Traditional Newsrooms Still Need to Walk the Talk

    by Mark Glaser
    December 18, 2006

    i-1312f39838df61eb6a20fbcb8cc468c7-The Old The New.jpg
    It’s much easier to talk about changing than to actually change. That’s the lesson everyone learns each year with New Year’s resolutions such as “I’m going to lose 20 pounds and exercise more” or “I’ll finally start my own business.” In the media world, traditional old-world media loves to talk about new media, from podcasts to blogs to citizen journalism. And while many old-line newsrooms have tried out many of these formats, I wondered whether they had really changed their stripes or were just making cosmetic changes.

    In short, was this really Newthink or just rewarmed Oldthink? So I asked you to tell me if your own newsrooms were changing their attitudes toward new media, were people really getting on board or still fighting change. For the most part, your answers were clear: Change is still happening slowly and management is not always ready for a realignment of priorities.

    (Keep in mind that I am only going by what people submitted to me through comments and private emails. This is far from scientific or exhaustive. Don’t try this at home…)


    Shane, who didn’t disclose where he had worked, shared what sounds like a typical tale in today’s media world:

    I worked at a media company that was great at talking the talk of new media, but terrible at walking the walk. This was clear if you looked at how resources were allocated, and when you looked at who had the power to make real decisions about content and priorities. People were hired because they had “new media” expertise, but then they weren’t empowered to put that expertise to work…“Old media” people knew they needed to have us around, but they didn’t really want to change anything about how they did business.

    You can talk all you want about new media, and even hire people with experience in new media, but if the top execs don’t really get it, then change is quite difficult. One anonymous emailer in a TV newsroom echoed Shane’s experience and mentioned how hard it was to change people’s ingrained habits:

    Speaking from the perspective of a large market TV newsroom, management says the right things, but on a daily operations level, it’s like pulling teeth. There’s a severe disconnect that’s complicated by deep habits, old thinking and established unions. The TV staff is still more consumed with what the competition is airing on TV than what’s appearing on our own website. We’re making some progress, but not nearly enough given the urgency to deliver online. After trying every motivational trick in the book, I truly believe the only way to change the culture is to hold the TV staff responsible and start firing people who don’t follow through. There’s no more time to babysit.

    A commenter, Nate, also wrote about the problem of habits built up over decades of time. “I get the feeling that my newspaper would change if it weren’t such an inconvience to the people who have been doing the same thing for 30 or more years,” he wrote. “Disrupting their daily work habits seems to be one of the big barriers. On the economic side, it’s ‘we still make money this way’ so change comes very, very slow.”


    Phil Shapiro gave his take from outside the newsroom in his dealings with newspaper reporters over the years. At one point in 1997, he was interviewed for a story by the Washington Post. The reporter refused to put Shapiro’s colleague’s email address in the story. A few years later, in 2000, a reporter inserted Shapiro’s email address so readers could learn more.

    “The action by this young reporter [in 2000] was without knowledge of my prior interaction with the newspaper,” he wrote. “I was a first-hand witness to a sea-change in attitude. In many ways the Washington Post remains mired in 20th century (and some 19th century) practices. But I know the name of one reporter who gets it — and who helped the newspaper move forward an inch.”

    i-b82380bb33f138574ec0be1f9d585cf2-Ken Sands.jpg

    Ken Sands (pictured here), online publisher at the Spokesman Review in Spokane, Wash., told me via email that he has seen dramatic change in his own newsroom, known for its experimentation, as well as in other newsrooms across the country:

    Our newsroom has always been fairly open to online innovation, thanks to the leadership of Steve Smith, the editor. Now, virtually everyone here is on board, and, it seems, enthusiastic about the web. More dramatic is the difference I perceive in other places. I was on the APME [Associated Press Managing Editors] board from 2003-2005. At first, I was the only online representative. All the other print editors were too busy coping with things like layoffs to pay much attention to online. “Just having a hard enough time putting out the paper,” they’d grumble. But by the time I left the board, they were beginning to plan this year’s conference, which had an entire day devoted to the Internet.

    I get the sense that editors are finally getting the idea that this is not just a financial imperative, but an opportunity to do better journalism: Look at the Emmy Award-winning videos on Washingtonpost.com. Look at the multimedia efforts of Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Nicholas Kristof. Look at the cool databases that Adrian Holovaty put together in Lawrence, Kan., and Chicago and now at the Washington Post.

    Still, Sands realizes that change is not uniform and slow to come to many newsrooms around the country. He is helping APME do a survey of managing editors to gauge their comfort with user-generated content, multimedia and various forms of online advertising. Sands is also realistic about the downsides of new media initiatives:

    Everyone intends to cover breaking news, and have user-generated content and multimedia. And some are actually doing all of those things. But something is being sacrificed. In a lot of places, it’s quality. Quality of multimedia is low because of lack of staff, equipment and/or training/editing. Breaking news is covered, but maybe not 24/7. Conversations in forums and blog comments, often are not civil, and there’s not enough moderation. Micro-local, user-generated
    content is sparse and tends to be boring. Staffing is not adequate in a lot of places.

    So even if attitudes do change at traditional newsrooms, and they really embrace the change of the new, there are still many hurdles to overcome before those initiatives become more mature and useful. What do you think? If you’d like to share your experience in an old-line newspaper, TV, magazine or radio newsroom, feel free to do so in the comments below.

    UPDATE: One anonymous commenter, who goes by the pseudonym “nostalgic,” emailed me to give their take on the generational divide in traditional newsrooms. This person, who is in the younger generation, actually faults the younger journalists for being more competitive and less fiery than their older counterparts:

    As a young journalist with experience in three newsrooms, I find that the biggest problem is the gap between the mature (40+) journalists and the young (30-) ones. The old people entered the trade in a more rebellious and spirited time for this country. There was less competition for jobs and journalism was not viewed as an “elite” profession. As a result, they are — by and large — funny, irreverent iconoclasts who fulfill their duty as journalists to constantly question powerful people and institutions. Young journalists are a stark contrast. They have been whittled down by the climb through high school (perfect grades), elite college (perfect grades), grad school (competition and perfect grades) and internships (ass-kissing and cut-throat competition for few spots).

    [Photo of new and old style cricket-watching seats by Ken Douglas.]

    [Photo of Ken Sands by Steve Rhodes.]

    Tagged: journalism newsroom

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