Lee Abrams: Evolve, Man, Evolve

Like most Americans, I rarely have any good idea what the hell Tribune Co. "Chief Innovation Officer" Lee Abrams is talking about in his rambling screeds. In the following just-released "think piece" about marketing the newspapers, for instance, Abrams writes that "history is good," demands that Trib employees "EVOLVE!", and opines that the "New Tribune is an architecture that is more in sync with today."

Yeah ... riiiight. I think they're losing it at the Tribune home office a bit, actually. Just watch the following video of Zell, head completely shaven, and Abrams at a Tribune corporate retreat where they tried to figure out ways to save their crumbling newspaper empire. Apparently, it didn't go so well.

If one passage sums up Abrams' wandering and unruly point in the think piece, though, I think it's this one:

.... there are literally dozens of things we do to market newspapers that are tired. Much of it is wording of the message. ... Things like "Now, your Daily Bugle is faster with less clutter" strikes me as a top 40 radio station saying "now--fewer songs!" They may play fewer songs, and for that particular audience it may work wonders, but that's not a message to circulate because it'll be misinterpreted.

But that's the problem, isn't it? Our own Daily Bugle, the Sun-Sentinel, has dozens fewer reporters and a whole lot less substance than it did a couple years ago. It has a lot fewer songs. That's just a fact -- and not easy to misinterpret.

Essentially, what Abrams is saying here is that the marketing departments should avoid reality, i.e. that the newspaper have shrunk and there's a lot less news in them, and stress the dubious claim that they are blanketing the area with vibrant coverage.

Without further ado, here it is (with a jump):

THINK PIECE: MARKETING THE REINVENTED NEWSPAPER

I had the opportunity to speak at the Society of News Design Conference in Las Vegas. There was a lot of talent and ambition packed into the room. The positive note is the attitudes and drive that so many of these people have, though it was a little disappointing to hear about the roadblocks and resistance they faced at many newspapers. The idea is for all areas to work together to create amazing newspapers and kill the "us vs.. them," which remains pretty common. It sounds pretty self-destructive. These guys should be the best friends of everyone in the building. Combine great words with great design and it seems like the right direction.
I also met with the creative group at WPIX TV. As in most big media companies, creative types are often undervalued. I'm not saying these people were, but I walked away with a sense that there is a very, very powerful underground creative movement at Tribune that once unleashed will change things in a BIG and positive way. The dream is an organization that is adventurous, edgy, fearless and intelligent. Then the apparatus is in place to take that magic to the bank. Having dealt with a lot of media companies, you don't see that very much except with the new rebel tech-driven firms. Imagine if WE had that vision, balanced with intellect, mass appeal and a death-defying revenue squad. We're getting there. We gotta keep faith, focus and fearlessness.

Saw the L.A. Times Magazine. It's a beautiful production and a different approach from most Sunday magazines. It's a lot more lifestyle-focused ("celebration of Southern California," as they described it).
Been in discussions about marketing the newspapers as the re-invents happen. It would be nice to have this huge cash reserve to

do a major number, but that isn't happening, so we really have to look at what we can afford with a microscope. Better to do something dead on with limited resources than to spend a ton on old school marketing that gets the word out but doesn't say anything. Like with most things newspaper, a re-think is in order. At the Chicago Tribune, a dramatic re-think of how a newspaper is marketed is at hand. The marketing of newspapers can tend to be a little old school and clichéd.
Some thoughts:
I noticed that in most markets we reach maybe 30 percent, so there's a pretty big percentage on non-readers to attack.
Part of the problem is that the way we solicit hasn't been rethought in years. The message, the scripts, etc. I gotta think that by overhauling that alone we might grow.
There's a tendency to act defensively: Apologizing for change. Worrying about a handful of comments instead of the big picture. You get the idea.
I'm not suggesting that we can go back to the pre-Internet levels, but there are literally dozens of things we do to market newspapers that are tired. Much of it is wording of the message. Why use "Now a better paper you're going to love" kinda stuff instead of a more aggressive and timely message? Things like "Now, your Daily Bugle is faster with less clutter" strikes me as a top 40 radio station saying "now--fewer songs!" They may play fewer songs, and for that particular audience it may work wonders, but that's not a message to circulate because it'll be misinterpreted. A key to our success IS in the options: Short, Medium and Long, and just because short may not have been part of the mix before, we shouldn't focus too much on that. Some people still like to READ.

Anyway, I guess what I'm saying is that the marketing is yet another area we need to see if we can better. Things like telemarketing may work, but we need to look at the script.
*We need to avoid three things;
a) Marketing speak, as in "You're Going to Love it...It's the best..." Any remnants of forcing people or hyping/selling people is not right. Deliver the goods and let people decide.
b) Newspaper Speak. A language that talks to ourselves, and is too inside. Two years ago, the Chicago Tribune website had a whole explanation of its new look that included words like "pica" and "column inches." Those are extreme examples, but they're symbolic of a disassociation with the way normal non-industry people think.
*We need to make STATEMENTS. Be bold. Have swagger. Have confidence, EXPERTISE and commitment, rather than touting the facts of what the new newspaper is with marketing speak or "selling." Statements and actions will do the selling.
*We need to focus on our strengths: Stunning photography, fearless Investigations of fraud and the mob and heath violations in your favorite diner, Unbiased deep political coverage, sports reporting from the clubhouse, a newsroom that covers everywhere from Main Street to Madagascar, tools for a better life.

*On demographics, I think we need to be real. Real being 35+. 35 IS young. We don't need to go TOO young to make the point. Our image is probably 65+, so 35 is a statement in itself.
*Stay on the OFFENSIVE. Watch out for a natural tendency to be apologetic or oversensitive to reaction. What we are doing is giving people a new newspaper loaded with new content that is intelligent, interesting and even exciting. Internally and externally, stay on the offensive. There's NOTHING to be defensive about.
*Focus on the numerous new things that we're doing instead of being too fearful of reaction to new approaches.
*OVERSELLING "CONCISE" Options. Again, gotta highlight that. We'll have Quick Reads, Long Reads and Deep Dives. A huge mistake is when papers oversell the "now...easier to read...faster." Yes, that's a component, but so is Long and Deep. The real difference in the New Tribune is an architecture that is more in sync with today and competitive with today's media.
*OVERSELLING "LOCAL": Tricky. We ARE local, and that's our calling card. We should be the local POV on issues ranging from Iraq to the election to high school sports. The local POV, the local take. However, people do come to newspapers for global information. I don't think we can afford to create the perception that we are only about the locale. We are the VOICE of the locality that speaks on issues around the city, globe and universe.
*Noticeability without being obnoxious or over-hyped. That's the challenge.
*Selling the now and tomorrow aspects is important so we're more than yesterday's news.
*History is good. Take Chicago: The Tribune was The when Capone got nabbed, when the Sox won in '59, when the USSR went South, when the Sox won in '05. We ARE Chicago. Again, I'm not saying that but implying that. And there is this history at every Tribune paper. I think it's taken for granted. Walk through the hallways of any newspaper and you'll see stunning covers from the past. I think there's a place for those beyond the paper's conference rooms and hallways.
*We're kind of like a great new ballpark. The ambiance of the classic field but with the conveniences of today, making games a better experience. We have the classic ambiance of a wonderful newspaper, but we are creating an experience that is better than ever.
*Confidence. A key is that we recognize newspapers are in trouble, and we're doing something about it. We can't say that directly, but I think that's part of the message, but we need to avoid the "we're making a better paper for you" and instead say exactly what we're doing.
Then there's the "overthinking" issue:
1. I think too much off-site input will force the dreaded "overthinking," which can dampen the momentum.
2. I would suggest having deep confidence in your brand and its ability to withstand even a major miscue.
3. Two realities, I believe: a) If something doesn't work out, most people won't notice it, so just change it. b) The more dramatic, the evolution the more people will have polarized responses. Love it, and hate it. But it usually ends up in the middle after the drama of launch. In other words, after the shock wears off, you have a solid product that more people engage in but without the dramatic and polar initial responses.
The 'overthink' can set in as there's a tendency to respond to the loves and hates before the content has a chance to sink in in a real-world day-by-day environment.
...and Delivering. Historically, newspaper re-designs promote big changes...but they end up minor cosmetic tweaks. If you are evolving...EVOLVE! Smartly and noticeably and STAY ON COURSE.
Marc Chase and his army are all about making the online side happen. That's no small task. It's monumental, in fact. So, in receiving this note from a caring employee, I do think she had something valid to say. Yes, I know this issue is being tackled, but with that said, she has a good point:
No Tribune newspaper today is advertising print subscriptions or print products on their Internet home pages.
Is this not insane?
You'd think we'd offer deals, tryouts, colorful marketing messages, SOMETHING to the non-subscribers most likely to actually pay for the paper: those people who are clearly interested in our content.
Nope. I just checked seven of the newspaper sites this morning (L.A., Chicago, Baltimore, Hartford, South Florida, Orlando, Allentown) and not a single one hypes the print product on the front page.
The best is the Morning Call, which has a text call-to-action on the top right of the page that reads, "Subscribe Now!" Though what exactly you're supposed to "subscribe" to is not explained.
The worst, frankly, is my own paper, which uses that same space to link to "subscriber services," which sounds decidedly unpleasant.
The center of newspaper re-invention is in the newspaper itself, but as this is all about growing and not 'saving', we have to be incredibly aggressive and focused on re-thinking the ways we market ourselves. And we have to do it with the same fervor as the way we present ourselves to the readers' eyes and minds.
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