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Teaching Online Journalism

If not you, then who?

During the past year I’ve been in a lot of newsrooms and talked to a number of journalists, mostly working at medium-size and larger newspapers, about online. The journalists often wonder aloud whether their managers know enough about online — and note, they are talking about the ones in charge of the online.

But over the past weekend, I heard a couple of reporters say this in a more pointed manner:

“We have no leadership.”

That’s a stunning statement, in my opinion. And let me add, they were not whining. They may have sounded a bit angry, or disgusted, but not outraged. It’s mainly a statement of fact. The editors and publishers — and yes, all those folks in corporate — don’t have a clue. It’s more and more obvious.

So, Jeff Jarvis was on this same note last Wednesday:

Newspapers and newspaper companies are about to die. The last remaining puddles of auto, home, job, and retail advertising are about to be sucked down the drain thanks to the economic crisis and credit is about to be crunched into dust. So any newspaper or news company that has been teetering will fall. If Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Lehman Brothers, and AIG can fall, so can a puny newspaper empire — and there’ll be no taxpayer bailout for them. When this happens, will it be Sam Zell’s fault? Hardly.

The [Los Angeles] Times veterans should not be suing Zell. They should be suing themselves. Oh, I, too, am angry at the state of newspapers in America but I’m angry at the right people. The LA Times’ problems — like those of other papers — were caused by by decades of egotistical and willfully ignorant neglect by the owners, managers — and staff — at the paper.

While this is harsh, it’s also true. I don’t mean to dump on the staff, the reporters and designers, editors and producers. The managers have made many stupid decisions, often out of pure ignorance or from fear. They have fired consultants who told them radical change was necessary and paid big bucks to other consultants who smoothly assured them that “content is king.”

But the reporters and designers, editors and producers, were there too. Just like solders in a war, or average German citizens in Nazi Germany. They were there, watching the terrible decisions being made and going right along with them.

If you have no leaders, step up!


Categories: teaching


12 Comments

  1. Mindy-
    I agree with most that you and what Jeff Jarvis say here. But what about those medium-sized papers where there are several managers, editors and staffers that are rooted too deeply that they refuse to change? Be it out of fear of change or that they might actually have to work again, one or two people trying to challenge the rest of the staff to jump on the train of change is very difficult. This is even harder the larger the organization. The bigger the entity, the more energy it takes to move it.

    From personal experience, when the roots are too deep, it becomes nearly impossible to incite change. I spent so much time trying to develop new media options and recruit others to help the revolution for the newspaper I used to work for, I burned out and wasn’t growing on my own. As journalist also trying to develop my skills to move on to the next level, I didn’t have much left in the tank to hone my skills of the craft.

    Is it too late for the traditional newspaper model? Has the evolution of new media left the weaker and more vulnerable dinosaur behind to fade into history from all that are too rooted in the daily process of “feeding the beast?”

  2. John Zhu says:

    Mindy, while I agree with your suggestion that the average journalist should be proactive in trying to incite changes, I feel compelled to say that, from my experience, what the average peon at a newspaper can do without buy-in/support from the leadership is on par with an ant trying to stop a train. Yes, you shouldn’t wait till you get the word from above to innovate, but without the resources and internal backing that come from above, what you are able to do on your own is limited. For instance, a beat writer might want to try beat blogging or use other social media utilities to help with his work. But those efforts require time, time he doesn’t have under the existing byline quotas. Without support from leadership (e.g.: adjusting the performance-measuring standards), the reporter at best would only be able to spend a minimal amount of time on those innovation efforts while being forced to spend most of his time “feeding the beast”, dramatically lessening their chances of success. The kind of innovations needed to save newspapers need to happen continuously on a company-wide level, not just in a few cubicles. For that to happen, it needs to adopt a culture and MO conducive to innovation, and much of that does require good leadership.

  3. Mindy says:

    @John Zhu – Last night I completed my viewing of the HBO TV series “The Wire,” Season 1. In the finale, the Baltimore city police have concluded a long investigation of a drug gang with ties to state-level politicians. The investigative team was short-changed on resources, impeded at almost every step of the way by their own management, and eventually threatened directly as they came close to embarrassing people in power.

    Many of the officers involved are punished after the investigation concludes, because they ignored the warnings and the threats to back off.

    The investigators’ best judgment about how to proceed in the case was thwarted by self-serving commanders and by a judge concerned about getting re-elected.

    The head of the investigative team was in line for a promotion to major in the police force. But someone else is given the promotion, not him. He takes that in stride.

    He tells another cop: You can make this about THE JOB, or you can make it about YOU. The one path leads to good police work. The other path leads to corruption and … well, shit.

    Some of the best work I have seen in journalism was done in people’s spare time, for the love of journalism — because they wanted to do GOOD journalism.

    Your commander will not always let you do what’s right. That doesn’t mean you can’t get it done.

  4. John Zhu says:

    Mindy, you said

    “Your commander will not always let you do what’s right. That doesn’t mean you can’t get it done”,

    and I’m not arguing against that at all. A lot of the best stuff I ever did as a journalist were done mostly in my spare time, so I know what it takes. I have no problem with putting in hours and hours of unpaid OT (and have done so multiple times) to put out a great special section, but what about the next one, and the one after that? What about other departments at the paper? And after I leave the paper?

    “Doing it in your spare time” makes for good journalists, but not good newspapers. It can lead to great one-time products, but usually nothing sustainable or reproducible, and that definitely should be a concern from the company’s perspective. Journalists who use their spare time to innovate and do good work can most likely always find a job, in newspapers or elsewhere, but a newspaper that relies on its people to do extra work in their spare time in order to innovate and put out a good product is likely doomed. Imagine Google or Apple telling their employees to innovate in their spare time.

    To use your example from “The Wire”, the investigators who stood up and did the right things are good cops, but you won’t say they work for a good police department. It’s still hampered by a culture of corruption. The fact that the good cops are punished for doing the right thing should be pretty telling about the kind of work that department would do long-term.

  5. patrick yen says:

    “Our republic and it’s press will rise or fall together. The power to mold the future of the republic will begin in the hands of the journalist of future generations.”

    -Joseph Pulitzer

  6. Jerry Monti says:

    Mindy,

    In the long term the problem you describe is self-correcting.
    The underlying economic reality is that the new commodity-based news content model cannot support the monopolistic, multi-layered (bureaucratic), obsolete (paper-based delivery, traditional corporate infrastructure.
    If the infrastructure you are working in is collapsing, don’t remodel. The survivors/winners will be the ones who build a new, healthy and adaptable framework. This new infrastructure is unlikely to come from the minds of Zell and his corporate peers.
    We do have waypoints. Consider the growth of the healthy minority press. Consider the success of nola.com.

  7. Angela Grant says:

    I hear journalists say they lack leadership all the time.

    I’m not sure you’re solution — to become the leader — is actually practical in the real world.

    It’s not so easy to become a leader if no one really cares what you say, and they don’t listen to you.

    I can go about being the leader of myself and my own schedule. I can decide what I’m going to do every day.

    But that does nothing for the overall vision and mission that I perceive that our newsroom would have if we had real leadership.

  8. Mindy says:

    Years ago, when I worked in an online newsroom, we had rather terrible management. And everyone who understood online complained (me included) about our managers, all the time. One day at lunch someone said I should become the M.E. I immediately protested, because I didn’t want, and never have wanted, to be in management.

    There was one colleague who said something I’ve always remembered: He said you might not want the job, you might not have a manager’s title, but you can be a leader anyway. He added: Many managers are not leaders.

    And finally, he said: Some people are already leaders, whether they want to be or not. Their colleagues do look to them as leaders.

    That might be you. So how are you leading, now?

  9. Jeff Jarvis says:

    I’m harsh but I never compared newsrooms to Nazi Germany! ;-)

  10. Mindy says:

    @Jeff Jarvis: Yeah, that was over the top. But the phrase “just following orders” came to my mind …

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