April 19, 2004

Applied Talent

Howell Raines writes in The Atlantic, describing the culture of the New York Times newsroom:

"For people who have worked at other newspapers, the biggest shock upon coming to the Times is that the level of talent is not higher than it is. Actually, it would be more accurate to say the level of applied talent. Very few unintelligent people get hired at the Times. So what's shocking to the newcomer is the amount of coasting."

Of course, Raines' Atlantic article is self-serving, but most autobiography is and simply because he portrays himself as a Yojimbo-like editorial samurai who, with his trusty sidekick Gerald Boyd, is intent on diverting the Times from its own inertia doesn't negate the ring of validity that echoes from some of his assertions. Remember, even the paranoid are right some of the time.

Even Jack Shafer, who portrays Raines as "bitter, conceited, and clueless," obliquely, albeit derisively, admits that Raines was probably right about slack level at the Times, but asserts that had Raines been a better manager he would have recognized that "coasting" is endemic in all large organizations and looked for answers that went beyond him being a solution of one. Writes Shafer:

"A sharper manager than Raines would have realized that what he was really observing was the Shafer Principle: 20 percent of employees do 80 percent of the work at almost every institution. Laud Raines for wanting to sack the featherbedders and deadwooders hiding behind Newspaper Guild skirts, but I'd wager that if you let Raines name his own, 20 percent of those employees would still do 80 percent of the work. It's an immutable law of the workplace." (Emphasis added)

And, therein lies the challenge facing most newspapers: Overcoming this institutional ennui and raising the level of applied talent, or, put another way, extracting the greatest possible amount of energy, intelligence and creativity from each journalist on the staff.

Within newsrooms one of the great obstacles to achieving this sort of personal fulfillment - and, hence, institutional fulfillment - is a defensive culture that discourages extra effort. The Times culture, he said, "actually consists of two distinct and parallel cultures, each fully cognizant of the other: the culture of achievement and the culture of complaint."

This observation holds for all newsrooms large and small, as we veterans of those places can attest, as does the cycle of what Raines characterizes as recruitment of new arrivals into these cultures by their standing members. Who hasn't seen a promising young reporter morph into a wizened, chronic griper after only a couple of years in the trenches?

The key challenge of newspaper managers is to encourage the culture of achievement and to provide an environment for journalists - at all stages of their careers - to grow professionally.

I have become increasingly convinced in the last few months, however - persuaded by interviews with dozens of editors, reporters and heads of journalism training organizations for a couple of projects I am involved in - that the greatest impediment news managers face to cultural change is themselves, especially middle managers, the desk editors, assignment editors and others with the most direct, day-to-day contact with the reporters and photographers.

A bright young reporter with two years experience told me recently that she is leaving journalism, heading off to law school, because she finds her editors so undemanding. Because she writes reasonably well, her stories sail through the desk and into the paper with nary a change while editors devote their energy to performing triage on more damaged copy. She is exactly the type of person - a graduate of a top five university, smart enough to get into one of the nation's best law schools - newspapers need to keep.

Another reporter, much more experienced and much more accomplished, with two decades in the business but still brimming with energy, told me much the same thing. He wants an editor to challenge him more, someone who does more than "flipping sentences," who will question the elements and direction of the story. For this type of critiquing, he turns to his peers, his fellow reporters.

One reporter described to me what he called "meeting reality," a world in which editors sell stories in news meetings based on budget lines they've written and then return to the newsroom to have the reporters "produce that story."

This is wrong. We know this. (And those anecdotes don't even include more actively destructive editors who view newsrooms as silos of fiefdoms over which they preside). It produces bad journalism and drives the best editors and reporters out of the business or into the deepest corners of the newsroom where they work with their heads down hoping not to be noticed - all of their talent unapplied.

I haven't written here for several weeks in part because I've been so busy, but also because this problem of bad management seems so large, so overwhelming, so systemically ingrained into the being of newsrooms that I had a difficult time envisioning a solution.

After all, if poor management is driving out the many of the best people (I'm waiting for ASNE to do a study of which type of people leave the business and where they go), what's left is a greater percentage of not-so-good people. Recently, a high-ranking editor of a large paper told me he was shocked by the depth of "mediocrity" in his newsroom and wondered if many staffers had the talent to do better journalism even if they had the inner motivation to do so.

This point is key when considering what type of training newsrooms should offer to improve the paper's journalism. It's not productive, for example, for a paper whose reporters struggle to report and write basic stories in a clear, declarative fashion - and whose desk editors don't have the skills or communications capacity to repair those stories - to send those reporters to a narrative writing seminar. Walk first, then run.

Complicating the matter further is the issue articulated by Raines - some people in many newsrooms (and in some newsrooms, many people) just don't work very hard. They are not, as my ruler-wielding, knuckle-rapping fifth-grade teacher Sister Mary Marguerite (now, she was an editor!), applying themselves.

Think about these things in a constructive manner for your own newsroom. What should your priority be: giving reporters and editors more skills or creating an environment that puts the greatest amount of skills to work? The former is a waste of time and training money without the latter.

Raines may have wrong about a lot of things, as his numerous critics have suggested - I'll leave that conclusion to those who know him and the Times better than I do - but he was right about this: Newspapers must change and change requires strong leadership, especially leadership where it counts in a newsroom, on the desk, by those editors whose numerous daily decisions not only shape the newspaper but the attitudes of the reporters they supervise.

"The day-to-day relationship with your editor is crucial, more important than" any type of training, one reporter told me. The solution needs to start there - with that editor.

 The Atlantic: Howell Raines My Times
 Slate: Jack Shafer The Autobiography of Howell Raines

Posted by Tim Porter at April 19, 2004 12:28 PM