Are we watching a Tribune train wreck in progress?

By Steve Outing

I’ve gone back and forth in my mind about the chances of the beleaguered Tribune Co. in the Sam Zell era. On the one hand, I’ve applauded his (occasionally profane) approach of shaking things up and imploring the Tribune staff to think out of the box and start seriously innovating. There can be little argument that that’s what the newspaper industry needs.

But then this week Zell’s “chief innovation officer,” radio guy Lee Abrams, sent out a wake-up call memo to the company’s newspaper division, which was made public on Romenesko. Parts of it were (my opinion) laughable, and already parodies of the memo have turned up on Romenesko.

No doubt Abrams has a difficult job, but he really blew it with such doozies as, “Before I joined Tribune, I had NO idea that reporters were around the globe reporting the news.” That alone probably caused every newspaper person in the company to not take him seriously.

I don’t know Abrams, but I question why a radio guru is put into the roll of reinventing the company’s newspapers. It’s not that a newspaper person must be the person to head up an innovation on the newspaper side of the company. But someone from a likewise-suffering industry, radio, seems like an odd choice. Yes, Abrams came most recently from satellite radio company XM; but I consider that to be a less innovative than such music innovations as Pandora, or the iPod, for that matter.

Zell might have made a wiser choice by bringing in a big-picture innovator, not tied to the newspaper industry but also not influenced by old and outdated media sectors. A futurist like Paul Saffo is the type of person Tribune probably needs; or grab a star analyst and forward thinker like Josh Bernoff or Charlene Li.

Yet another reason I’m suddenly sour on Tribune’s chances is having looked at the preview of Tribune’s Orlando Sentinel print edition redesign, to be released this Sunday. I’ll write up some thoughts on that one later.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!