Listening to Lee Abrams speak Thursday night about the future of newspapers and the Los Angeles Times, I couldn't help but think: He certainly seems to understand what's wrong with broadcast news.
Most of what he talked about - the difficult Times, information is new rock n' roll - he'd already put in his memos, often with the caps lock on. The one surprise came when Los Angeles Press Club vice president Ezra Palmer asked him about Tribune Co.'s TV news properties. The challenge with newspapers, he said, is they are all cerebral and integrity. TV news is "180 degrees" different. He wants to find a middle ground.
"Television news around the country is kind of goofy. Cliche," he said. "Let's get a little more heady with it ... let's try to bring some integrity to this."
Think about it.
At times rambling, Abrams, who shared the stage at the Steve Allen Theater with former Daily News editor Ron Kaye, showed his best and worst sides. He's at his best when cheerleading for an industry that needs to hear its money obsessed bosses still consider reporting to be an integral part of the business. "It's an exciting time to be reporting on, uh, all the shit that's going on in the world," Abrams said.
He's at his worst when he tries to talk about what makes good journalism or warns against getting "mired" in a tradition he so clearly doesn't understand.
Still swooning over the spike in newspaper sales that followed the Obama victory, Abrams said this proved papers are "really relevant" and restored some of that old "newspaper swagger."
The analysis seemed to fit with how things worked in radio, from whence Abrams hails. Deejays played the music, the kids got excited and rushed out to buy the albums. Wednesday, then, was the St. Pepper's of newspapering. Only it doesn't work that way. Online isn't radio and daily newspaper stories rarely get replayed.
Abrams (as Bill Boyarsky notes) showed his frustration with the Times when asked about the paper's recent redesign. In comparing the process here with what happened at the Chicago Tribune, Abrams said the Times continues to carry around "a lot of baggage," like a lingering belief that the paper should be a West Coast New York Times, that keeps it from getting with the program. The Tribune, he said, had broken through its "elitist" mindset, thanks to a few key staffing changes at the top, and had gotten everyone involved in the redesign.
Abrams did praise two recent Sunday editions of the Times; if only they could all be like that, he said, although he couldn't really remember what was in them. "I think they are at the acceptance stage now," he said of the Times staff, adding, "I think if you look a year from now it will be a really hot newspaper."
Neither Abrams nor Kaye spent much time talking about how the Internet had changed the newspaper business model, or how staff cuts affected coverage, or about Fourth Estate responsibilities. Abrams did say he had faith that Sam Zell would figure it all out because "he's a winner." Kaye said the fundamental problem is that newsprint and staff simply cost too much.
Tired of the "stilted speech" of newspapers, Kaye said journalism should be synonymous with storytelling and encouraged reporters to express a point of view. He said the greatest journalism being done right now is on public radio's "This American Life."
Kaye, who blogs at Ron Kaye L.A., described online journalism as being in its infancy; blogging is "amateurish" and newspapers "geriatric." He sees an opportunity online to wants to start a new kind of the Valley Green Sheet, which was the predecessor of the Daily News. The Daily News, he added, needs to cede Los Angeles to the Times and focus solely on the San Fernando Valley.
Kaye spent decades competing with the Times and did not waste the chance to give his diagnosis of where the paper went wrong: "The L.A. Times failed to make L.A. coherent."
(View video of discussion here.)