Abrams: Tribune Bankruptcy "Truly Sucks"

Here's the latest piece from Tribune Co. Chief Innovation Officer Lee Abrams. It jumps.


February 18, 2009


Time for a deep breath and a few thoughts about the dynamics of evolving and positioning ourselves for the new levels of success we can and will reach:

QUALITY AND INTEGRITY: This is a tough one because there are assumptions that we cant' deliver these attributes with the cutbacks and economics. NO-ONE likes these conditions. It truly sucks. But it's reality...painful and unfortunate. Commenting on Chapter 11 is way above my pay grade but I do know that there are two ways to view it:

1. Go into a negative state of anger, confusion and despair.

2. Come to terms with the condition of the Country and the company and pull out the stops to adapt and prevail. ..And to contribute to that spirit throughout the company.

#2 is best. What is tricky is to assume that quality and integrity are more difficult to attain under the current conditions. I believe that is grossly untrue. Living in Chicago, I read the Tribune every day and while the format and look has evolved, the quality of the stories , reporting and presentation remains high and compelling. Tough? Sure. Tougher than ever. But there's a media war out there and there are no other options than to dig and do what you gotta do to maintain excellence. I see excellence consistently throughout the company...I also see potential for greatness that's repressed because we are afraid that we'll blow up what we DO have by evolving too quickly or haphazardly.

Action- Attitude and adaptability. And not assuming, or buying into the thought that lowering the standards go hand in hand with downsizing or evolution. THAT is up to us to make sure it doesn't occur by understanding our brands history and focusing on the future.

SELF EXAMINATION: Our TV properties are operating exceptionally well, but I believe they can even get better if they examine themselves to the degree many of our newspapers have. I commented on how most anchor photos look plastic, smiley and plain silly--which undermines their credibility. I received 42 "Thank god someone mentioned that" letters, some from

anchors themselves! My point is that local TV stations are becoming more dated by the second, sometimes stuck in a tired, hokey mode of operation...Maybe lulled by decent revenue in light of the National woes. This is happening at a time when there's tremendous evolution in the video worls. I don't feel bad saying that because MOST of our TV people I've spoken to agree with that.

Acton- Stop using other TV stations as the standard. Reinvent yourself to meet the intelligence of the era vs. the intelligence of the other guys .

AFDI: We have a severe problem of low urgency. Now, I'm not talking about panic decisions. I'm talking about SLOW action. The speed of life in 2009 is fast...and we are often operating at the speed of 1980 which was more deliberate and cautious. We are lightening fast in reporting news...we need to be equally fast and focused in delivering what supports the news.

Action- Have enough faith in your brand to do what you gotta do. Mistakes will happen...so will successes. We bought "meeting timers". Symbolic more than anything, but if a meeting is supposed to be 15 minutes, it's 15 minutes. Forces us to stop the endless dialogue and get straight to the point...and to execution.

DENIAL: I saw a mission statement in a TV facility (not a Tribune property). Included likes about how they are:

Cutting Edge; Courageous; Adventurous; In touch ; Leading the market; Relevant etc...

It's usually BS. And the members of that staff were the first to admit it. NO one at this business believed it. In fact this facility was low ranked and continued to be in denial figuring things like a bright new anchor or more billboards would make the difference. Not a prayer. They needed to attack the REAL problem: Their product was feeding the perception that TV is goofy instead of making the noticeable changes to introduce a 21st Century attitude and delivery. In print, we just have to get more credit for what newspapers do. Too complicated to answer that in a letter, but with every Yahoo news story it's less obvious WHERE that story is coming from. Newspapers and TV will never have the dominance they had years ago--it's too competitive, but we sure as heck can have a pretty damn big piece.

Action- Lose the mission statement and just deliver. We shouldn't need a mission statement just like motivated people don't need motivation posters you buy from in-flight magazines.

DISCONNECTION: We are all guilty of this. We live in cocoons. We don't understand the street beyond what a research project tells us or what we tell each other. The solution is to break down denial...engage the people on your staff not yet hardened by the business. Again, TV is most guilty. We tend to believe that pukey Voiceovers, slick anywhere USA graphics, bombastic music, marketing BS/slogans and shiny soul free presentations resonate. They don't.

Action- Throw out the damn playbook and rewite it for your city in 2009.

FEAR: Plain and simple. possibly our #1 roadblock. Being afraid of change is normal...it can be scary. But the slow drip to irrelevancy is worse. And you wont wake up one day thinking "It's over---we are no longer relevant"...It happens slowly over time making evolution/change that much more critical to NOTICABLY execute now. On an average week, I may get 20-30 comments from people stating "We REALLY need to______, but______wont let us" . We ARE fearless in reporting...but like with urgency, we need to be fearless in EVERYTHING else we do.

Action- It's only natural that changes follow a course;


..it'll never leave the fear stage unless you drive change, it'll never be accepted unless the whole business is involved and it'll never be exciting (a good thing in these miserable times)unless you accept what will happen in order to get there

BLAME IT ON THE INTERNET: Stop! Please! The Internet is our future...but lets think about now too. WAY too much great content gets "thrown" online as a convenience whereas it could very well live on TV and/or in print. Almost as a dumping ground for what doesn't fit space wise. Great content is great content. It should live on screen, online and in print---BUT each vehicle being separate and unique entities.

Action- Re-thinking the websites and the core product and via that re-thinking, focus on maximizing what each does best. I strongly believe that WEBSITES still suffer from lack of definition...an outgrowth from when they were nothing more than companions to the core product. Well, they're a lot more than companions, but they still have a lot of that sort of look and feel. This sounds pretty obvious, but back to that denial point above---We may think we're there but we aren't---


Action- Creative thinking costs nothing. It's an asset we all have in house but I'll guess our culture still suffers from the old school "keep the creatives in their place". the creative thinkers you have are the BEST revenue tool we have. Identify them and let them design your future, and if you're on the revenue side, they are your BEST weapon. It ain't focus groups, marketing packages, expert blogs or industry chatter---it's YOUR creative talent. Liberate them...and PUSH them. Many are conditioned to doing it a certain way because we re-enforce the idae of average being acceptable. You may think you don't, but we do simply by not PUSHING the importance of reinvention...or by not PUSHING the attack on average, or by not PUSHING the attack on

INCOMPLETE PACKAGES: Product looks great but marketing is cheesy. My "favorite" is a newspaper that is a last bastion of local information quality, but the marketing materials resemble K-Mart.

Action- Take the message you have and turn it over to the most adventurous thinkers you have. Balance the sensible message with an insensible delivery. You'd be surprised at how the message can cut through the noise.

...and finally, I'm not sure where he finds these, but another great quote uncovered by Bill Childs at the Morning Call:

"We are all faced with a series of great opportunities
brilliantly disguised as unsolvable problems."

-- John Gardner

Posted by Lee at February 18, 2009 09:09 AM


I will have to say that I disagree with your statements about "losing mission statements". Though it may be true that motivated people do not need the motivational posters adorning their walls, they do need a reminder of why they are working so hard. This reminder/reason is the motivation for a marathon runner to get up at 5am and go for a 5 mile run before work; for a teacher to begin a new year with new students and new minds; for corporate mid-manager to feel good about his contributions to the company that he works for.

The real reason why mission statements don't work is because it is too general to motivate anyone. Often times it is a written statement of positive fluff. Ultimately, for a mission statement to work, each department within a company needs to ask the question of how THAT department contributes to the mission and furthermore, each employee in each department needs to do the same thing for themselves.

Mission statements that don't hit home are just words on a wall written in a corporate conference room or some human resource document that gets shoved in a desk drawer after it was read one time. Mission statements that motivate are written on piecees of paper that are posted up on cubicle walls and in department break rooms. An often overused example of mission statement simplicity is Google's "Don't be evil." This statement is simple enough to where people get the message and yet it also allows for personal interpretation and self-analysis so that employees can ask themselves how they can contribute to that.

In times like these we all need to be motivated, we just need to be honest about what really motivates us.

Does being "Cutting Edge; Courageous; Adventurous; In touch ; Leading the market; Relevant etc..." really do it?

Posted by: dan at February 23, 2009 09:34 AM

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