think a lot of it doesn’t get read because people don’t have the time to find it. I’ve always been a big newspaper fan, and since I’ve been really studying newspapers more, and really reading them cover to cover since I got here, I’ll notice fantastic stories on certain pages that I wouldn’t have read before because I just wouldn’t have gotten to them or they would have looked a little intimidating in that they looked complicated.
JG: What about the moral mission, holding government accountable?
LA: I think it’s a component in providing a daily record of news information, about what’s going on locally in the world and culturally, and I think keeping government accountable is certainly a component of it, but I think it’s bigger than that, too.
JG: Talk about story length.
LA: I think it really depends on the story. I think some are just little information news bites. Others, I think, demand a more expansive coverage. What we’re trying to do is create options for people. Quick reads, and then if they really want to get into a more complete story, there’s that option. And then, if they really want to get into tremendous depth, there’s the online option.
JG: Your boss, Randy Michaels, said that reporters should be judged in part according to how many column inches they produce. He said, “You find you eliminate a fair number of people while not eliminating very much content.” Do you understand why there was pushback on that?
LA: I think it was misinterpreted. They just wanted to make sure that everyone’s operating at maximum efficiency.
JG: Can you envision, in one of your newspapers, a reporter taking three or four months to work on a single series or on a single story?
LA: Oh, absolutely. We have to get back to that real deep investigative reporting and then let people know that we’re doing that. Newspapers have a tendency to under-promote themselves. I was talking to one paper out in Allentown, or Baltimore, or somewhere out East…and they had done this investigative story, but they were kind of burying it. I said, man, why don’t you, you know, call it exclusive, hit people over the head with it?
JG: Why were you surprised to find out that your company has reporters based in Iraq?
LA: I was in Los Angeles, sitting in this casual little meeting waiting for someone to show up, and there was this lady who had just got back from four years in Iraq, I forgot her name, I met 300 people in two days, and she was telling me about security problems, bullets in the background and all that, and it really struck me that there should be pictures of her with Iraqi children in the newspaper to show she was there. Whereas in the newspaper, it just says, “Times Staff Reporter.” I really never thought about it, that there was really a person over there going through hell to get this.
JG: It didn’t strike you that there were employees of the newspaper over there doing this work?
LA: It was just ink to me, just reading. Oh yeah, here’s what’s happening in Iraq, but then I didn’t feel the human side.
JG: So more first-person in the papers, then?
LA: I would have loved to see diaries, because what she was telling me was fascinating, living in these special secured floors of the Baghdad Hotel. It was like theater of the mind.
JG: Do you think there’s room in the world for magazines like the Atlantic and The New Yorker?
LA: Absolutely yes! I’ve seen a lot of musical equivalents. You look at the music world – if you’d just landed from Venus on Earth, you’d think we’d live in a Britney Spears world, but for every Britney fan there’s a Bob Dylan fan. So I think there absolutely room for all flavors and all depth.
JG: When I was coming up, there was an expression that the role of the newspaper is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Does that ring true anymore?
LA: Probably not as much as it did.
JG: What do you want journalists to do that wouldn’t violate their basic journalistic ethics or their reason for being in journalism in the first place?
LA: I think it’s doing everything they can to separate the past from 2008. To liberate themselves from the past.
JG: Why do you think people go into journalism?
LA: It’s an art-form, to express yourself, and also, it’s a public responsibility, actually giving something back.
JG: What’s with your all-cap memos?
LA: It’s me just going at it.