Imagine if a comedy script is submitted to a movie producer. It would be about a major newspaper conglomerate so desperate to turn around the plunging circulation numbers of its various newspapers that it hires a wacky radio consultant as a Chief Innovation Officer to help turn it around. The radio consultant is so strange that he believes the way to improve the circulation numbers is to ensure that the newspapers have soul. He plans to do this by treating newspapers as the new rock 'n' roll. The wacky Chief Innovation Officer announces his plans in a seemingly endless e-mail message that wanders aimlessly for 5 web pages in which it claims that newspapers need to "morph the soul of Dylan...with with the innovation of Apple and the eccentric-all-the-way-to-the-bank of Bill Veeck." The message also conjures up "theater of the mind," Star Wars, plus a whole host of nearly indecipherable psycho-babble that includes visions of open and closed modes. To give extra "meaning" to the interminable message, the Chief Innovation Officer laces it with page after page of quotations from sources as diverse as John Cleese to Machiavelli to Carl Jung to Arthur Koestler and many, many others.
Of course, the idea of a rock'n'roll psychobabble nutcase being in such a responsible position at a major newspaper conglomerate would be rejected by the movie producer as too improbable even for comedy. However, in reality this has actually happened. The Tribune Co. which owns such newspapers as the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and my hometown Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel has hired radio consultant Lee Abrams (photo) as its Chief Innovation Officer in a desperate bid to turn their plunging circulation figures around. To get an idea of Abrams really strange (and rambling) mindset take a look at just the first page of his overlong e-mail in all its psychedelic glory announcing his new position at the Tribune Company:
Please forgive this rambling introduction letter, but I am ecstatic with no-bullsh*t excitement and pride in joining The Tribune Company.
While my background is in steeped in "Rock n Roll", I strongly believe that News and Information is the NEW Rock n Roll. Imagine it's 1952. Music has existed for centuries and part of the fabric of our culture. While music was a hotbed of activity in the Black community, in mainstream America we were in a blasé era of Mitch Miller and Patty Page. Then-Rock n Roll! It had a street level connection to the Post War American Spirit. Tapped into the pulse of the American way of thinking. It was based on: imagination, looking FORWARD, respecting but not praying to the musical playbook, moved fast...met the rhythm of America, worked at innovating-it was a mission to come up with the next cool thing, revolutionized the 'look' of people, etc... Now fast forward to 2008, News and Information has been around since the dawn of Man, but it's a lot like where music was in 1952: Poised for a dynamic breakthrough that re-invest the media. The NEW Rock n Roll isn't about Elvis or James Dean, but it IS about re-inventing media with the exact same moxie that the fathers of Rock n Roll had. The Tribune has the choice of doing to News/Information/Entertainment what Rock n Roll did to music...to be the Ray Charles, Dylan's, Beatles and U2's of the Information age...or have someone else figure it out, or worse, let these American institutions disappear into irrelevancy. I think Rock n Roll is the best choice. America needs a heartbeat, and we can deliver that on 21st Century terms. Rock n Roll musically is behind us. NEWS & INFORMATION IS THE NEW ROCK N ROLL
One thing that drives me nuts is Pop Culture's evil cousin that I call Junk Culture. Terrorists don't scare me...a dumb America is frightening. On a very personal level, it is important to me that I help Tribune fight 'junk culture'. Smart re-invention that enlightens. Websites can be Disneyland for the mind; TV stations (especially news) can put the Kent Brockman cliché to rest and create a visual experience that intoxicates with brilliance and freshness; And Newspapers! We owe it to our culture to make sure they thrive...We can make America smarter. Not more elite...just smarter.
I realize I have a history in radio, but that's behind me, nonetheless there's a great radio analogy. In 1954 Radio was proclaimed dead. In fact, you can take stories from back then about radio's death and substitute the word newspaper and you have 99% of the articles written today suggesting Newspapers impending death. Well, a couple of guys threw out the Arthur Godfrey playbook invented Top 40 Radio. Guess what. Radio went into a NEW golden age...bigger than ever...the soundtrack of the streets. TV? It got bigger and bigger. My point: Yes, the Internet is huge competition, but there's NO reason we can't create the equivalent of Top 40...Not a hyper teen thing. But something that has the same dramatic impact across all demographics and lifestyles. It's doable.
Soul. I hope I can bring that out in us. Soul is something that big companies rarely have. And having it not only improvers the spirit, but it's a competitive advantage. Most media companies are soul-less. If we have Soul, we have a dramatic intangible advantage. Historically, the great companies had Soul. In the modern era, they do not. You know the ones that do. Those companies have FANS not just users.
Art. How unfashionable in today's bottom line World. But we need to be artists. Media Artists. A great artist delivers something that lasts and touches people. If we approach EVERYTHING from mail delivery in the building to breaking stories with an artist Point of View, we will create lasting change. Artists create Quality. Quality lasts. Art enriches lives. We can/will re-define the art of brilliant media.
The economics. I am an economic dunce. My old company would give me free vacation days during budget season so I'd stay out of the process. I know the "buzz" is cutbacks, fear, paranoia etc...Hey---that's part of the reality for survival. But I hope to encourage revenue growth in a different way. Simply put-If Tribune properties turn users into fans and we make intelligent moves to significantly (and dramatically) increase circulation and viewership, the revenue WILL skyrocket. That I know.
Wow! Tremendous insight there, Lee. Increased circulation and viewership means more revenue. Who would have thought of that? Perhaps you're not such an economic dunce after all.
Even stranger than Abrams' very weird e-mail is his blog which is so off-the-wall as to make Bob Norman of the New Times Daily Pulp to wonder aloud if the new Chief Innovation Officer of the Tribune Co. is clinically insane. Among the great entertainment provided on Abram's blog is his hilarious psychobabble comedy act performed in this video. I really liked the part about the base player ODing.
Of course, I am unable to come up with a better insight than Lee Abram's observation that increased circulation leads to more newspaper revenue but I do have a couple of solid suggestions for the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. First you might want to consider ditching the incredibly boring "Blob." Secondly get rid of the equally dull Dueling Columnists or, as I call them, "Dulling Columnists." Could you get excited about Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone dueling each other with swords in separate rooms? Of course not. But that is exacty the concept behind the "Dueling" Columnists. Two columnists writing separate columns on the same topic. Just the same excitement generated there as dueling with swords in separate rooms. If Lee Abrams is serious about improving the ridiculous Dueling Columnists he would ditch the separate column idea and have a video dueling debate between liberal Stephen Goldstein and conserative radio talk show host, Steve Kane. This idea is something that might cause Sun-Sentinel editor, Earl Maucker to have a fit but I think most of the rest of us would enjoy such a real duel.
Oh, and in your next e-mail, Lee, you might consider including a quote from the Bard himself. You know, the one that says, "Brevity is the soul of wit."
h/t: Bob Norman of New Times.