Blago Story, LA Times Prison Series Gives Abrams New Hope

Tribune Co. Chief Innovation Officer Lee Abrams writes in his latest "Think Piece"  that the financial problems facing the company are "way above my pay grade" and, borrowing a popular corporate slogan, he is focused on maximizing "our successful brands that reach out and touch a lot of people."

Specifically, Abrams singles out the Blagojavech investigation and an in-depth series about a prison marriage recently published in the LA Times as evidence that the newspaper company is moving forward despite a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing.

"I am hoping that things like the Chicago Tribune's investigations and the LA Times commitment to strong story telling symbolizes that we are about GROWING our timeless brands and that cutbacks and the more negative stuff is a reaction to the realties of the economy and not lowering standards."

The Times series, Through Prison Glass by Joe Mozingo, got a strong response from readers, according to a staff memo from LA Times managing editor Davan Maharaj that Abrams included in his piece. "All this serves to remind us that people who read our paper and visit our website are not mere 'customers' or 'users,' Maharaj wrote in the memo. "They are readers who crave a meaningful engagement with the world through the printed word. Providing that kind of experience, consistently, is the key to a successful future for the Times." 

A commitment to strong storytelling has all but gone by the wayside the past couple years at most of the company's "brands," as the newspapers have shrunk and been redesigned to focus on graphics, headlines, and ads. So we'll see if Mozingo's series will truly have an impact on the company or it's just more passing lip service.

In the rest of the piece, Abrams also urges Tribune staffers to have spirituality, urgency, passion, the "vibe of creative space," muscle, and moxie in the workplace and to take eccentricity "to the bank." He also asks them not to be average, generic, fearful, or boring. Pretty typical Abrams. Of local interest: He says the "S" brand employed by the South Florida properties (including the Sun-Sentinel) is generating revenues. Read it all after the jump.

December 15, 2008

Commenting on Tribune Company Financial issues are way above my pay grade. I'm just focused on helping create an environment for us to maximize our successful brands that reach and touch a lot of people --more every year...and to keep pushing. . I think that's the approach that'll move us forward. Will Tribune come out of Chapter 11 a stronger, more able company? Personally, I have all the confidence in the world. And, More than ever, Arrogance or failure to move forward with urgency and NOTICABILITY is something that is unacceptable. The thoughts below apply to all of our properties, as we're all in this thing together.

In print--- there's the myth that quality can't happen with today's smaller papers. Certainly it takes some dramatic re-thinking, as it does in just about every business, but the proof in ongoing quality print wise is demonstrated:

The Chicago Tribune doing a fantastic job with the Blago story... and to see hawkers crying "Extra, Extra" as the Tribune broke the story.

And the LA TIMES has done an amazing SERIES.


To The Staff:
Joe Mozingo's series "Through Prison Glass" was a beautifully written, thoroughly engrossing piece of journalism. So it's hardly surprising that readers responded with an outpouring of emails and phone calls. On the website, the stories were among the most-viewed all week, including the days between installments.
Some readers wrote to criticize what they saw as the glorification of a criminal, Robert "Blinky" Griffin. But the overwhelming majority of the 230-plus who wrote in expressed praise and gratitude. They told us they were captivated, provoked, transported. They laughed, they cried, they couldn't put it down. One woman described getting up early to read the final installment - only to remember it wouldn't be in the paper for another day. A man in Brisbane, Australia, hooked by part one, pleaded with Joe to e-mail him the next two stories immediately. The subject field of another email declared: "We are riveted."
But the response went deeper than that. The stories prompted readers to reflect on the mysteries of the heart, the horrors of bigotry, the tragedy of wasted lives, the power of love and the potential for human redemption.
Many who wrote described themselves as "a loyal Times reader," "a longtime subscriber" or variations thereon. "This is why I subscribe to the Times" was a recurring sentiment.
All this serves to remind us that people who read our paper and visit our website are not mere "customers" or "users." They are readers who crave a meaningful engagement with the world through the printed word.
Providing that kind of experience, consistently, is the key to a successful future for the Times.
Here is a small sample of reader e-mails:
Dear Joe,
I could hardly breathe as I got to the end of the 3 part article about Pamela Griffin's steadfast love for such a seeming monster (who had a sensitive heart?) as Robert Griffin. Yet you conveyed the mystery and strangeness of love and connection, and I found myself, a Jewish person, hoping that this white supremacist would be able to finally live with Pamela, thinking that maybe her love would redeem him.
Thank you so much for this amazing series. Please let your boss see this email of praise. I will be keeping my subscription.
Hello Joe,
I had to write and let you know that I am completely lost in your story about Pam and Robert. I'm 29, a Director at an L.A.-based advertising agency and don't have time to read short articles, much less three-parters. Further, I don't read the newspaper often but was intrigued by the headline on Sunday's paper. I spent the next 30 minutes in silence reading your article and couldn't wait for the next installment. I just finished part 2 and wish I could skip to Thursday to read the closing.

Hi Joe,
What can I say? I just finished your series this morning and upon finishing it I burst into tears. This is the saddest and most beautiful story I have ever read in a newspaper. I just can't believe it's true. I just couldn't imagine my life lived in isolation apart from my wife. Yet in the closing lines of your series it is made so crystal clear how Pam's faithfulness is the only thing keeping Robert alive. You see how all of her suffering isn't for nothing. It is the salvation of Robert.

Mr. Mozingo,
Just wanted to thank you for the excellent 3 part series on Robert and Pam Griffin's struggles. While I don't necessarily agree with what she did, I certainly can understand better why she did it. Ever now and then, I want to cancel my subscription to the LA Times. I don't like their liberal stance. Then a series like yours comes along and I realize why I continue with the Times. Any thoughts of making this into a book?
Hi Joe,
Your 3-part series in the L-A Times was incredible. I couldn't put it down. I compare it to a wreck on the freeway, you know you shouldn't look but you do!
Dear Joe,
Really a great article... well written and it gave us an insight to prison life that we did not have before. It is due to articles like this (and many others) that we subscribe and will continue to subscribe daily to the LA Times. Thank you.
Dear Joe,
I ate up every word. And naturally, like everybody else, I have an opinion.
Essentially, we live our lives with expectations about the present and the future, and perhaps a sense of regret about something in the past. While it is easy to criticize ourselves and dwell on our own shortcomings, how much easier it is to criticize others rather than sympathize with their plight.
While I sympathize with Pamela's plight, I cannot criticize her for her decisions. And although I consider myself a nice person, having read her story, I think I'll treat every stranger I see a little bit nicer.
hi there
i must keep this short as my arthritis prevents me from typing anything more than a few words-anyway, loved, loved, loved the story on pam and robert-what a read! beautiful! thanks!
I woke up really early this morning and rather than going back to sleep decided to get up and get the paper and read the 3rd part of your series.

...I am hoping that things like the Chicago Tribune's investigations and the LA Times commitment to strong story telling symbolizes that we are about GROWING our timeless brands and that cutbacks and the more negative stuff is a reaction to the realties of the economy and not lowering standards.

Still, there are several areas that are maddening, but can be resolved. Not easily as they require ongoing efforts as this company is big and not as nimble as we'd like. Some of the cultural areas that continue to be problematic:

PUSH DOWN: The senior people are exposed to and know the vision, but you drill down and the vision is a mystery. Much of what many hear about are the negative things and are not truly in the loop on the bigger forward looking picture.

CHICKENING OUT: Weather its from committee's over-thinking, or just plain fear, and/or compromising and diluting good ideas is something we need to watch for. The "S" brand in South Florida is generating revenue, and we almost chickened out there.

CHARACTER: we shouldn't create generic products. Our products should sing with the spirit of the city they serve. Another myth is that content sharing destroys this localization. In fact, it should push us to have local feel MORE than ever in things that are...local.

The New York Times did a wonderful video that screams New York. I love this:

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MUSCLE: Still have issues with some not understanding the power we have.

--Fear to pull the trigger. There are still remnants of debate, discuss, debate again, create a steering committee, etc...Fear of failure...fear of rocking the boat...

--Innovation is not an extra curricular activity. Often It's unfortunately looked at arts and crafts instead of part of the plan. A lot of AFDI. I think we need to build this into a priority. TV for example can't be on creative autopilot relying ONLY on the shows they acquire. NOW is the time to LEAD the charge, not in 2012 when Internet TV is the rage. We need to make creative evolution a priority. We have a huge opportunity in TV and Online in one key area: Doing things differently---TRULY reinventing the look, smell and feel. Not only along existing products but in NEW ones. Reason? No-one else is! (And it aint perfect). We need to stress this with intensity. IT WILL AFFECT REVENUE because this spirit and FOCUS will bleed into the ad revenue psyche. Like with the TI Xmas card I showed you--we gotta PUSH IT. If I didn't tell them it was would have gone out average. Big deal? in this case, Of course not. The point is, it was just as easy and cheap to do something extraordinary...IF we simply go through the exercise of THINKING extraordinary and NOT accepting a s a critical part of survival and growth, we'll get stomped We need to push a culture where, in every corner, things are creatively pushed. While an Xmas card is pretty irrelevant--imagine the impact if EVERY Tribune initiative at every unit pushed the creative. WOW! That would send a signal internally...and beyond.

There's some strong creative competition out there:


--Low Pride. I think day in and day out, our Breaking News Centers are OK ...our TV imaging is OK and our newspapers miss opportunities and are often average. The key word is "average"--- we need to make average unacceptable. At some companies, average probably gets rewarded. We need to aggressively raise the standard. AND CHANGE THE STANDARD. It's not about Industry Awards or Peer self congratulating, it's about reinventing our media to where it resonates with the public. So it's different, better and FIRST. Not easy to do...we need to challenge EVERYthing ..big and small.

--The "no time to do it". I find this one tough because so many ARE doing it with reduced staffs.

Along the lines of drilling down throughout the company, I think:

--WE ARE A NEWS/INFORMATION/ENTERTAINMENT CONTENT COMPANY not a newspaper company. This is a big one. Main reason: We are indeed a multi platform company. And we have the moxie to design the A "newspaper company" can live in a one dimensional world ....just like a "TV Company" can. We have to aggressively re-invent who we are--TO OUR OWN PEOPLE. Change the company DNA from newspaper to News/information/entertainment. We need to make Imagineering a priority. In actions...not just talk. Every media company talks about innovation...leading the drive. It's usually BS, as tradition, fear and politics get in the way. They still do here to a degree...we gotta work on that.

--Urgency. Damn, there's still this old Tribune over-thinking. There seems to be joy in scholarly debate. That's good...but we have to watch for missing opportunities while others seize them. Urgent intellect.

THE VIBE OF THE CREATIVE SPACE . The following has nothing to do with journalism. It's about the creative efforts that support journalism.
Over the years, I've been speaking at quite a few colleges. Very refreshing since there's no baggage accumulated from the trenches, just honest and idealistic points of view-many extremely informative and eye opening. Obviously one of the big questions is "how do you break into the media business"? Of course there's no magic button. In fact, it's gotta be about the toughest thing to break into...certainly among the toughest to make any money at. Anyways, I try to offer some advice, at least from what I look for which tends to be on the creative rather than the more purely business side of things, though having an understanding of that side is critical, just as having an "understanding" of the creative side is a benefit for a business position in the entertainment /information field. A few observations of what gets me going in terms of what to look for in people and in creating staffs. Probably bad advice for a traditional environment---but for something an un-traditional as a creative staff, I believe these elements are pretty critical--Staffs of GREAT entertainment entities are filled with non traditional thinkers. In fact, a HUGE reason many entertainment companies are vulnerable because they fail to have that edgy component, the 'imagineers' to borrow from Disney, to drive the creative part.

PASSION: That fire. That electric commitment. Often fueled by memories that were pivotal in your life. It should be SO engrained in your DNA that NOT working in this field is not an option. And hopefully we are capable of maintaining that passion in the new World.
HISTORY: You can't build the future unless you understand the past. I'm impressed with people who have studied the great newspapers and TV battles even if they happened years before they were born. With the Internet, one can re-live how media covered Viet Nam ....or even more recent things. Obscure stuff to a lay person, but armed with this sense of history is powerful in the same way an Artist who has studied the masters has a clear edge. Of course it's what you DO with that knowledge, but man, it is potent stuff that can really give you an depth and understanding of both how to win and how to make a difference going forward. Some of the principals behind these historical events are timeless.
SPIRITUALITY: Weather it's a sense of mission, or a war like approach to the job at hand-there's a spiritual thing where you MUST feel and believe you are here to do something that contributes to something bigger than sales or ratings.
POSITIVE PEOPLE: I recall walking into companies, and you could tell it was a loser by the tone of the receptionist. Bad attitudes permeated the place. Bad attitudes usually start from negative individuals that spread it around . In fact, Bad vibes almost ALWAYS start from "people". Keep the negative types out of the joint and it can't spread. Positive doesn't mean unrealistic -to me it means more of an outlook and attitude. Got a challenge/problem/issue? A positive will figure out how to adapt, deal with it and move forward, a negative will get into this "This place stinks...screw it".... They might hide it--but even THINKING it gets no-one anywhere. I think a lot of negativity is created by people not feeling appreciated, so some who are outwardly negative may actually be very positive--if they are interacted with better....understood...and allowed to shine. R-E-S-P-E-C-T. If ya can't respect EVERYONE you work with---there's a problem there.
CONFIDENCE: You can smell it a mile away...Confidence and even cockiness CAN be channeled into swagger and focus. Both good things.
DISCIPLINE & DETAIL OR LOOSE CANNON: No standards here-some stars can't tie their shoes. Big deal. Others are obsessive perfectionists. It's all good. Everyone is different. The bottom line is...TALENT! I see NO sense in not hiring someone because "they're different" or lack some traditional quality -if they got the talent that's good enough. And I believe EVERY position is about talent-

ECCENTRICS: Eccentric thinking in the content business---Well Yeah... Key: Eccentric all the way to the bank.
CHEMISTRY: Check any amazing organization.
BAD LISTENERS: Sorry, this REALLY drives me nuts. You know-the hyperactive types who can't turn it off. Excitement and energy is great...but not knowing when to shut your trap and soak it in is better. Sometimes I believe the media business has forgotten how to THINK as everyone is trying to out BS everyone with fast talk and having all the answers
MOXIE: aka courage.

BORING PEOPLE: Personally I can handle outrageous, even difficult ...anything but BORING. At least not in our side of the business.
CREATE THE ENVIRONMENT FOR MAGIC TO THRIVE: Some media companies are like wonder they sound and look about as interesting.
RAH RAH STUFF: It can fail because it's often too transparent. We're too cynical. Just be real. That's all it takes. I think Tribune management pretty much tells it like it is. Open and up front about the challenges. That's good. The Rah Rah can be inspired from the top, but the lasting rah rah is created bottom up from the people in the trenches. A happy staff with a mission usually creates victory which makes the leaders happy , when the workers aren't happy and the leaders are----problem. Nothing leads to an "us vs. them" faster...

...this is pretty good though:
EMPATHY: A great staff consists of totally unique individuals. Empathy is what makes it go. Unleashing and understanding how each individual ticks. The overall spirit is the aggregate of each individual. That doesn't mean letting everyone do what they want--that'll be anarchy, but UNDERSTANDING how people think and what pushes the buttons can make everyone's life a ton more productive.

And then there's sharing: (from Orlando)

Here's a great example of the kind of innovation that is happening in a climate with fewer walls - a great collaboration between marketing and editorial designers. The original idea was to publish a commemorative Obama poster to drive single copy sales the Sunday after the inauguration. Marketing came to us looking for some visual support, and as we talked through the options, we began to move toward a more ambitious concept that could boost sales beyond just one day. The attachment shows what we came up with: Four posters that will run four Sundays in a row which, when combined, form one mega poster suitable for framing (each poster is a 8.5x11 glossy print). It's the handiwork of design editor Stephen Komives, but in close consultation with Kathy Allen in circulation/marketing.
We are pursuing advertising support for the poster back, maybe from one of Orlando's entertainment companies that could play with the 4 parts=1 notion. The poster will only be distributed through news stands to create the single copy incentive. A limited number will be sold onsite at a premium.
There is nothing Orlando-centric about the design, which is built in common Trib typefaces. If anyone else wanted to pick it up, we could make it available.

...tough times, but bring on '09!