McGuire on Media

Working journalists are the answer not the problem

I don’t know why so many things in the newspaper business still stun me.  I should be inured by now to the craziness, but I’m not. The memo on Romenesko from Chicago Tribune associate editor Jocelyn Winnecke has me shaking my head. 

The memo tells Tribune staffers their attitude is going to be assessed as part of their evaluation process. Damn, I am such a fool. Why didn’t I ever come up with that? I apparently could have ordered people to be positive and cheery. I imagine President Obama will soon move for legislation requiring Republicans to be really, really nice. 

I was especially taken with this excerpt from the memo. “You know the Tribune Co. values already: Keep your word. Collaborate. No surprises. Compete. Play fair. Take intelligent risks. Reward successful performance. Question authority. Serve our local communities.”

That question authority point is a knee slapper.  Apparently it means question all authority except the authority in the company. Are newspaper staffers pains in the ass? Absolutely.  From general assignment reports to the top editors news people are an independent, cantankerous lot. They resist cookie-cutters, they usually hate conformity and independence becomes a god.  Most news people cling fiercely to principles like this list  from the Committee of Concerned Journalists.  That last principle about personal conscience can lead to some people actually bristling at some of management’s short-sighted moves in today’s upside down media world.

Recently I have been involved in a job search for the university. The due diligence on a few candidates came back that the candidate had some difficulties with top management.  I was quick to point out that until we know the specific details of those conflicts we must not draw any conclusions.  I said “these days the recalcitrant may well be on the side of the angels.” Valiant attempts to stop disastrous short-term decisions are not necessarily a sign of a bad attitude. They may be an indicator of genuine loyalty to readers.

In a speech I did last summer I quoted Dean Singleton of Media News as saying “Too many whining editors, reporters and newspaper unions continue to bark at the dark, thinking their barks will make the night go away. They fondly remember the past as if it will suddenly re-appear and the staffing in newsrooms will suddenly begin to grow again.”

This effort to portray news people as attitude problems and as recalcitrant dreamers who don’t have a clue should go the way of bell bottom pants. Its just not true. I had missed this little gem in the 2008 State of the media Report: “Increasingly, the newsroom is perceived as the more innovative and experimental part of the news industry. This appears truer in newspapers and Web sites than elsewhere. · A decade ago, the newsroom was often regarded as the root of journalism’s disconnection from the public and its sagging reputation. …… Now the business side has begun to be identified as the problem area, the place where people are having the most difficulty changing.”

I think the State of the Media folks nailed it and it’s high time newspaper executives start recognizing the content generators are the innovators who can craft a responsible smart future rather than quelling anything that even smells of dissent. Alan Mutter made a very similar point a year or so ago, but I’ll be damned if I can find his entry. (Found it!)

The top executives who have systematically routed out editors and staffers who dare to question the executives’ short-sighted slashing of product and content should be fired.  How far can we let stock prices go down when the primary message of the keepers of the franchise is slash and burn rather than build and reconstruct?”

These days I encounter much more wistfulness than I do negativity.  So many strong journalists wonder where and how things went wrong and they do worry about their own role in the demise of newspapers. I do not endorse absolution for those past sins. I do suggest that many top newspaper company executives need to admit they’ve  demonized the wrong folks. It is they who have screwed the pooch and it is time to appreciate the perceived enemy is really the solution.