Abrams: Tribune Should Study USA Today's Success

We have the latest think piece from Tribune Co. Innovation Chief Lee Abrams and it's another doozy. I can't begin to capture the Abrams vibe, but here are some highlights:  

-- He proposes to "blow up" an underperforming TV station in the Tribune chain and totally "rethink" the medium. His ideas include counting down stories and putting a timer to show viewers what's coming up (both of which are already staples of some cable news programs). He wants the news program to include a "Crime Center." Abrams also suggests going to one anchor to kill the "mindless happy talk" and interviewing people on the street.

"Every day, an average person is interviewed about top stories," Abrams writes. "We've heard what the experts think, lets open it up to REAL people. This could be red hot. What the average citizen's take on the topics is."  

Finally he wants to get the talent out of all those stodgy suits: "What with the suits and ties. I'm not suggesting sloppy...but business casual...maybe even eccentric as the Crime expert could be in a Columbo styled rumpled sweater."

-- Abrams details the Hartford Courant's plan for inauguration coverage, which will include a "ten-day countdown," an "MLK day," and a poem commissioned from African American poet Marilyn Nelson.

-- Saying it might "rankle traditionalists," he links an Advertising Age story about USA Today headlined "Why Brevity and Pretty, Pretty Colors Still Work," telling Tribune staffers "it never hurts to study success."

Here it is in its entirety:

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THINK PIECE: WHAT IF... AND THE CREATIVE/BUSINESS BALANCE
First, there are two outstanding examples of re-thinking that deserve extreme credit:

WEB DRIVING: The Chicago Tribune created one of the first Web drivers that will actually work.

CLASSIFIEDS: While we'll never get to pre Internet levels, the Sun Sentinel has created a pretty remarkable new look.

For either of these, shoot me an email at labrams@tribune.com and I'll forward to you.

Below are a few videos. The first is simply a "must watch", the second is a very interesting ad that a major UK paper is using, and the third is one of those 'so bad, it's brilliant retro pieces.
While we're in the midst of a massive re-thinking of newspapers with the clear intention of, regardless of the pain, insuring ours are viable and vibrant for a long time, TV is an area I think we need to think about. Practically every business on the planet is going through economic hell. Would you have thought that GM and bankruptcy would be a possibility a few months ago? Media businesses almost always react at a point that is teetering on too late, rather than evolving when they are strong. The old line "Don't fix it if aint broke" makes no sense. It's like saying: Let it break...then we'll fix it.

Below are some TV "What if's" that tie into the idea of What if, we re-invented our news, re-invented our imaging and re-invented our overall presentation that frames regular programming with something SO stunning and fresh that it instantly positioned the other stations as corny and dated. I think the timing is NOW to think about that.

We gotta shake ourselves out of the focus group induced TV Coma, and think about evolving. NO-ONE else is...and I don't think you'll find too many people who think that the time isn't right to bring local TV into the 21st Century.

Compare these videos (and use your imagination) to what we normally see on TV:

Technology video:

http://nickgs.com/archive/Technology.wvx

Guardian Ad:

http://adsoftheworld.com/media/tv/guardian_new_thinking

Retro Cool:

http://www.archive.org/details/StoryofT1956
Part of the scenario is that there's SO much pressure to meet revenue goals that the content re-invention is off the radar. Cant worry about that when there are more pressing issues. Well, as with our newspapers, it's never been more important to re-invent CONTENT and HOW WE EXECUTE, in ADDITION to the extreme revenue pressures, so we are:

a) Aggressively adapting to the existing climate

...AND

b) Are in position to grow mightily when the ecomomy improves.
If we do these two things...I mean REALLY do them, we will be SO far ahead of the game when things turn around.
Now, "what if" we re-thought TV news and imaging:

*BLOW IT UP. OK, not where it's performing well, but I think maybe we need to isolate a station that is NOT doing well and do a complete

re-think. In watching news, they all look the same. A TV expert could point out differences, but to an average eye, they're pretty similar in timbre and vibe. I am thinking Dramatic change. No tweaks...but something that is blatantly noticeable. Not unlike a dramatic change to a newspaper. The other option is more tweaks where it all becomes an exercise that doesn't move the needle and is more of the same. NO-ONE is noticeably stepping out and CHANGING/EVOLVING news (well, with the exception of what Steve Charlier is doing). What an opportunity!

Components might include:

*DRAMATICALLY DIFFERENT NEW SOUND & VISUALS: NEW V/O...NEW music..NEW graphics. But--utilize a swat team of OUR best, in coordination with NON-TV types who will bring a whole new perspective to the screen.
The existing problem is;

--Cliché ridden. The look and sound is so clichéd. It borders on funny. the "fake drama" is plain stupid.

--In a world of I-Max and George Lucas, TV looks lame. It doesn't have to. It's not more expensive. It's a matter of breaking out of tradition.

*A WIDE SPECTRUM OF NEW HOOKS: MANY new ideas to drive the Wow factor:

*TOP 10. Number the stories. Give them a "handle" "In tonight's Top Ten: #1 Obama announces he's a Muslim; #2 Pirates sink US Sub; #3 etc......

*A TIMER. So you KNOW that at :20, _____will happen. Adds immediacy and tension. On the screen is a countdown clock.

*CRIME CENTER. It's simple...we have a Weather Center and a Traffic Center, why not a crime center with a dedicated crime expert.

*LEFT/RIGHT: We are in a polar political society. This is Pure 100% argument starting tension. A local Shana Alexander thing. No shortage of topics.

*CLASSIC NEWS: A 5 years ago, 10 years ago flashback segment. Classic works in EVERY media...why not TV. Mine the archives!

*CHICAGO (for example) BY NUMBERS: A segment reviewing the days numbers.

--Traffic Delays
--Restaurant Heath Closings
--retail sales

etc....a rainbow of numbers that define the day.

*THREE DAY OUTLOOK: We do it in weather...do it in news. What is coming up in the next three days. A forecast. Driving viewers forward.

*HOME MOVIES: A daily local YouTube.

*CHICAGO (for example) SAYS: A question of the day with responses on the web and a DEEP and mapped poll result segment every day. A fascinating daily poll on what Chicago (for example) is thinking.

*VIEW FROM THE STREET: Every day, an average person is interviewed about top stories. We've heard what the experts think, lets open it up to REAL people. This could be red hot. What the average citizen's take on the topics is.

*WEEKLY THEMES: Religion in America with a different faith studied every day; Restaurant week with a different star chef interviewed every day; You get the idea. Take a hot topic and THEME the week. (yeah--we're talking about many of these on the print side too...)

*CASUAL STYLE: What with the suits and ties? I'm not suggesting sloppy...but business casual...maybe even eccentric as the Crime expert could be in a Columbo styled rumpled sweater.
...but CHARACTER, not straight laced uptight "TV News people"

*PRESENTATION:

*One anchor. (plus "experts" in weather, crime, etc...) Maybe the only way to kill that mindless happy talk. He or She narrates the footage rather than reads the prompter.

*QUALITY: All of this tied together with a level of seriousness instead of trying to be funny and cute. I'm thinking a 60 Minutes vibe. Hard core presentation, but the new features keep it interesting and not journalistically ponderous.

*ATTITUDE: That we ARE going to completely and totally revolutionize local news. WITHOUT COMPROMISE...WITHOUT "TV experts" telling us it can't be done......without egos getting in the way.

Are the above points valid? I don't know, but that's not the point. The idea here is to start re-thinking TV. Instead of relying on the old playbook and assuming it's right. It may be right until someone has a better idea. I think we should be in the "better idea" business.

...on the newspaper side, a nice AFDI from the Hartford Courant:
HARTFORD COURANT OBAMA COVERAGE:
CHANGE08
We're devoting one of our two open nation/world print pages to Obama-related coverage every day, under the page topper CHANGE08. This includes a package of short items under the header OBAMA WATCH. We're referring daily from A1 to the CHANGE08 page and its corresponding web content, as well as to daily coverage in the Features sections.

HISTORIC PAGES
We plan to run an "8-pack" of historic election pages from the Courant archives -- one each Sunday, from November 30 through January 18 -- starting with our coverage of George Washington's election in 1789. Each Sunday, a four-page broadsheet insert will feature a cover introduction and strip ad, an historic page spread across the inside double-truck, and a back cover ad. The "8-pack" -- Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR, Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan and W -- will connect to expanded online content, including all 44 historic election pages from the Courant. Circulation, marketing, NIE (as well as advertising) are all actively involved. This is a big opportunity for us, and the content of these pages is fascinating (statewide town-by-town results, for example, of the Lincoln-Douglas race). The cover introduction to each Sunday section will reference the changing nature of the newspaper's coverage (until Harding in 1888, presidential elections were reported on page 2). The pages also place the recent redesign in the context of constant, dramatic change in the look of the paper.

10-DAY COUNTDOWN
Beginning Sunday, January 11, a strong daily A1 and CtLiving cover presence of Obama-related stories, boldly labeled and linked to the web. We may follow a Connecticut social studies class in a serial narrative of short, daily dispatches on A1 (akin to our Charlie Company series from Iraq), with strong web presence, student blogs, photos, etc., as they travel to DC for the inauguration .

OBAMA PHOTO SPECIAL SECTION /KIDS' LETTER IN ITOWNS
Sunday, January 18, our version of Chicago Tribune's "Obama, A Life in Photos" OR Tribune-wide special section. Special editions of iTOWNS, featuring kids' letters to Obama.

MLK DAY /SPECIAL SECTION
Monday, January 19, a special section (or A1 plus inside A pages) highlighting the racial history of Connecticut, barriers broken, etc. , OR a special section chronicling King's life and career through historic pages from the Courant archives (it's been 40 years since his death).

POETRY
Tuesday, January 20, we commission a poem by Marilyn Nelson, African-American poet laureate of Connecticut. We would run other famous inauguration poems, plus lots of "vox populi" with links to web. A readers' poetry contest online, with selections in print????

INAUGURATION DAY
Wednesday
, January 21, we blow out the front page and A section with coverage of the inauguration. (a keepsake A1 and section)

COMMEMORATIVE SPECIAL SECTION
Sunday, January 25, a photo-driven special section commemorating inauguration and first days of Obama presidency.

On balance--never before has it been so critical, and so lacking:

NEWSPAPERS: What if we REALLY balanced;

*Great writing
*Story selection that was always dead on the mark
*Stunning design
*Edgy and noticeable marketing
*Realistic staffing levels
*Competitive focus (beyond getting the story first...I'm talking re-claiming news dominance to the mainstream)
*Web Interaction that was, well, really web interaction
*Technological advances that rival the pure tech businesses
*Ad Sales that were revenue machines.

TV:

*Best possible shows (obviously)
*Theater of the Mind Audio
*Cerebral visuals
*A 2008 approach to news that is CLEARLY differentiated from what literally everyone else is doing
*Original content that resonates
*Ad Sales that were revenue machines

We do SOME of these, but What if...we did them all.

We have to.

Finally:

This will likely rankle some traditionalists, but it's an interesting piece on why USA TODAY. Two ways we can look at this:

a) Mc News. Terrible. I refuse to read about them.

b) Well, they might be doing a few things right.

"B" is probably the smarter approach as they ARE pretty popular....and it never hurts to study success.

http://adage.com/mediaworks/article?article_id=132752

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