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By: Mark Fitzgerald

Readership Institute Releases First ‘Impact’ Finding

In an industry where reporters boast of “beating” competitors, editors “kill” stories that aren’t fit to print, and publishers fight “wars” with rivals, it should come as no surprise that the first comprehensive study of newspapers’ operating culture concludes that it is akin to the military.

The finding was the first result from the Readership Institute’s “Impact” study that is attempting to find ways to reverse the long-term decline of newspaper readership. Robert Cooke, whose Human Synergistics firm has studied the culture of businesses for more than 15 years, found that 73 of the 90 newspapers he studied had the same operating styles as the military, or hospitals.

“It’s a perfectionist style where all mistakes are to be avoided,” says Readership Institute Managing Director Mary Nesbitt. “You’re expected to keep track of everything … and work long hours for narrow objectives.”

So true, says Houston Chronicle Assistant Managing Editor Susan Bischoff: “After the laughter of being compared to the military or to hospitals dies away, people acknowledge that that is the way we’ve gotten the paper out. To get things to happen in a timely fashion, we do get very militaristic.”

This style, which Cooke calls a “defensive culture,” is good at many things and clearly has served newspapers well over the years. The problem is, it is also a style that does a poor job in times such as the present, when rapid technological and market changes are transforming the business environment.

Newspapers also imitate the military in the way they select, compensate, develop, and manage employees, according to the study’s “People Management Model.” The results, Nesbitt says, “are very consistent – and very low, unfortunately.” She adds, however, that the institute is still studying what effect, if any, this management style has on readership.

Still, the results should be a wake-up call, the Chronicle’s Bischoff says: “When you look at the [study’s] diagram of how most papers manage, and then look at how it’s done [in] industries that are thriving – it’s chilling. There’s such a disconnect. I think that’s starting to capture the attention of people.”

By contrast, only 17 dailies had a culture that Cooke labels “constructive.” Businesses with this culture adapt to change and work as teams across department lines. Ironically, the study found the vast majority of newspaper executives say they would like to work this way, Nesbitt says.

Newspaper managers may consider this a bit utopian, she adds, “but constructive cultures are really very achievement-oriented. It’s not a culture that says, ‘We just want to get along.'” In addition to obvious examples such as high-tech firms and Internet startups, some older smokestack industry businesses, such as automobile manufacturers, have adopted constructive cultures.

Mark Fitzgerald ( is editor at large for E&P.

Copyright 2000, Editor & Publisher.

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