For people whose paychecks come from the same account, newspaper people are just so uninterested in the other departments. And what’s more, many take pride in not knowing what goes on elsewhere in the company. At best, it’s benign ignorance.
Try explaining to the general public about the wall separating the newsroom from the advertising department—and watch the ‘‘Yeah, sure” reactions from the disbelieving public. People not only pass in the hall without a word, there is genuine animosity. Advertising people unhappy about news coverage of the legal troubles of a local car dealer who cancelled his ads. Press crews having no idea why the circulation people wanted the papers so early.
To be certain, this inter-departmental ignorance occurs in other industries. Silos are common. But newspapers actually encouraged the separation through ethics policies that applied to one department and not the others; dress codes for some, but not all.
And as long as everyone made money, it was fine for this Great Labyrinth of China to exist. The occasional misstep created outcries (remember when front-page ads meant we all had lost our virginity?)
A certain size of silo will always exist, but the gulf of misunderstanding has reached a critical stage. Today you hear journalists moaning about how the publisher is “giving it away for free” on the Internet. And digital audience mavens complain about paywalls. We might have changed the names to “Content Editor” and “Audience Acquisition Director,” but the dearth of fundamental knowledge about the business model and the intertwining parts hurts the industry as it searches for a clear path to good journalism, growing audiences and advertisers and profitability.
When newspaper people talk about creating a new model for the future, do they honestly think it will be handed to them by an outside consultant? Or worse yet, that the plan will be developed by someone else’s department? That will fly as high as the proverbial lead zeppelin. Many publishers have cross department leader meetings. That’s fine. But the solution I am talking about goes much deeper.
I worked for a very smart publisher named John Wilcox who held quarterly “State of the Newspaper” meetings that usually mixed people from various departments. He’d use percentages (rather than raw data because we worked for a publicly traded company) to show where the newspaper company stood financially. The best parts of these sessions were the questions that came from everywhere and John allowed the appropriate colleague to answer for their department. This created understanding and relationships that carried on. Press managers understood what would happen to the carrier force if the papers were late.
When I took over as publisher, I took it a step further. I created cross-department readership groups that ultimately came back to me with a $25,000 question. They wanted to make a movie about how we roll. They hired an independent film maker to create a documentary. The resulting film (produced on a budget of less than $25,000) was an entertaining story of how those departments interacted to produce what the film titled, “The Daily Miracle.” It was required viewing for each person in the company.
It’s really not that hard to develop the inter-departmental relationships that grow from a company picnic or softball team. But it is something the publisher must insist upon. The newspaper industry has ridden through the Great Recession and emerged. Some people even think, “The worst is over.” I don’t. I don’t think cost-cutting through the economic downturn did anything but buy us another decade or so. We are still a model of an industry in a slow decline. The solutions are within your workforce, but they must understand the problems and follow the paths laid out by great leaders. In order to do that, they need to be educated on the entire body that produces that daily miracle.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.