McGuire on Media

Can the book Outliers help us understand journalism's cultural legacies?

Over the holidays a close friend of about 50 years insisted, no he demanded, I read Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers.  I remain baffled about the fact that it reads like two separate books, but both “books” are really fascinating. The second half of the book talks about cultural patterns and as I read it, I became engaged by its implications for journalists and journalism.

I trust most journalists will not challenge the contention that the profession is tribal and wedded to prescriptions and cultural legacies.

Gladwell argues that when one family fights with another one it is a feud, ala Hatfields and McCoys.  When lots of families fight with one another over a number of years it’s a PATTERN.

The source of the pattern, according to Gladwell  was believed to be a CULTURE OF HONOR. A man’s reputation is at the center of his livelihood and self-worth. The culture of honor argument says it matters where your family is from generations ago.

The magic word in one study to test combative reactions was “asshole.” Someone bumped them in a hallway and called them asshole. Gladwell, in what seems like an incredible generalization says the study found  people from the north were amused. The southerners were ready to fight.

Cultural legacies are powerful forces. You see where I am going with this.  I think there are a lot of cultural legacies that get in the way of innovation in journalism

Glaswell also focuses on plane crashes. It seems that Korean Air had a terrible fatal crash problem.  Some cultures are rules oriented and rigid. Others respond beautifully to ambiguity. One’s not necessarily better than the other, but you need to know which one you are dealing with at all times.

In the case of Korean Air, it was finally determined that the cause of the crashes was a communication problem. In the Korean language there were seven different ways of addressing a superior. So the co-pilot often “hinted” at a problem.  A subordinate does not see it as his job to solve the crisis. That’s the captain’s job. Meanwhile a “low power- distance American” see no gap between himself, the controller and the pilot.  If there is a problem he expects the pilot to tell him so! Instead the Korean co-pilot often felt concerned that he hurt the controller’s feelings despite the fact the plane was headed for a crash.

A new head of pilots entered that scenario. He didn’t fire everybody and start over. Rather, he respected the cultural legacies. He offered the pilots an opportunity to transform their relationship to their work by making English the language of the airline. That eliminated the subtleties and the cultural deferments.

All of this got me to thinking about what are the cultural legacies of the journalism business that might be blocking innovation, have historically blocked innovation or have hindered public acceptance? I came up with this list for you to argue with as you wish.

· We decide what you, the audience will read.

· We will gather the news, you (business side) sell it and I will not be tainted by business.

· Reporters view of the world vis a vis the editor view of the world.

· The public’s right to know dwarfs individual’s desires for privacy or secrecy or sometimes even discretion.

· Comfort the afflicted, afflict the comfortable.

· Collateral damage on the way to truth can be tolerated.

All of this became relevant for me the other day. My friend Steve Buttry, who until this week was the new editor at the Cedar Rapids Gazette, changed titles. He is now the Information Content Conductor.  As a guy who took an inordinate amount of crap in the mid-90s for having the audacity to jigger with titles at The Star Tribune in Minneapolis I was actually surprised at the negative reaction.  I saw a friend of mine roll his eyes in frustration at Steve’s move and Steve twittered about  a “snarky” column from an editor about the new title.

When are we going to get so tired of the Rocky Mountain News closing its quality journalistic doors and newspaper after newspaper filing for bankruptcy that we say “screw our cultural legacies?” When are we going to let go and say “If you can think it, then by God, try it?”

For the record, I think Steve Buttry is to journalistic innovation what pre-steroid stars are to baseball —the real damn deal. If Buttry thinks an Information Content Conductor is worth a try then I am going to cheer like hell. I am at the point where if publishers and editors want to call themselves Fred and dress in clown suits it’s okay with me if they can figure out ways to reinvent the content models and the business models for newspapers.

Before we run into any more metaphorical mountains like Korean Air did or enkindle any more Southern feuds with our sense of pretentious honor, let’s let go of our goofy prescriptions and innovate before it is too late.