Business of News: The Left-Column Conversation
Posted: 3/13/2014 | By: Tim Gallagher
The best advice about running a newspaper that I ever received came from a
business school professor.
Of course it had nothing to do
with newspapers, but it had everything to do with organizations that function
dysfunctionally. And newspapers have plenty of company.
professor spoke to us during one of those retreats from the daily grind—a chance
to break away, think, assess and come back refreshed…until the circulation
director walked in with a complaint about the production director who told me
the newsroom never makes deadline. And I was back in the grind again as the good
advice I received during my week away swiftly circled the drain.
But the business professor’s advice stuck. And it has stayed with me
both in and out of my business life. He encouraged “the left-column
conversation.” And if there were more left-column conversations in newspaper
organizations, we would be making a lot more progress.
how it went. The professor showed a slide with a conversation in the right
column. The conversation was between a sales manager and a production manager at
a toy manufacturing company. The sales manager was excited about the new toy
scheduled to come out of production in time for that year’s Christmas season,
but the production manager was having all kinds of problems getting the raw
material and making the assembly line hum. There was history between these two
managers. They did not like each other. So instead of sharing his problems with
the sales manager, the production manager just nodded and hoped for the
Production of the toy was never completed and the
company suffered through a miserable year, putting it on the brink of
In the left column, the professor showed the
conversation the two should have had. Had the production manager shared the
difficulties in that department, the two might have jointly agreed to approach
the CEO and develop a solution—either get the assembly line working, or reduce
the sales projections.
This led to a new phrase in my
newspaper management quiver: “Let’s have a left-column conversation.”
It was a signal to the people in the conversation that we had to drop
our defensiveness, loosen our grip on the power we thought we had, agree to end
blaming, pause the “history” button, and get to the root of the problem. A
left-column conversation meant we were going to focus on accountability—with an
honest exchange about the tension that inherently exists in an organization with
multiple departments, personalities, deadlines and ever-present pressure for
profit. I agreed that no one would ever be faulted for telling the truth in such
a conversation and I stuck to that.
It took a while for this
to sink in. And some folks never quite got there. There were issues of trust and
job security and performance. It is frightening to acknowledge you’re not
perfect. But those who crossed the Rubicon found a place where solutions are
Think of the great scene after the “Failure is
not an option” proclamation by Ed Harris in “Apollo 11.” Engineers of varying
background gather in a small room with facsimiles of the items available to the
astronauts on the disabled spacecraft. They acknowledge that there is no room
for wishing or blaming. They need to get the astronauts home alive. And—spoiler
alert—they do it.
Everything leading up to that moment in the
movie is a left-column conversation—from the depressing data the NASA staff
shares, to the failure to properly equip the astronauts for such an emergency.
But it is honest exchange of information that leads to a life-saving
Newspapers are no different. We are filled with
extraordinarily talented people possessing specialized skills in sales or
digital platforms or investigative reporting. But we tend to stay in our safe
silos and protect what’s ours because “that idiot couldn’t possibly understand
what we do here.” And so we navigate down hallways passing without a word of
communication between departments while our problems get worse.
Isn’t it time for the leaders of your newspapers to have the left-column
conversation about what prevents our industry from breaking out of the patterns
that have held us back as the world has changed? We conduct business largely in
the same way, partly because much of it works, but also because we are afraid of
the consequences of accountability in honest conversation.
Tackling tough problems is one of the signs of great leadership.
Left-column conversations are the best way to define the problem. What are you
waiting for? Failure is not an option.
Tim Gallagher is president of
The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a
former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque
Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at