Mr. Abrams is the latest in a growing line of innovation gurus hired by big newspaper publishers and charged with finding the big ideas necessary to help them navigate the changing media-consumption habits of their readers. Developing a new business model has reached a critical juncture in the past decade -- the newspaper industry has seen 43 daily newspapers close since 2000.
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Third in a series
The Newspaper Death Watch
To those who've followed the newspaper industry's breathtaking demise in recent years, Mr. Abrams critique rings true. Tribune, after all, was clairvoyant in recognizing the opportunities presented by the internet: It was among the earliest major investors in what became America Online and, working with other large publishers, launched successful online ventures such as CareerBuilder and Cars.com.
Yet despite massive resources to invest and astute awareness of the opportunity, publishers like Tribune still wound up getting throttled by the likes of Google and Craigslist.
"They were on the leading edge of [investing in the internet] the same way they were earlier on the leading edge of TV and radio," said veteran newspaper-industry analyst James Goss, a longtime Tribune watcher. "But they weren't able to convert that. ... So now the question is: Is it too late?"
While the innovation gurus race to try to prove it isn't, they are finding that there's nothing quite so effective as constant headlines about plummeting circulation and advertising revenue as a means of getting hearings for new ideas.
"They're unbelievably receptive and creatively energized by the opportunity," said Michael Zimbalist, who in 2005 was named VP-research and development at the New York Times Co., leading a team of 13 people primarily tasked with bringing Times content to new and developing platforms.
Mr. Zimbalist, who was familiar with newsrooms' typical suspicion of anything not invented within their walls from an earlier stint running the Online Publishers Association, said he was amazed to watch employees at the Times-owned Boston Globe build a Boston-area search engine that linked to more than 2,000 local sites created elsewhere. "It was really a cultural change, getting past the notion of the original newspaper website as a walled garden and getting everyone comfortable with the notion of linking outside," he said. "Everybody recognized that this was a new step that we had to take."
The largest publisher, Gannett Co., has primarily focused on using new technology to develop "hyper-local" brands that play on the strength of its newspaper brands in medium- and smaller-size markets.
Local band space
Michael Maness, a 12-year Gannett veteran tapped to be the company's first full-time VP-innovation and design last year, said the company is finding powerful, local applications for social networking.
One MySpace-like music site recently tested in Wilmington, Del., allows local bands to post their songs and information. Readers rate the performances, creating a buzz-meter of sorts for local music that is overlayed with performance dates for the hottest bands. Unlike MySpace's music program, in which readers all over the country generally have to seek out specific bands, the Gannett application leads readers to local bands and tells them where those bands are playing nearby. The charts also get printed in the local paper's entertainment section.
"This is something that's powered by and marketed to the paper, but it's also an incredibly rich, stand-alone, social-networking site," Mr. Maness said. The application is being rolled out in Atlanta and Cincinnati.
Tribune's newly hired Mr. Abrams, for his part, hasn't been at the job long enough to implement anything on that scale yet. Thus far, he has tended to focus on improving papers' visuals more than their content, that he says isn't the problem. He became very excited when describing a redesign of the Orlando Sentinel editorial page which gave the paper a more contemporary look "without moving a comma."
Another early exercise involved laying copies of the Chicago Tribune from 1938, 1948, 1958, 1968, 1978, 1988, 1998 and 2008 side by side.
"They really hadn't changed much," he said. "To the extent the papers have innovated, it's been too subtle for anyone to notice. What we need now is a gentle two-by-four."