July 18, 2003

Time for a Leadership Tune-up

Newspapers are like cars. They are complex machines that require regular maintenance, occasional new parts and a certain amount of high-speed driving to keep the grit and road grime from dulling their engines. Without these things, newspapers break down or, like old cars, they run rough, sputtering noisily, belching fumes and generally stinking up the neighborhood.

The newspaper industry's recent embarrassments (Blair, Raines, Bragg) as well as its longer-term ailments (declining readership, flagging relevance) reflect a record of lousy newsroom maintenance, especially at the leadership level.

Newsroom leaders define standards, by their words and their actions, not only for the daily journalism to be done but, even more importantly, for the organizational culture that will produce those stories, photographs and page designs.

Unfortunately, America's newspaper editors are, on the whole, the most poorly trained group of professional managers in the nation. Nieman Curator Robert Giles, in a Reed Sarratt Lecture last fall, pointed to a finding from the Readership Institute at the Media Management Center at Northwestern University: "The average newspaper industry expenditure on formal training is 0.7 percent of payroll. The national average for companies that have been tracked on this scale is 2 percent, or nearly three times what newspapers spend on training."

Giles then asked:

"Can you imagine another industry that so depends on charity to pay for the education of its work force? Companies like General Motors and General Electric believe it is in the best interests of their companies, and their shareholders, to invest in the knowledge base of their employees. They understand that brainpower is an imperative in creating new products and sustaining market share in their industries. These companies are fully committed to investing in training and education across the breadth of the work force. Lifelong learning is part of the culture."

The lack of newsroom-wide training was documented a decade ago by the Freedom Forum's report "No Train, No Gain." But in the current post-Jayson spate of newsroom navel-gazing, many journalists are looking beyond skills to cultures that either enable, or even encourage, dysfunctional behavior. That's where leadership comes in.

The Poynter Institute rounded up a group of editors and academics recently to discuss discussed "the standards and practices of newspaper journalism in the light, or shadow, of recent news scandals." Leadership and culture were on the agenda.

I know some of the people who were in the Poynter group and they are devoted to quality journalism so I don't want to disparage their dialogue or its results. But after three days of discussion, the group's conclusion about the role of newsroom leadership was hardly groundbreaking: "The top editors have a special responsibility to communicate that mission, both within the newspaper and outside it, and to lead the development and practice of standards that serve and reinforce that mission. Editors must actively seek feedback from readers and staff. Failures occur when editors are out of touch with either of these groups."

(I would add amend the last sentence to say that failures occur when editors are out of touch with any part of either of these groups, such as through a creation of a Rainesian star system in which only some reporters have access to the editor's ear).

I imagine that each of the Poynter group members knows the industry is in trouble and that each is committed in his or her own way to finding remedies, but I believe they also know, as does any one of us who managed a large newsroom, that change is a mulish beast, especially in an environment where risk is not rewarded.

The Readership Institute examined newsroom culture and mapped its characteristics to circulation. It found this:

"Newspaper readership has continued to decline for three decades despite extensive research into reader issues and many reader-growth activities at newspapers across the country. So from the outset of the Impact Study, the Readership Institute felt there must be an internal, organizational factor at play that was keeping newspapers from doing the things they knew they should do. The hypothesis was that culture would be linked ultimately to readership.

"This, in fact, proved to be the case. Impact research shows that newspapers with constructive cultures tend also to have higher readership."

Sadly, though, the bulk of newspapers don't have a constructive culture. Most, the Readership Institute found, have "an Aggressive-Defensive culture, where people are expected to approach tasks in forceful ways to protect their status and security" or a Passive-Defensive culture in which "people do what it takes to please others and avoid interpersonal conflict" and "managers rarely catch employees doing things right, but never miss when they do things wrong." Passive-Defensive cultures are commonly found in monopolies.

Newspapers are lousy at managing people. The Readership Institute found that 80 percent of respondents to a survey disagreed "that best practices in people management were in use at their newspapers," a finding the institute labeled "remarkable" and added: "It is unlikely that there are many other industries in the U.S. today where, as a whole, they have a similarly low self-report in this area."

I used to think, when I ran a newsroom in one of those cultures (and surely contributed to it), that change came from the bottom-up, that if I trained enough reporters or assistant city editors the newsroom would, over time, transform itself.

I was wrong. Yes, skills and behavioral training are important, very important, at all levels, but now I believer it's the managers - the top editors - who need the most training because they must lead the way, must create a culture of change and must model that culture through their own words and actions.

All of the topics the Poynter group discussed - Leadership and culture; Accessibility and accountability; Attribution and sourcing; Corrections and clarifications; Bylines and datelines - are key to maintaining journalistic standards and keeping public credibility, but none is more important to long-term change than leadership.

 Poynter Institute Journalism Without Scandal
 Robert Giles The Learning Curve: Are News Organizations Failing Their Best and Brightest?
 Readership Institute Culture and Management Practices

Posted by Tim Porter at July 18, 2003 09:37 AM

Tim: here's an assignment for a future commentary: how much commentary is appropriate at reporters' blogs? It appears that some reporters have taken the rant-rich spirit of blogging to heart and are injecting their opinions into their blogs. This is fine for columnists but I wonder if reporters ought to be trying to keep their opinions to themselves.

Posted by: tom mangan on September 4, 2003 01:38 PM
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