How to Change Newspaper ‘Culture’

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By: George Sylvie

Earlier this month I attended NAA’s Readership and the Future of Newspapers conference in Chicago with the typical goal: Grab a few ideas, meet some new people, and enjoy the time away from the office. As I’m especially interested in newspaper culture, I was eager to learn where newspapers were headed in that regard.

Instead, I came away alarmed at what I saw and heard: An industry desperately seeking (and not finding any time soon) a workable model. You’d think that remaking the product, attracting young readers, growing audiences and reinventing the newspaper would somehow involve what’s happening in the newsroom. Maybe I don’t get out enough.

Much was made of The Minneapolis Star Tribune experience developing and testing prototype editions (with Northwestern’s Readership Institute) based on a target audience’s ?key experiences.? Surprise: Giving the reader what they want (read: something to talk about, looking out for their interests while throwing in a dash of humor and surprise) usually isn’t what journalists would normally create. As Star Tribune Editor Anders Gyllenhaal understated, ?How do you apply it to a newsroom??

Indeed. I can’t fathom asking a veteran reporter, ?Make it funny, will you?? Maybe, as Gyllenhaal said, widening the definition of news is a good thing, but the newsroom won’t likely see it that way.

Patricia Witherspoon and I suggested as much earlier when we co-wrote the book “Time, Change, and the American Newspaper.” Organizational change requires creating support mechanisms, communicating the necessary vision and helping establish a context that will ensure change. No offense to the fine work done by the Readership Institute, but asking current staffers to imagine the unimaginable is like trying to get blood from a rock — it will happen only if you hit them with the rock.

But the experiment’s report, by suggesting that implementing this idea ?is tough but necessary,? set a dangerous tone for the rest of the conference. In the Orlando project, the paper hired people with passion and had one person in charge; Quad City started fresh with new staff; Janesville, Wisc., added positions. Tampa Tribune President and Publisher Gil Thelen captured the mood, joking that his project had worked because of shared values engineered by a team of new recruits he wasn’t going to identify for fear of losing them to talent scouts at the conference.

You get the idea: Culture’s a hard nut to crack. New people are the best route. Short of that, as one editor shared with me, ?It’s not the approach so much as it is just doing it.? Asked to explain, she said she meant firing troublesome staffers.

No one’s saying the industry wants to get rid of the newsroom, but it sure sounded that way, despite the insight provided by consultant and former Arizona Republic VP Toni Antonellis. She preached the hard-work, multi-level, strategic path to cultural change, noting that no one in the industry is simultaneously working on culture and readership. To their credit, conference attendees who stayed for the ?future? sessions agreed that cultures throughout the organization as well newsroom management needed assessment, and ?rethinking,? respectively.

This would be great if not for the fact that Witherspoon and I (and others) made these suggestions at least three years ago, but with a strong caviat: The timing and opportunity for change is highly dependent on people (read: reporters and editors) listening to what the business-side types have to say. But first the newsroom has to want to listen.

I suspect that newsrooms are listening, but they’re not hearing because buzzwords such as ?target readership,? ?prototypes,? ?RBS (reader behavior score),? ?market,? and ?innovation? often permeate the message. If journalists are anything, they’re distrustful of the trendy, the fad, the ?flavor of the month? of manager-speak.

Journalists, like other departments in the newspaper, yearn to be understood – they seek recognition and understanding of what it is they do. One of the few examples we heard was being done by The Pocono Record in Pennsylvania, where News & Business Editor Susan Koomar and her staff have a points-based incentive system to foster stories, packages, design and promos in the newsroom. You would think a newsroom wouldn’t swallow such a Pavlovian throwback, but Koomar has gotten positive (and yes, begrudging) results within the newsroom. Still, circulation dropped slightly.

Therein lies part of the problem. Cultures do not change willingly, especially the culture of newsroom managers. Watch a budget meeting and compare it to one 30 years ago — same discussions, same decisions, same decision-making styles. The same could be said of incentive systems, personnel evaluations and the use of readership studies. Where are the innovative managerial approaches in the newsroom? Who’s making decisions in new and different ways?

One of the major lessons of the Jayson Blair incident — besides the obvious one involving plagiarism — was that some management styles work (Bill Keller), others don’t (Howell Raines). If you want to get a little, you’ve got to give a little. If your vision coincides with that of the newsroom, you can more easily co-exist and innovate.
It’s time for newspaper departments to welcome the newsrooms as agents of – not obstacles to – change.

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