Thursday, April 30, 2009

Ah, to be blissfully ignored

Much has been written on how newsrooms are hard places to change, resistant to innovation, etc. -- so much so that the best thing is just to point you to a Google search and let you graze.

But sometimes there is a moment in time when things become just a bit clearer, and it was on the way in to work this morning listening to NPR talk about, of all things, the nation's power grid.

The report contained this, from Martha Duggan, vice president for government affairs at solar energy company SunEdison.

Duggan, who began her career in the regulated utility world, likes to tell a story about a utility engineer who said the nature of his job was either to be ignored when the electricity was on, or criticized when it was off.

"And so his goal, really, was to be ignored," Duggan says. "When you apply that kind of thinking across an organization — as you might imagine — the opportunity for creativity or new ideas is not necessarily in top of mind for folks who work in that environment."

I've written here before how papers in the 1970s through 1990s, as competition fell away and staffs grew to meet "peak demand," became more and more like utility companies. But as I heard this today, it also explained so much about newsroom psychology.

For all those supposed "free spirits" among journalists, let's be honest, the real goal for most was simply to "get the paper out." Miss a deadline, you get noticed. Screw up a story or even write one that is solid as hell but draws some angry calls, you get noticed. And "getting noticed" in a newsroom in those kinds of ways was at least an invitation to take some antacid.

(At the AP, for instance at one time, even the smallest of "correctives" required an extensive packet that went to New York and ultimately the president's office.)

In other words, their real goal inside the organization and outside was to be ignored - at the same time they wanted the world to pay attention to what they were writing.

Sure, it came from the top of the organization, but, like utilities, it was so ingrained that it permeated every facet of corporate culture.

Is it any wonder journalists are a bit neurotic?

Despite all the talk about blowing up newsrooms and all the new fancy titles, I've really yet to see any news organization effectively address this ingrained problem. Or to put it another way, if the publisher got a bunch of angry calls tomorrow about something the newsroom had put out, even if it were the most solid thing in the world, what are the chances that at least some crap would not run downhill? Or what if someone said, hey, we really need to be late on that paper tonight because we really need to get it on the Web first and think of some new ways to do it in print?

I'd love to hear of some places that have figured out how not to have that happen.

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At 4/30/09, 11:14 PM, Anonymous Erik Gable said...

Not to say that newsrooms don't need to innovate, but I have to wonder: In the last century, did people berate newsrooms for not inventing digital photography or the offset press?

At 5/1/09, 10:36 AM, Blogger Doug said...

Actually, AP was very heavily involved in the development of digital photography. It was AP that basically forced it on the industry by saying that as of such and such a date, it was transmitting only in digital.

Thus was born the Leafdesk, which may have been the cause of more newsroom drinking than any recent piece of equipment.

But you confuse things here a bit. You don't have to invent the physical item to innovate with it. Using your analogy, we should question Facebook, Twitter, etc., for not having invented the computer and computer languages.


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