Declare your independence from the curmudgeon tribe

More than a year ago, I wrote a blog post aimed at the curmudgeons in your newsroom.

The ones who prefer hand-wringing editorials to reorganization plans.

The ones who prefer complaining about bloggers to starting a blog.

The ones who prefer whining about Google and craigslist and every other disruptive organization to becoming a disruptive organization.

Jay Rosen has been politely badgering me to update or extend that line of thinking, and although I did a quick one-year-later assessment of where most organizations stand on what I called 10 obvious things, there’s a good dose of generational frustration that’s always been involved in my thinking about newspapers.

Because I didn’t get into this business because I wanted to save the world, or right wrongs, or afflict the comfortable, although those are all laudable pursuits.

I got into this business because I wanted to fix journalism.

And I didn’t get into it that long ago, which means I don’t have the institutional inertia so many organizations are afflicted with.  And it is an affliction.

The status quo is killing newspapers.  Those who would defend it are the curmudgeon class.  But more than that, they are the tribe of Press that Prof. Rosen was talking about a week or two back.

The tribe of curmudgeons — dwindling in number — made their voice heard in the comment thread of a post written by an intern about layoffs and reorganization at a major metro daily newspaper.

The message of the meeting re: layoffs and reorg?
Hard times are here, but we have a plan.

The message of the intern’s blog post?
My boss has a plan, thank goodness, let’s get going.

The message of the curmudgeon tribe in the comment thread?
You naive kid, stick around this business long enough and you’ll be as stubborn and immobile as we are. You’ll never work in this town again.

It’s disgusting.

This is why I got into this business: Because it is broken.  I’d like to help fix it.  But the clock is ticking.

And I have no more time for the tribe of curmudgeons.

25 thoughts on “Declare your independence from the curmudgeon tribe

  1. First things I’m doing to break off my relationship with the curmudgeon tribe: Unsubscribe from Romenesko and E&P.

    I have no use for industry gossip, and I get enough layoff Schadenfreude from other sources.

  2. Ryan, as much as I agree that newsrooms are plagued by the status quo, I have to point out that sticking your head in the sand and ignoring the plethora of evidence of gross ineptitude from the very same management people who are espousing these “innovations” is equally blind. Sometimes, inexperience DOES lead to naivety, and this is one of those cases (and I can assure you I am not one of those “curmudgeons” who fear change).

    And let’s not forget that said intern’s post’s message wasn’t just “My boss has a plan, thank goodness.” It was more like “My boss, who just laid off 10 people and will lay off 11 more, says she has a plan (one that has already been tried by other papers before with poor results), and she is my hero.” Many of the so-called “invectives” in the comment section were railing more against this fawning over the editor who just handed 10 people pink slips and less about innovations. Given the timing of that blog entry, I think it’s perfectly understandable why so many journalists were upset by it. Surely embracing innovation doesn’t mean you leave behind your compassion for colleagues who just had their livelihood taken away or the sensitivity of not heaping effusive praise on the person who laid them off just a day after it happened. If it does, then perhaps curmudgeons aren’t as bad as you make them out to be.

  3. Spot on. As someone pointed out in the comments of Jessica DaSilva’s post, the music industry was slow to react to its dying business model but has at least been actively seeking a new way forward. Curmudgeons only stand in the way, telling us there’s no way the Titanic could ever sink.

  4. @John Zhu –

    Honestly, layoffs happen in this business pretty much every day at this point.

    When I worked in a newsroom, there were layoffs, and my friends were fired. It sucked. They moved on, I moved on, and some of us are in better shape since we left.

    What was missing from the layoffs at the paper I worked at was a plan.

    That’s what I want to commend Tampa for — they walked into that meeting with a plan, not just a list of people to fire.

  5. @John Zhu

    What, they’re never been layoffs before in the newspaper business?

    Maybe you weren’t in this business in 1990 or so?

    This is a business. Layoffs happen. I’ve been laid off before. It sucks. I don’t wish it on anyone. But you get through it and move on.

    If you’re going to have to deliver the bad news to the people staying behind, it’s much better — and much better leadership — do to so with an acknowledgment that this sucks, but we can get through it, we can get better, we can move forward, we have a plan, but we’ve got to pull together.

    As for your remark that her plan has been tried and hasn’t work … all I can say is “bullshit.” Every newspaper web site that has gone the route she’s espousing has and is growing audience. Janet Coats is definitely on the right track.

    And it sounds like she’s a great leader. My only question is, why didn’t she deploy this plan years ago before things got this bad?

    Good post, Ryan.

    And, I’m going to have to think about dumping my Romenesko and E&P subscriptions … it would bring my blood pressure down a bit. But I do like the industry gossip.

  6. @Ryan: I like that idea of unsubbing Romenesko and E&P, because I haven’t found them to be very helpful of late. Romenesko is a hardworking and well-meaning guy, but is the gossip really productive, or is it only prurient?

    Sometimes it seems that the very journalists who complain most loudly about blogs and bloggers are the people who check Romenesko and — of all things! — Matt Drudge, obsessively, all day long. That strikes me as somehow incongruous.

  7. @Ryan: Tampa is hardly the first paper to announce a plan with layoffs. I’ve seen that happen at far too many papers the past few years, and in most cases, if you follow developments at those papers, they usually come right back and have another round of layoffs a year later, and/or when the head honcho leaves for another job, the whole plan gets tossed out the window and the next boss rolls out another plan to save the paper (in many cases undoing the things the previous plan did).

    @Howard: I’m not sure what your point is about layoffs have always happened in newspapers. Sure they have, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t feel empathy or sensitivity toward the people who got laid off and their colleagues who are affected by that loss. And as for my point about her plan having been tried before, I was referring specifically to the elimination of beats (tried at Atlanta and since cast aside) and hyperlocalism (tried at just about every paper in the country in the last decade and yet circulation continues to dip). As for the growing Web audiences, I would ask that isn’t it possible, just possible, that newspaper web sites are getting more audience because society is becoming more and more technical-minded and increasingly more people are getting their news online (spurred by the fact that you can get it online for free rather than pay for a print product)? How much of the growing audience is actually due to the plans and how much is due to social evolution? In any case, growing audience doesn’t mean anything if you don’t grow revenue with it, or more to the point, grow revenue fast enough to make up for the decline in print revenue. And so far, that hasn’t happened. It doesn’t mean that the future of newspapers isn’t online, I’m just pointing out that none of the plans have really proven effective solutions to the basic problem afflicting newspapers — loss of revenue.

  8. @John: I don’t recall hearing or reading anything about eliminating beats at the AJC, at least not as part of their recent reorganization. It has been tried and rolled back to varying degrees elsewhere, perhaps most notably at The Oregonian in the early 1990s. But in addition to being a different era, that was originally as much a management shakeup as anything else.

  9. @John Zhu:

    Hyperlocal has most definitely NOT been tried at every newspaper in the country.

    Not at all. Very few metro editors have even a glimmer of what it entails. Atlanta, which you mention, has no hyperlocal products at all.

    You won’t get hyperlocal success from generic 1985-style suburban zoning of a metro newspaper, or from a newsroom where everybody sneers at suburban news.

    When a newspaper does hyperlocal well — and I would cite Bluffton Today as an example — daily print readership can be nearly as good as we had in the 1970s.

    But it requires a curmudgeon-free, can-do news organization and a willingness to abandon many traditions and past practices. Bluffton’s readership success was born out of an admission of failure, a willingness to walk away from the old model and even kill the old brand.

    There are hyperlocal success stories all around the country, but there are no success stories at a metro scale to copy.

    Not yet. Maybe there won’t be. I’m CERTAIN there won’t be metro success stories if curmudgeons undermine every effort.

    I don’t know whether I believe in Janet Coats’ plan. I don’t know the details. I don’t work there.

    But I do know that if you’re on a team, you either play your heart out, or you go home and quit dragging on your teammates.

    If you don’t believe in your boss, find a job where you can.

  10. @William M. Hartnett: Upon further review, William, I’ve gotten conflicting info on whether AJC actually abolished beats or not. But in either case, it has been tried at other places, including the Oregonian example you cited. My question is: Why was it rolled back at other places, and are the reasons that led to the rolling back still relevant today (you can conceivably have two different eras, but some factors would remain the same).

    @yelvington: 1) I did not point to Atlanta as an example of hyperlocalism, but only as an example of elimination of beats (which, as I said in the first part of this comment, I’m not sure is correct, so we can throw that out completely for the sake of accuracy).

    2) As much as “curmudgeons” complain about changes in the newsroom, the fact of the matter is that most of them still go along with the plans because they have no choice because it’s an edict from above. And many veterans have gone alone with attempts at innovation even if they are somewhat skeptical, because in their hearts they want something that works too. So your claim that “curmudgeons” undermine these efforts is not realistic. What does undermine these efforts is impatience on management’s part. They implement one plan after another, without giving any of them the necessary time for true innovation to take hold; or when the head honcho championing one innovation leaves, his/her successor often completely rolls back all the things that had been implemented (see San Jose’s “rethinking” project).

    3). Not every newspaper uses the “hyperlocal” buzzword, but many of them are practicing similar concepts. I know about Bluffton’s work and success, and they do good work. But also note the small size of their market. There are situations where such hyperlocalism does work for a paper, but for larger papers, the results I’ve seen have been mixed at best. So unless owners and shareholders are willing to be owning 20,000-circulation papers instead of 200,000-circulation papers, I don’t see hyperlocalism as an across-the-board solution. What disturbs me more is that hyperlocalism is nowadays often used more as a justification for cutting staff than as a mechanism for true change.

    4). “But I do know that if you’re on a team, you either play your heart out, or you go home and quit dragging on your teammates.” — Just because someone is skeptical about a particular plan , it doesn’t necessarily follow that they don’t work hard. Ask around every newsroom and see how many journalists who are disillusioned with their management are still busting ass everyday to put out as good a product as they can despite the increasingly difficult conditions.

    5). “If you don’t believe in your boss, find a job where you can.” — I did that, and I had to leave the biz to do it. But if you want to stay in journalism, that is becoming increasingly difficult to do.

  11. Regarding my point above about most newsroom “curmudgeons” not really being in a position to stop a plan for innovation, I realize that different experiences lead people to different conclusions. My experiences led me to my conclusion. However, I would like to hear others’ experiences about specific cases when a newsroom “curmudgeon” stopped a plan for innovation.

  12. @John: Actually, the curmudgeon class foils innovation in newsrooms everyday.

    It isn’t about just working hard, as you say later; it’s about getting it.

    And getting it involves thinking creatively, figuring things out on your own, learning new things on your own … all of which is hard to do without a positive attitude.

    If it were all about hard work, then circulation wouldn’t be declining, revenue wouldn’t be falling, and readers wouldn’t be telling us in droves that we’re not meeting their needs (I have survey data, if you would like to see it).

    There are thousands of hard working journalists in this country (and some lazy ones, too). This isn’t about hard work. It is, as Steve, says, about being a team player. When you’re on a team, you play to win. It isn’t even a matter of not complaining or not whining, because if you’re approaching this with the right mindset, the complaints and whines never even cross your mind.

  13. I agree with Howard. Emphatically. Hard work doesn’t matter if you are not doing the most effective, most important things for the reader/user. The culture of traditional newsrooms is strongly perfectionistic. This means that people spend a lot of time persuing very narrow objectives at the expense of the big picture. This is why the occasional typo in the sports agate for years got so much more attention in newsrooms than what was happening on the Web.
    And this defensive, risk (and adventure)-averse culture is insidious. A couple of years ago, Tim Porter and I (“News, Improved” wrote: “Ever see a reporter only a couple of years out of journalism school speak with the same jaded weariness and pessimism as the grizzled, 30-year, seen-it-all cityside reporter? When you do, you know the newcomer has been drinking a potent newsroom Kool-Aid, a daily high octane shot of defensive culture.”
    I see indications that in some newsrooms (Spokane, Corpus Christi come to mind), the young folks are refusing the Kool-Aid and their bosses are cheering them on. That’s leadership that is determined to innovate from the ground up.

  14. Obviously a good conversation going on here.

    John is right that Jessica didn’t think about hurting anyone’s feelings. No one taught me that was part of my job description as a journalist. Did I miss a day of class somewhere?

    I’m compassionate and diplomatic and understanding by nature, and that’s part of why I’m good at getting people to talk to me, but when it’s time to get things done, my personal relationships with the people in the newsroom shouldn’t be a factor.

    Friends of mine were layed off [ha] in Santa Cruz, and the part about it that pissed me off the most was that they were chosen, supposedly, because they were young and could find other jobs.

    Even though they were trying to do more online; even though they had skills that no one else in the building had.

    The higher-ups chose to keep on a set of older reporters and editors that I was sure would be let go. They were closer to retirement, to pensions, to social security, and so they needed the job more.

    A compassionate choice, but not one with any sort of goal (say, measurable success) in mind.

    So forgive me if I’m a bit harsh myself when it comes to layoffs.

    Major metros have had bloated staff for years based on outdated assumptions about what readers need, want, or expect from their local paper.

    If your paper hasn’t made adjustments yet, they will.

    The only question — and the one you should be asking your editors and publisher before the blood-letting begins, is whether they have a plan.

    Any plan will do, frankly. Anything with a hint of logic, leadership and direction is better than sad-sack hand-wringing shoe-gazing.

    That’s just a waste of time. Mine and yours.

  15. @Howard: So I think creatively, I figure things out on my own, and I take the initiative to learn new things. But I reach a different conclusion about the best way to do things than you do, and for this, I would be labeled a curmudgeon? That seems to be what I’m seeing here. My point is that many veterans are not averse to the concept of the need to change, just to particular sets of changes being pushed, and for this they get unfairly labeled as “change-averse”.

    As for the “working hard isn’t enough, you have to get it” argument, I’ll extend the “team” metaphor that you’ve used. A basketball coach decides the best thing for his team would be for one of his stars to be more of a rebounder than a scorer. The guy isn’t happy about it, but he does it anyway, plays his butt off, and cleans up on the boards. He isn’t happy about his role but he still plays it well. Yet, despite the player putting forth effort in his role, the scheme doesn’t work, and the finger gets pointed at the player, blaming him for the scheme’s failure because he wasn’t happy about his role (although he took it on and played hard nonetheless). As I said, many journalists may be skeptical about particular plans, but when push comes to shove, they all do what they’ve been asked, and most of them approach it with the same effort they’ve always given. If a plan is sound, then you just need people to fill their individual roles for the plan to achieve its goal. If the plan fails, perhaps it’s the plan itself, not the people who carried it out as they were asked to do, that should be re-examined.

    Oh, and BTW, what part of being a team player involves alienating your teammates by slapping them with stereotypical labels without trying to reach out and understand their perspective? Perhaps veterans would not seem so defensive if the message wasn’t delivered with such abrasiveness. You can talk about how the industry is dying and thus this isn’t the time to worry about people’s feelings, but in a real office environment, people’s feelings are extremely important if you actually want to gain cooperation.

  16. @Ryan:
    “Friends of mine were layed off [ha] in Santa Cruz, and the part about it that pissed me off the most was that they were chosen, supposedly, because they were young and could find other jobs.

    Even though they were trying to do more online; even though they had skills that no one else in the building had.”

    And I’m sure the people in the ad department were thinking: They need to cut in the newsroom before they cut in advertising. After all, we’re the ones sellings ads to keep the paper afloat. The people in production are thinking: They can’t cut us because we actually make sure the paper gets printed correctly. The delivery guys are thinking: Without us, nobody gets their papers …

    The point is, everybody can come up with a litany of reasons why one group should stay while another should be laid off. Such things are matters of perspective. And whether a layoff plan has any hint of logic is completely subjective.

    To your point about your personal relationships in the newsroom not having any bearing when it comes to doing your job, I beg to differ. Workplace relationships have everything to do with getting the job done — it’s true in newspapers just as in any other profession. If you present me with a plan that I’m skeptical about, and you’ve always come off as an uncaring a-hole, especially one who seemingly had no sympathy for my recently laid-off colleagues, I have little reason to give your plan a second thought. If you come off something better, people might think twice; even though they may be hesitant about what you’re proposing, they would still be more likely to give it a shot.

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