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As the layoffs and buyouts pile up in U.S. the newspaper industry, and Romenesko becomes a daily wake, there is one other troubling problem: Young journalists are less willing to stay at newspapers because the papers are so slow to change their culture.

Newspapers have a history as top-down organizations where senior management huddles in conference rooms to decide what everyone else will do. Innovative ideas usually die on the vine or in bureaucratic red tape. And that’s frustrating for young folks who want to be change agents at newspapers and make a difference.

Vickey Williams studied 10 print newsrooms as part of the Learning Newsroom project from 2004 to 2007, releasing the report All Eyes Forward (PDF) to detail the challenges in changing newsroom culture. One finding surprised the research team and upset the newsroom veterans:

While a certain amount of turnover is expected and normal among the youngest practitioners of any craft — in pursuit of career advancement or reflecting a simple change of heart — these messages seemed different in both volume and intensity. A majority of younger journalists (age 29 and below) in nearly every pilot seemed to us to be saying, “We’re leaving because the changes we see as necessary aren’t happening fast enough.”

Williams joined the Media Management Center at Northwestern University in April 2007 as director of its Digital Workforce Initiative. She recently sounded the alarm about young folks fleeing newspapers in a blog post on the Readership Institute’s website:

“[Young journalists] are turned off by the tendency of veteran journalists to argue down new ideas, cling to old ways, and avoid risks,” she wrote. “As Readership Institute research has shown, those are outcomes of newspaper people’s tendencies to be oppositional, perfectionist and conventional. I’ve seen the generational friction play out dozens of times as younger voices get shut down by veterans who fall back on ingrained behaviors.”

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Vickey Williams

Williams called for newsroom leaders to engage young folks in meaningful ways, give them timely responses to ideas, and teach them more about the business side of journalism. When I talked to Williams recently, she told me that young journalists — and really, all journalists — are going to have to become more business-savvy, whether they stay in media organizations or go freelance.

As for what organizations can do to retain people who want change to come faster, Williams believes they have to give those people a seat at the table in discussions about innovation, and foster bottom-up communication and collaboration. The following is an edited transcript of our recent phone conversation.

What brought you to the Readership Institute?

Vickey Williams: I worked in seven newsrooms in reporting and editing jobs, from small papers in Alabama to mid-sized and large papers in Oakland and Tampa. Then I went to a corporate editorial job for Community Newspapers Holdings Inc. (CNHI). We had about 200 small dailies in 22 states. I realized the best way I could work for those journalists at those newspapers would be to come up with a national training program.

It was really while recruiting and training talent and getting in the middle of some future-focused conversations that I came across the research of the Readership Institute. Long before I came to the Media Management Center and Readership Institute I was a consumer of their research. I left the corporate job in 2004 and went right into a Knight Foundation-funded research project [the Learning Newsroom] that was a joint venture of the American Press Institute and the American Society of Newspaper Editors. They had received a million-dollar Knight Foundation grant to look at the culture in newsrooms.

I knew about the Impact Study that the Readership Institute had done of 100 newspapers; it was groundbreaking research that the industry hadn’t had before. I was the one who said, ‘You’re telling us about four cornerstones in helping to grow readership: content, service, branding, culture. When are you going to tell us what to do about culture?’ The Impact Study was the first signal we got that newspapers have a really lousy culture. I should stress that I’m a journalist, and a lot of my work naturally focuses on journalism and newsrooms. We have a bad culture in newspapers across departments.

I was the program director [of the Learning Newsroom] and I contracted with two organizational development experts to help me with pieces of that training. And we went in to work with those newsrooms in-depth in-person for a year, and then we went back for six months of follow-up research. That’s where the age thing came up. I’ve enjoyed other people’s reactions to my blog post, and I agree with them strongly that this is not about age…I saw as many dyed-in-the-wool change-resistant 22-year-olds — I saw a lot of them — and I saw plenty of 60-year-olds who were very future-focused. It’s very complicated. And it will play out for years.

What made you think that newspapers had a bad culture?

Williams: I don’t know if you’ve waded much into organizational development or design topics, because I hadn’t as a journalist. There’s 40-plus years of research out there about how any organization can become more nimble, more anticipatory of change, can get more consumer-focused. The stories of companies that have remade themselves in the face of declining consumer demand — just as we’ve faced — there are many, many books on them. It’s not as if this problem hasn’t been studied, and it’s a common problem in mature industries.

I’m convinced this is the state in newspapers, and not just in newsrooms — that we’re very internally focused. When I first heard the Impact Study in early 2001, in classic journalist style I reacted strongly and negatively to the culture findings. I wanted to know what these people were looking for — these were news organizations we’re talking about. It took me a day or two to really think about it and realize that the profile of an aggressive-defensive workplace — was the profile of every single one of the seven newsrooms I worked in.

When I was in newsrooms I was always in hard news, and I’m wired that way. This was in no way a touchy-feely exercise aimed at making people look forward to coming to work each day. It was all about saving the franchise, and to me, it still is.

Do you think a lot of the cultural issues are about being too internally focused and not finding out what’s going on in the rest of the world, finding out what’s going on with readers in the community?

Williams: It is. And it can play out in a number of ways. Certain people in an organization are going to play it safe and conventional, and say, ‘We don’t have any rules for that.’ Certain other people are going to argue down everything. Certain people will look for this to pass, because ‘gosh we’ve been through so many other things, let’s just wait until this gets off the radar too.’ We have different mechanisms for dealing with our reluctance to change, but they’re all equally effective at standing still and doing nothing.

I think the volume on outright resistance to change is down even since the completion of that work in newsrooms, which wrapped up in early 2007. I would have to bet that in the 15 months since then that resistance is going down. I am not at all convinced that we know how to replace that with something constructive. So in short, we don’t fight it as hard and as loudly — the fact that we have to change — but we don’t know what to do instead.

When students go into journalism schools, the people teaching them came from a traditional background, and the students want to land a job at the New York Times and don’t think about starting their own blog or podcast.

Williams: Which is really a shame, because I think if you took Millennials in their untouched state, they would be very much inclined to be audience-focused because they are such notorious consumers themselves. They have such high expectations for what they consume. So I wonder if some of that is being shaved off of them in journalism schools so that they come out ready to fit in with the internal focus that still predominates in most newspapers.

I’ve heard that some people in newsrooms who are skeptical about changes, who say ‘do we really want to do this digital initiative?’ — those people get shouted down. Is there room for criticism?

Williams: Sure, there is. And not every digital idea is a good idea. On the other hand, look at the agenda for the last five years for all the industry conferences. Most of them have the word ‘innovation’ in their titles or it’s the theme for their conference. And it’s a long stretch. Innovation is almost the end game and brass ring, and we’re so far from a climate to foster that in our workplaces, that we have a long way to go.

What will it take to create that kind of climate?

Williams: I think we’re on the way, I don’t think it’s hopeless by any means. We saw progress in 10 out of 10 newsrooms, and we saw three almost make it to ‘constructive,’ which is extremely outwardly focused and those organizations are more successful. And they met that profile in 18 months, which is remarkable, because that’s usually a journey that takes five years. So I have hope and optimism that our industry can make it, but I wish it had started [to change] in 2001, when we first got the message, and we might have saved more jobs and had a lot less angst.

I read one of your blog posts about community and being outwardly focused. Do you think that’s a key to a successful newsroom — involving the audience, involving the community?

Williams: Absolutely. The move toward increased interaction in community and networks is both a challenge and a godsend, because it should force us to become more outwardly focused and build greater links with the community. My boss Mike Smith [executive director of the MMC], who is very much a business and strategy guy, would say we are in for several more years of pain. There’s no easy way out. If we can get more interactive and build community to build online traffic to build page views to build revenue… That’s part of it.

The formula that we tried in the newsrooms was pretty valuable. In short, it was a prescription for journalists to get more business savvy — and they will get more business savvy one way or the other. If they become a victim of the cutbacks, then they will be looking at making their own living and be worried about income and attracting advertisers to their website. So getting more business savvy is only a plus.

A lot of people in the hard news world, traditional reporters, feel like they work in their own silo. They develop their sources, they do their big investigative report. And when you ask them to go out in their community and involve readers, a lot of them don’t like that idea.

Williams: Investigative types were some of my toughest audience, and were the most suspicious of my motives with this program. They thought I must have some ulterior motive, and bless them, that’s the way they’re supposed to be. I think they’re turning the corner as they see that databases [can help with] investigative reporting and using Twitter as a reporting tool is smart. As they see more applications and potential for the type of public service journalism that they love, and can see those opportunities in the digital realm, they’ll become less suspicious.

What were some of your biggest challenges in doing culture-change training?

Williams: Well, this was several years ago, but I’ll never forget a conversation I had in one newsroom where it was clearly the veterans vs. the bloggers. The veterans were diminishing the value of it, they didn’t get it, and the bloggers said ‘that’s what’s wrong and we’re out of here.’ I didn’t expect this when I did the research, but it was kind of the flaming headline to me: Young people had one eye on the door.

Most of our meetings were tough because we set the stage for a very candid conversation and it was about what needs to change around here. By the topic and ground rules of this work, it made for difficult conversations — sometimes difficult to facilitate, sometimes difficult for leaders to hear.

I asked people what they thought about the data [showing that young people wanted to leave], and the veterans even wanted to argue down that the data was correct. And if it was correct and young people were leaving, it was because they were wimps, and good riddance. I remember in one newsroom, a fairly large one, where we opened the floor and said, ‘Would anybody in this age group, which was 29 and younger, like to respond to this? Are we not reading you right?’ A twentysomething said, ‘We talk about this every single day. And the “this” is the slow pace of change, and how much time we spend talking to ourselves instead of looking outward.’

One thing you mentioned on your blog was giving younger people more power and giving them a seat at the table to do things with a bottom-up approach.

Williams: Bottom-up is exactly the right terminology. If you read one book on organizational development, you’ll get the message that often in troubled industries like ours, the answers we seek are held by people at the front lines. In newspapers that means giving feet-on-the-street people a seat at the table and gathering their feedback whether they’re in the newsroom or advertising or production about what’s going wrong with the product.

In newspapers, even when leadership says ‘We want this kind of place, we want ideas to flow from the bottom up,’ it takes a long time to convince people that you’re serious. Because for years, we have been an industry with our panels and task forces and we’ve generated lots of reports that have gathered dust on the corners of bosses’ desks, and people don’t have the energy for that anymore. So there are a lot of dimensions for what it will take for us to change.

I’m curious about the overall focus of the Readership Institute. Judging by the website, the main focus is getting people to read print newspapers, but now there are so many people going online. Does that change what you do as an Institute?

Williams: I think that began several years ago. Rich Gordon has been on staff and he’s been looking into a whole host of digital projects for years. If you look at who’s on staff, we’re all digitally focused. At least it feels to us that we are. The Running While the Earth Shakes (PDF file) research is totally about digital innovation.

Do you think it’s important to bring in an entrepreneurial aspect to newsrooms?

Williams: Absolutely. My post was about traditional print companies, in those workforces. I don’t think it’s realistic to expect that twentysomethings, Millennials in the traditional newspapers, would be given the key to the igloo where new products come out. And should they? Probably. I think it can’t come soon enough.

Another question that MMC is asked is whether they should be part of the workforce or separate. And the answer is that it depends on every single situation, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to that. I agree with Jeff Jarvis that it would be a very good gamble to allow Millennials to start up companies or products. But I can’t think of a single media company where that would be allowed to happen on a broad scale.

Full disclosure: Like the Learning Newsroom, MediaShift has received funding from the Knight Foundation.