April 23, 2004

USA Today Report: Dirty Laundry

In case you've been wondering why two top editors have lost their jobs at USA Today over the Jack Kelley scandal and why several more should, read the interal report written by Bill Hilliard, Bill Kovach and John Seigenthaler.

(It's here as web pages and here as a PDF).

I've excerpted some sections below on culture and communication as the underlying culprits that allowed Kelley's career of deception to flourish. As I was reading the report this morning, I was struck by the idea that, ironically, the disgraces of Kelley and Jayson Blair are ultimately going to be good for journalism. The forced soul-searching by the New York Times and USA Today - two of the country's three national newspapers - and the subsequent public laundering of their soiled dainties airs openly all the shortcomings of our profession and compels us to confront them.

Spurred also by work on newsroom dynamics by the Readership Institute, never before have newspaper journalists been so self-aware, which is the first step toward the change that is needed.

I've picked up the USA Today report past a lengthy opening section detailing Kelley's abuses and exploring the so-called "culture of fear" that kept his colleagues and managers from correcting them. Read on (all emphasis added):

"The effect of this culture, whatever it is called, combined with an organizational structure that creates walls between departments and reporting lines that divide management even in the same department, has been to silence the newsroom. In talking with reporters and editors, what we found absent from the newsroom at USA TODAY is the humming buzz of excited, disputing, energized reporters and editors.

"In the newsroom with the reputation for the most diverse staff in the country, there is little sign of an open exchange of experience and ideas. All those diverse voices too often seem silent. Top down, silence seems golden.

"This is not a culture that promotes the give-and-take that sharpens and
refines thought, the collegiality that magnifies the impact of resources, the
spirit that shares rewards and ameliorates distress, out of which great
journalism arises."


"For those editors who reject the idea that a fear factor muted and muzzled
criticisms that echoed around Jack Kelley's misdeeds, there should at least
be recognition that internal lines of communication at USA TODAY are
down and broken
. Indeed they are.

"There are editors who say and believe that they have an "open-door"
policy, but in some areas of the newspaper their assertions are narrowly
shared with those who work under them. Even if the door is open and the
threshold is crossed, candor and sensitivity must mark the discussions that

"We do not want to be misunderstood here. In finding a communications
disconnect we are not suggesting that a newsroom can be a debating
society, nor can it become a substitute for complaints that routinely are
handled by Human Resources. The very nature of reporting, writing and
editing the news involves raising and resolving, every day and in every
edition, differences of opinion over germane facts, or over style, or over the
play of stories. Tensions in this environment are inevitable. A newsroom
culture that cannot accommodate that sort of give-and-take mocks
standards of professionalism.
That sort of give-and-take did not exist when
Kelley's reportage should have been subject to challenge."


"Current news executives are not alone responsible for this disconnect. Jack
Kelley thrived as a dishonest journalist for a dozen years. Every executive
who served during the years
he betrayed readers shares USA TODAY's

"The lines of communication now must be repaired by news managers who
understand that the newspaper is a human instrument, produced each day
by human beings of different talents, gifts and personalities."


"We acknowledge that our study of structure was inadequate to reach finite,
long-term conclusions. We are convinced, however, that whatever the
leadership problems that existed during Kelley's troubled time at the
newspaper, they were exacerbated by complex structural deficiencies that
dissipate authority and separate responsibility from accountability. Nothing
that we have observed has happened since to change that. A thoughtful reexamination
and logical streamlining of the corridors of authority, together
with a cogent reallocation of personnel, would serve to enhance
communication problems that are real. Persistent informed complaints
suggest that USA TODAY's organizational structure promotes a lack of
leadership, accountability and decision-making at the highest levels in the

More heads are certain to roll.

Posted by Tim Porter at April 23, 2004 08:58 AM