Lee Abrams, Right or Wrong

Tribune Co. "Innovation Chief" Lee Abrams recently complained in one of his "think pieces" that he didn't like the label "Special Advertising Section" when it is used for, um, special advertising sections. You know what they are, those sections that look and read like news stories but are really promoting a product or business or vacation spot. Well, Abrams wrote that labeling them as advertising was a "turn off" and that it gave the reader the wacky idea that they were a "bunch of ads." So he came up with idea of calling them "special features" instead.

Apparently, some Tribune employees didn't agree. Such a change would be nothing short of a sham, after all. In his most recent think piece(titled "Dialogue vs. Whining," which is included in its entirety after the jump), Abrams relates that he received two e-mails about his idea. One was anonymous and went like this: "You are a fu-ing idiot. Another stupid idea from the people ruining these great institutions."

That's what Abrams called whining.

The other came from David Greising, the chief business correspondent for the company's namesake and flagship paper, The Chicago Tribune. The good Greising basically gives Abrams a lecture on the importance of distinguishing advertising from editorial as it relates not only to a newspaper's credibility but also to its bottom line business. Something every newspaper company executive should probably know. Here's a key passage:

You fear that labeling as such cheapens the content of the ad. A different way to look at it is that clear labeling is necessary to protect perhaps our most valuable asset: our credibility.

Readers come to the Tribune, to any good newspaper, because they trust us as an objective, fair, accurate and intelligent source of news. They trust us to interpret this complex world for them, to be their watchdog, their guide, their eyes and ears, to act without fear or favor while telling stories relevant to their daily lives.

I suspect some of that may strike you as the kind of high-church journalism that drove Tribune and the industry into trouble. It's not. It is the beginning of a very bottom-line calculation.

If we do anything to erode the trust of readers-say, risk confusing them about what is news and what is advertising-we jeopardize the franchise. Anything that fuzzes the line between editorial content and advertising risks giving readers the sense we are trying to put one over on them.

Once readers become suspicious of us, we lose their trust. We lose a key point of advantage over blogs, broadcast, other Web sites and lesser newspapers. Ultimately, we lose their business.

The labeling of "Special Advertising Section" should not be looked at as something that devalues the advertising. We should view it as the opposite. The labeling protects the value of the advertising, because it protects the editorial foundation on which the advertising is built.

Good stuff. A few more emails were exchanged between the two, which involved another labeling idea and a rather strained allusion to New Coke. It was, as Greising noted, very collegial.

But Abrams, when he reprinted the exchange, had to stick the knife in a little for Greising's temerity. He wrote:

"David's thinking (even if it's wrong) and his willingness to share concerns is the attitude that's going to help us re-invent ourselves and our culture to one that prevails and grows in this young century."

Here's the part I really like. Abrams pieces are now sent out companywide in a format that allows employees to post comments. One beautiful note came from Sun-Sentinel employee Cori Carroll.

hi Lee-

Your think pieces (even if they're wrong) are interesting.

I don't think you actually intended to discredit David's input with the parenthetical slam, but it reads that way to me, and probably discourages the participation you're seeking.

Cori

Cori Carroll, for that, you just earned the "Pulp Person of the Week Award." Congratulations.

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