The newspaper industry needs to make radical changes, but neither the management nor the culture in a typical newsroom is conducive to much change at all, according to an organizational behavior specialist.

Mark Glaser interviews Vickey Williams, director of the Digital Workforce Initiative in the Media Management Center at Northwestern University and author of All Eyes Forward, a report about the challenges in changing newsroom culture.

Bottom line: Williams believes most newsrooms are still forcing young journalists into the mold that existed 20 years ago: a top-down structure in which decisions are made at the top and underlings are expected to execute them without question. Characterizing many newsrooms as “aggressive-defensive workplaces,” she finds structural impediments to the adoption of digital tools, suspicion of online media and organizational resistance to any ideas that don’t come from the top.

What’s most troubling about this behavior is that it’s sending young journalists for the doors, Williams says. They don’t believe their ideas are getting a fair hearing and they don’t want to work for organizations that are so insular.

Glaser has a transcipt of his interview with Williams. A few quotes:

  • “Resistance [to change] is going down. I am not at all convinced that we know how to replace that with something constructive. So in short, we don’t fight it as hard and as loudly” the fact that we have to change” but we don’t know what to do instead.”
  • “Journalists need to get more business savvy” and they will get more business savvy one way or the other. If they become a victim of the cutbacks, then they will be looking at making their own living and be worried about income and attracting advertisers to their website. So getting more business savvy is only a plus.”
  • “We asked people what they thought about the data [showing that young people wanted to leave], and the veterans even wanted to argue down that the data was correct. And if it was correct and young people were leaving, it was because they were wimps, and good riddance.”
  • On creating a change-oriented culture: “For years, we have been an industry with our panels and task forces and we’ve generated lots of reports that have gathered dust on the corners of bosses’ desks, and people don’t have the energy for that anymore.”
  • “I agree with Jeff Jarvis that it would be a very good gamble to allow Millennials to start up companies or products. But I can’t think of a single media company where that would be allowed to happen on a broad scale.”

Williams’ conclusions are sobering. There’s a lot of talk about change and what newspapers need to do to save themselves these days .There are many great ideas for reinvention, although there is no avoiding a lot of pain in the process. Ideas are just one part of the picture, though. There needs to be a culture in place that’s willing to accept change. Newspapers don’t have a lot going for them in this area.

Newspapers have done business more or less the same way for about 150 years.Few industries on earth can say that. The newspaper business has been historically stable, profitable and predictable. It’s boring, but it makes a lot of money. In the 1970s and 80s, some titles enjoyed renewal rates of 90%. In addition, consolidation during the last 50 years has left most cities with only one or two newspapers. Monopolies and duopolies usually suck at innovation. When was the last time your electric company did something clever?

Williams is right that newsroom culture rewards obedience. After all, you need structure and process to produce a fresh product every 24 hours. The hierarchical organization of most newsrooms is appropriate for what they’ve been asked to do for many years. Now you’ve got a situation in which authority needs to be openly questioned. Do you suppose a 30-year veteran city editor is going to cozy up to that idea? Cultures don’t change until people change, and organizations that are run by old guys who have worked their way up through the ranks are the least change-oriented of all.

This is why it’s so hard to be optimistic about the future of newspapers. Ideas can’t flourish without a nurturing culture. Newspapers exist in a culture that is so change-averse that adding color to the front page is considered a breakthrough. When your value is defined by process rather than agility, it’s tough to suddenly be agile.

Maybe I’m being too cynical. Please share your views. Is there a way for this industry to reinvent itself without blowing itself up first?

Miscellany

  • Perhaps the savior will be cell phones. The New York Times reports that Verve wireless has signed up 4,000 papers and 140 publishers to deliver news via its wireless service. Research says 40 million people use their phones to go online, and Verve’s service can push news alerts, local stories and geotargeted advertising at those customers, most of whom are probably driving at the time. The CEO of Verve is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, by the way.
  • The Santa Fe New Mexican is cutting 16.5 jobs, or about 7% of its workforce. Ten of those lost jobs are in the newsroom. The biggest culprit is real estate advertising, which has all but disappeared.
  • E.W. Scripps may write down the value of its newspaper and local broadcast holdings in the third quarter, the CEO said on the company’s earnings call. Scripps carved out the troubled businesses into their own company earlier this year so they wouldn’t drag on the more lucrative TV and online businesses.
  • Speaking of Scripps, columnist Jay Ambrose scolds readers for not appreciating all the great things newspapers deliver. “Perhaps the Internet and innovative editors will come up with ways to preserve the distinguishing value of newspapers,” he writes. “It would help if more citizens understood this value themselves.” Good going, Jay. Blame those customers.

Comments

comments

This entry was posted on Monday, July 28th, 2008 at 9:35 am and is filed under Advertising, Business News, BusinessModel, Demographics, Future of Journalism, Journalism, Layoffs, NewMedia, Newspapers, Solutions. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

5 Comments

  1. July 28, 2008 @ 1:35 pm



    So true, sadly, and I’ve been finding myself and other reporters of our generation more frequently huddled in corners of the newsroom talking about how it’s clear this industry no longer deserves us. Perfect example: Howard Weaver, McClatchy’s VP for news, set up a wiki (https://mcclatchynext.pbwiki.com/) to try to solicit ideas for innovation to help the company figure out a way to turn the tide around. Not a bad idea … six years ago. Now, we find ourselves at the stage where yes, me and other young reporters are brimming with ideas, thoughts, criticisms, and innovations — but why the hell would we share them with a company that didn’t want to listen before? I’ve lobbied till I’m hoarse for fundamental, common sense fixes to our Web site, but still no action has been taken.
    I’ve been tempted to log on to that site several times and join in the discussion, but why? Why should I waste my ideas, good, bad or otherwise, there, when the future is clearly somewhere else? So now for our generation of newspaper reporters who will soon leave newspapers, the question is: what next?

    Posted by Tim D
  2. July 28, 2008 @ 1:52 pm



    Good comments. If you see this response, maybe you can say how old you are?

    Posted by Paul Gillin
  3. July 28, 2008 @ 2:25 pm



    After 30 years in newspaper advertising, I can tell you things are the same on the other side of the “wall”. You have resistance to change and if there is a change, its because there is a new ad director with ideas you have seen before but you go along to keep the peace. As an ad manager, I finally threw in the towel when an expensive training program was brought to my paper and it consisted of old ways of selling PRINT and INSERTS with nothing about online. I may be an old broad, but I am not a DUMB old broad. Managers on the ad side need to listen to the “youngsters” who believe online should be the primary sell with print as added value.

    Posted by Pepper
  4. July 28, 2008 @ 2:56 pm



    I’m 26. I started at this job when I was 23, thinking I’d stay two years max and move on to bigger and better. Two years came and went, now three, then came the point where I and others my age have abandoned hope of the bigger and better. More significantly, we’ve abandoned the desire for another newspaper job, seeing as it will be the same nonsense wherever we go. I know of four of my friends who have/are quitting newspapers to start Web sites that they’re not even sure will be successful. But, they say, you gotta try something at this point.

    Posted by TIm D
  5. July 28, 2008 @ 4:00 pm



    Why should the rank and file provide any ideas for this generation of failed leaders. For years they have scoffed at any idea that came from the newsroom as being off-the-wall or not business-orientated. At best, you got a pat on the head or a thank you e-mail. Now it is looking real bleak, they are grabbing at straws and they say they need input. Guess what? They realize it is their jobs that are next up when the economic sythe cuts through newspaper operations. Hey, good riddance.

    Posted by ed