December 04, 2003

It's the Culture, Stupid

Sometimes I feel as if I am pounding out the same message over and over to the point of harping: Newspapers have a destructive, risk-adverse culture that stifles change and initiative. Fix the culture and the rest will follow.

Today, though, I have the opportunity to let someone else deliver the message. In a Poynter Institute essay, Skip Foster, editor of the Shelby (N.C.) Star, writes:

"Somehow, our crucial watchdog role has morphed from healthy skepticism of the powerful into a dark force - an ugly brew of anger, mean-spiritedness, and antagonism that alienates readers and turns newsrooms into personality war zones. We have lurched from the honorable mission of holding the powerful accountable to a wholesale mistrust of anything that moves, even our colleagues.

"The recent scandal at The New York Times was alarming on so many fronts. But at the head of the list was that so many people, in and out of the newsroom, felt powerless and voiceless when it came to exposing what was going on. Distrust abounded. Communication broke down at every level. Where there should have been strong, open relationships, there were chasms." (Emphasis added)

Yesterday, in comments about the Readership Institute's research into what readers want to see in their newspapers, I wrote "without culture change, content is mere frosting on a hollow cake."

Forget the crumbling quality of the metaphor, but Foster makes the identical point in reference to comments by Mary Nesbitt, the Readership Institute's managing director. "She warned," Foster writers, "that if they went home, promoted the next day's content, and wrote with a feature approach, but didn't address their newsroom's culture, they would be missing the point."

To resurrect themselves, newspapers need to reinvent themselves as organizations - from the inside out. I am excited to see this issue moving from the relative cloisters of the Readership Institute and ASNE leadership to the front pages of Poynter, where more working journalists will see it and carry the message into the newsroom.

Read Foster's piece and the rest of the Poynter package on newsroom change. Read the Readership Institute's research on culture.

 Poynter Institute, Skip Foster Culture Clash: The Mood of a Newsroom

Posted by Tim Porter at December 4, 2003 07:57 AM

I noticed they're still still hung up on cusswords in the newsroom over at poynter. Talk about preoccupation w/trees vs. forest.

Posted by: tom on December 4, 2003 12:13 PM

Foster actually had a couple of worthwhile points to make deep in his column, but the reader had to wade through a ton of illogic and non sequitur to get there, as I pointed out on my own blog.

Moreover, I would argue that in this era, newspapers need, if anything, even more skepticism. A little more of it might well have kept the dot-com bubble, Enron, etc., from happening, or from being as devastating as they were. And nowadays, when the White House considers it OK to tell the American people six lies before breakfast, any reporter who isn't skeptical going in is unqualified to do the job.

And I've been a Republican for 25 years in a state where Republicans do not mess around. The liberal Democrats in the bidness probably would like to see Mr. Foster's head on a stick.

Posted by: Lex on December 5, 2003 05:55 AM

Sadly, most times only repition delivers the deeper message...
Facing the press is more difficult than bathing a leper. -- Mother Teresa

Posted by: Jozef on December 6, 2003 04:20 AM
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