April 25, 2005

Mood in the Newsroom: A Nerve is Touched

I've written more than 400 posts to First Draft and few have elicited more response than Mood of the Newsroom. (The most widely read in a single surge was "Apologize? For What?," linked from here.)

There are a couple of reasons for the quarter hour of fame this post is enjoying before it gets buried in a fresh torrent of RSS feeds. First, of course, is the pushing power of Jay Rosen and Jeff Jarvis, both of whom were not linked to the post but also were kind enough to say some nice things about it. The second, though - and I say this with all the humility Jay Rosen can lay on me because I have learned, more than once in my career, that arrogance kills the message and destroys any hope of communication - is that the piece touched a newsroom nerve that has lay dormant for too long.

When I wrote in my first post - on Dec. 04, 2002 - that newspapers "continue to produce a bland mixture of agenda and event coverage, he-said-she-said government news and an established array of feature stories focused on predictable characters who no longer elicit sympathy nor surprise from readers" I wasn't telling most newspaper journalists anything they didn't already know. [Read: The Quality Manifesto.]

And when I wrote three days ago that it the journalists bear as much responsibility as the newspaper owners for the industry's underwhelming, to say the least, response in the last decade to the transformation of the world of media, I wasn't telling those journalists anything they didn't already know.

Here is Daniel Conover, a reporter in Charleston, S.C., commenting and what said were the "uncomfortable truths" in my post:

"I've run into each of the systemic flaws you detail here, and in a perfect world, maybe I would have quit in disgust years ago. I changed jobs instead, but I remain a newspaper guy. It's a love-hate relationship at best. I think some individual papers are capable of doing what you prescribe, but I fear that as an industry we lack the talent and vision to pull off such changes in a violent way. These days I'm hopeful that the grassroots movement will be able to sneak in through some back doors and change things in a subtle, insurgent way. Maybe our readers can help us find our way again." (Emphasis added.)

(Jay Rosen has pulled together Conover's comments and those of some others at Pressthink. Go read them here.)

Follow the readers home. That's a good beginning for changing a newsroom.

This email came from an editor on a mid-sized newspaper who didn't want his name used because he thought his comments would be taken defensively in his own newsroom. He writes:

"We have pretty progressive leadership here, from the publisher through the entire executive staff, and I'm sure we're not the only paper in this position - contrary to some of the perception among media critics - the biggest impediment to innovation isn't newspaper leadership in many cases (though there is that, too, and probably it's that way most papers) ... it's the staff, both newsroom and advertising." (Emphasis added.)

And here is John Robinson, editor of the Greensboro News-Record, writing on his blog, practicing the change he preaches:

"As an industry, we don't lack the talent or vision to redirect the ship, as one letter writer suggests. We lack the will. The data is clear; the status quo is not an option. What are we waiting for? The changes in store should be embraced if we can reach new audiences with our journalism. No one is suggesting we abandon our core principles. Truth telling remains the key. And everything I read challenges us to make that principle stronger." (Emphasis added.)

I held up, as Ryan Pitts, an online editor at the Spokesman Review in Spokane and a blogger, the "newsroom mirror" and many people recognized their own face in it.

It's important for me to note, though, that my criticism is not directed so much at individuals as it is at the collective newsroom and its entrenched institutional culture, which makes it easy, as Ryan pointed out "to get sucked into nostalgia for the fat days."

What heartens me when I hear that something I wrote drew some reaction, and maybe raised the discomfort level in the industry a few degrees, is that awareness and conversation are the first components of change.

As I said a few paragraphs earlier most journalists know in their guts what's wrong with their newspapers: Content so sterile and unimaginative that if you ask staff members, as I do in every newspaper I visit, whether they read their own paper the answer too often is "no." As John Robinson so forcefully stated above, what's lacking is the will to change.

Read the letter from Daniel Conover. Hear his plea for leadership, his desire to do good work and his willingness to do what takes to keep the journalism alive in a post-newspaper age. Is it just me, can my idealism still be this strong that I want to do all I can to give the William Conover the future of news he deserves? Don't you want to, too?

UPDATE: Just after I posted, this comment was added to Mood of the Newsroom. It's author blogs here and it is well worth reproducing in entirety (all emphasis is mine):

Bravo. I got my first job as a reporter in 1974; eventually moved to the news desk; started plotting to replace Atex with Macs in 1990; got involved in the startup of a primitive online edition in 1993; and left journalism in 1996 to work at a large software company. Today, I design user interfaces for a living, and wild horses couldn't drag me back to a print newsroom, for all the reasons you describe.

I read two papers a day in print and more online, but my college-age kids don't, and probably never will. Mass media are fragmenting into something else. The creative destruction is only beginning.

At the place I work now...

-- All organizational structures are temporary, and are replaced the moment they outlive their usefulness. All org charts are instantly out of date. Most people don't care what their job title du jour is. The only thing that's permanent is change.

-- The power of a good idea, supported by data, is greater than the power of hierarchy or tradition. If your idea is powerful enough, you can launch a virtual startup within the company.

-- The culture is studiously egaliatarian. Except during growing pains, everyone has a private office. Everyone's office is the same size. Everyone has the same furniture. Almost no doors lock. There are no reserved parking spaces.

-- There is no time clock. There is no dress code. No one cares how you work, as long as you get the job done and do it well. If you're working on a complicated project and need quiet, you can telecommute for the day.

-- Meetings are for making hard decisions. If you're making an easy decision, or just reporting status, use email.

-- Hiring is a science. Every job is analyzed for the technical and interpersonal skills it requires, and candidates undergo a grueling day of interviews designed to test them for each of those skills. Managers are expected to hire people who are better and smarter than they are. No one is indispensable. People are encouraged to move around within the company, so that they learn more about everything it does. There is a career path for individual contributors who aren't interested in managing people. There are no sinecures and no pigeonholes. Poor performers are given opportunities to improve. If they don't, they are gone.

-- Every employee is responsible for contributing to the bottom line -- and for knowing how their work contributes to it, and for not doing work that doesn't contribute to it.

If the newspaper industry had been like this, I wouldn't have left.

What prevents the newspaper industry from being like this, except the dead hand of tradition? People made it. People can change it.

"People made it. People can change it." So succinct, but so perfectly dead on. Newspapers are what we made them, so let's remake them.


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Posted by Tim Porter at April 25, 2005 06:24 PM
Comments

Well this is an interesting blog. My path is (sort of) the mirror opposite, I'm a software engineer who has worked for a series of startups, and I'm taking a news writing class. I still am scratching my head trying to figure out why I enrolled, but something has been working for a long time to point my feet in that direction, and the class is a blast.

But yes, some of this resistance to change jumps loudly out at me at times, in the textbook and in the guest speaker comments, as well as the teachers.

To Chervodovino's comments, I say: um...duh? But to be kind, that's the only world I know.

Posted by: AF on April 25, 2005 11:27 PM

Quoted in this post is the following: "No one is suggesting we abandon our core principles. Truth telling remains the key. And everything I read challenges us to make that principle stronger.""

If 'truth telling' is the key then follow it. This is what the press as a whole does NOT do.

Getting 20 year olds to read the newspaper isn't your problem. Maybe those who turned out to be media types read the newspaper religiously when in college, but most that I remember did not. I started reading newspapers and newsmagazines much later.

I realize you are trying to fix problems here, but most of the solutions proposed imply some NEW change is required.

Perhaps your 'truth telling' doesn't mean presenting the facts. Maybe it means presenting the world as you see it. I don't know. But I can point example after example after example where the news media has not told the truth or the facts.

At one time a decent newspaper, The Arizona Daily Star is now not much more than a repository of articles written by news services. But every once in a while they do a series of articles on a local issue (such as the border problem) and I'm surprised that they can still prepare something I want to read. Why don't they do more of this?

I don't think you are looking at what the media has become yet. I think you are still looking for a simple change here and there that will solve your readership problem.

Posted by: Gail Davis on April 26, 2005 06:07 AM

I'm with Gail on this.

The problem is that, in the short run, profit is the wrong metric for judging a newspaper's success - success ought to be measured by
a) how well the readers are informed
and
b) how the paper influences the community (does it create light or heat? does it help the community move forward, or hold it back?)

So Tim, now that you have the floor, blogospherically speaking, how about holding an open-source brainstorming session on structural? procedural? changes that could get papers headed in the right direction?

for example:
The first step toward improving your company's product is to come up with a way to measure it. My county has a yearly "quiz night" charity benefit event; along the same lines, what if readers of various news outlets formed teams, and contests/surveys/polls were done to see whose readers *were* best informed? What if newspaper call-in polls were used as a baseline metric of community knowledge, used by the paper to identify in what areas the public was poorly informed and needed "remedial education"?

Are there other ways to measure how well a paper is serving its readers? what are they?

A lot of the problem with the press is that it's a series of localized monopolies; _somehow_ you need to inject competition - on the important criteria, not short-term profit - to keep them innovating, or else they become, well, what they are now.

BTW, lots of good observations on performing well, on the competitive ecosystem and on serving one's customers, in Paul Graham's essay
"How to start a startup"
( http://www.paulgraham.com/start.html )
e.g.
"What matters is not ideas, but the people who have them. Good people can fix bad ideas, but good ideas can't save bad people. "

" the low end always eats the high end. It's easier to make an inexpensive product more powerful than to make a powerful product cheaper."

and many more

(note:had to munge email address to post this: the popular site that starts with a y is 'questionable content')

Posted by: Anna on April 26, 2005 06:28 PM

After reading the posts here and elsewhere, I took a tour (online) of some newspapers I have read and worked for over they years. I discovered that at many, the same people are doing the same jobs they were the last time I looked which was years ago. The same columnists are writing columns. The same reporters are covering the same beats.

So I guess the question is: how do you draw new wine from old bottles?

In another industry, these folks would have been trained into different jobs a long time ago. Rotated and educated to understand the business more deeply. The work structure would have changed and modified as needs changed.

But at these are newspapers where circulation is eroding, it appears that the newsroom structures haven't changed a bit--except gotten a little thinner.

I'm frustrated when I hear about the troubles in the business, and then look at newspaper and see a columnist who has been writing pieces that can cure insomnia for ten or twenty years, still at the same task.

Yet all around in the same community, bloggers are rising up to fill the web with much interesting local commentary and observation, and doing so in a two-way, conversational format.

What I think has happened in the last few decades is that journalists have selected themselves out of the traditional, stodgy newsroom structure. Those with ideas about technologies and different communications have left. Those who love the newsrooms of the past have stayed. I don't know how to make effective change in that environment.

Posted by: JennyD on April 27, 2005 03:46 AM

So if Seattle is the home of all these fabulously modern people, why are the local papers so lame? Microsoft's "news" ventures aren't all that astonishing, either. I've never been very impressed with the tech world's idea fo great writing and reporting (and TechTV--public access at it's finest).
Whiel old fashioned newspapers may be dying, I'm not impressed all that much with the quality of the writing and reporting in blogland. Navel-gazing blogs can be great, but I've seen almost no true reporting sites--just lots of writing about stuff the writer has seen from a car window and wondered about. Not everyone can be the new Andy Rooney.

Posted by: Rachel Cohen on April 27, 2005 12:01 PM

I'm weary of the comments suggesting the greatest impediments to the so-called revolution that's supposedly been going on as long as I've been in the business are the lowly and unenlightened newsroom serfs.
Why can't they be visionarly like publishers and "progressive" editors? Maybe it's because they are too busy working their behinds off and don't have lot of time for philosophical discussions. We're the chumps putting the damn paper out every day.
Sure we're responsible for our own attitudes, we learned that in junior high school. Telling us to put on a happy face is beyond condescending.
And where is the responsibility of newsrooms leaders? Why are they failing to motivate staff with their visions? If I can't motivate my staff to get things done, that's my fault. I take that responsibility.
I can't afford to wring my hands and worry about why they won't change.
Is a leader without followers still a leader?
I can't just fire off memos or post on a blog. I have to have daily discussions with people about how they can improve themselves and our paper and I haven't met one reporter who doesn't want to improve whether he or she has an attitude or not.
Who has ever worked in a shiny happy newsroom? Has there ever been one? Frankly, it sounds like one of Dante's circles of hell.
I work in the real world where sources have attitudes, readers have attitudes, and sometimes staff members have attitudes.
Asking them to change those attitudes is a pointless excercise. Creative, talented and smart people are a pain in the ass, but I need them. They are the future of this industry and I can deal with the attitude.

Posted by: Kevin Lyons on April 28, 2005 12:45 PM
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