“War has been declared”

Written by Matt Erickson

Four words seemed to sum up how Lee Abrams feels about the state of the newspaper industry: “Let’s fix this thing.”

With that, Tribune Co.’s first chief innovation officer set the tone for an hour of “aggressive action to reclaim our turf.” Abrams spoke with the president and executive editor of Greenspun Interactive, Rob Curley, as part of the Society for News Design’s keynote session Sunday night at the group’s annual workshop in Las Vegas, Nev.

“War has been declared on newspapers,” Abrams said. But that doesn’t mean he thinks journalism’s oldest medium is ready to call it a career. “I don’t think newspapers are dead, despite what everytone thinks. But we’ve got to make some changes.”

Abrams talked to a standing-room-only crowd about some of the myths he believes plagues newspapers as they prepare to make changes, including that “any change means dumbing things down” and “change means pissing off the core readers.”

Abrams, who has been influential in helping drive recent Tribune Co. redesigns in Orlando, Fort Lauderdale and Baltimore, not surprisingly was optimistic about newspapers chances moving forward in an era of uncertainty in the industry.

“I just try to inpsire people to rethink things, to take nothing for granted,” Abrams said. “There’s no reason we can’t create a newspaper renaissance. Papers are everywhere — it’s not like it’s a new startup business. We have to focus on rethinking. Think dramatic. Think urgency. Dramatic issues require dramatic solutions.”

While Abrams was perhaps a bit more low-key than the reputation that may have preceded him, Curley seemed ready to change the face of journalism immediately. Like before everyone left the room.

Armed with a Red Bull that may very well not have been his first of the evening, Curley launched into an opening that left the room asking, “What if?”

“What if you could just blow shit up?,” Curley asked the crowd. “What if you didn’t have to worry about revenue? Or circulation? What if you didn’t have to worry about what newsroom jobs you’re going to get rid of this quarter? What if you could literally just start over and forget about the legacy? Would your paper look like what it looks like right now?”

Curley said that was the philosophy at the Las Vegas Sun, both in print and online. He said the Sun is a newspaper built “for people who love to read newspapers,” and its Web presence is “for people who have eight seconds.”

The Sun’s mantra is one of providing intensely local news to its readers. “A lot of people call this hyper-local,” Curley said. “I call it doing your damned job.”

While many publications struggle with how their print editions co-exist with their online presence, that doesn’t seem to be a major burden for the Sun.

“The web site has a distinct personality, but it complements what is happening in print. What is old is new again,” Curley said while showing highlights of some of the Sun’s Web-exclusive content.

In closing, Abrams said he draws inspiration from the sheer volume of people he sees day to day who are embracing change and wanting to be involved in helping shape future journalism.

“What’s inspiring is the 70 percent of people who, once they’re liberated, … they tend to see hte big picture and want to change. I’m pleasantly surprised at the number of people who want to move forward.”

For more, read Matt Mansfield’s live-blogging of the keynote