Newspapers: Abandon ‘factory mentality,’ encourage leadership

I’ve written before about how I believe newspapers need to change their thinking to solve the problems plaguing our industry. They need to change their thinking so they can innovate. But to get there, I believe there are two fundamental changes in newspapers’ organizational thinking that are essential.

  • Abandon the factory mentality.
  • Encourage leadership, not management.

Abandon the factory mentality.

Some of my journalists friends will quip that they work at the “paragraph factory,” meaning a newspaper. Now, they are kidding. But the sad truth is too much of a factory mentality exists at newspapers today. When newspapers started in America, they were lead by a rabble-rouser with a printing press. Today, they’ve grown into huge corporate entities that efficiently produce a product: news and advertising.

In some ways, it does work like an assembly line. A reporter writes the story (paragraphs), ships it to an assigning editor who reads it to see if it makes sense, it covers all the issues, etc. Meanwhile, a photo editor (or in some cases a copy editor) selects the photo to go with it. Then the story heads to a copy editor who edits it again, focusing whether everything is accurate and the piece follows style and grammar rules, and writes a headline about it and cutlines for photos. The story proceeds to rim and slot, where copy editors continue to do this until finally the story ends up with a designer or a paginator who physically puts it on a page. Then in the best-case, a copy editor gets to proof that page, reading all the pieces together.

Adding to this factory mentality, reporters and editors in different departments — features, sports, news, wire, business — may all have stories on the same topic (swine flu could be a good example), but they each head down their separate assembly lines. Occasional meetings are aimed at making sure everyone is “on the same page,” but if you’ve worked in a newsroom more than five minutes you know often that doesn’t happen despite all our best efforts.

What if we changed this mentality? I’m not saying take out editors. I think they are vital for accuracy, legal issues, fairness and because it often takes another set of eyes to see someone’s stupid typo. I spent 12 of my 20 years in newspapers as an editor, so, believe me, I see how important they are.

But I also see a factory mentality where the person who begins the process if often disengaged from the end product. What does that do? Well, when workers feel they are just one cog in a huge wheel, they may care less. They may contribute less. They may not bother to suggest ideas that they feel won’t be heeded anyway. It may mean workers believe less in what they do.

Why does that matter? Seth Godin, a business blogger and founder and chief executive officer of the publishing platform Squidoo, writes in his book “Tribes” that when people believe in what they do, they’ll work more and find the tasks more satisfying. They aren’t doing it for a paycheck or for fear of being fired; they believe in what they are doing. (See page 9.) (By the way, love his book. Absolute must-read for anyone interested in excellence.)

What if we turned the newspaper structure on its head. Cut out the bureaucracy, gathered everyone in a room and said: “Hey, we want your ideas. We want your to innovate. We won’t punish you if you fail or color outside the lines.” And then form people into lose groups based on topics, lead not by a manager but by the group itself. Cut our protocol.

Let a reporter be engaged in a story from start to finish, working with the copy editors and page designers and headline writers. Maybe the reporter even writes the headline or suggests part of the layout. Have mini standup meetings to accomplish all this quickly. And when it comes to pitching the stories, perhaps the reporter pitches it; maybe an editor does because it’s the compilation of several people’s work. Do what makes sense, rather than what you’ve always done.

Allow everyone to talk with other departments. Informal conversations, I’ve found, work better the foster teamwork than going up the chain command on a story that dips into several departments. Two reporters are working an angle to the swine flu story, for example. Just let them talk, figure out, collaborate organically. Same with the artists and photographers, break down the wall between the picture people and the word people. If they’re working on a story, a video, a multimedia presentation, just let them discuss it together informally in the hall, in the cafeteria, in the workout room.

Editors won’t get lost in this scenario. They’ll become facilitators of innovation, rather than get bogged down in every detail.

An example may illustrate my point. Which would you rather buy if money were no object: A particle-board table put together in an assemblyline with each worker doing one piece and passing it on or a table sanded, stained, put together, fully crafted by one person start to finish with love? I’m guessing there’s no contest.

Encourage leadership, not management.

Godin’s book isn’t about journalism. It’s about business in general and how in the past “established brands with efficient factories and effective marketing carried the day.” Then it all changed, as marketing exploded and people had access to so much more information. The market of consumers changed. The “ideas that spread win, and the ideas that are spreading are the remarkable ones,” Godin writes (page 31).

It’s no longer good enough to “deliver average product to average people,” Godin writes (page 32). Standard or average comes across as boring, mediocre, routine. It is not remarkable. Managers encourage this averageness, Godin says, because it maintains the status quo, which is comfortable and safe.  “Organizations that destroy the status quo, win,” he says (page 35.)

So what’s the difference between managers and leaders? Godin says a “manager can’t make change because that’s not his job. His job is to complete tasks assigned to him by someone else in the factory” page 22. Managers tell their staff what to do and how to do it; they cling to the status quo because they fear blame — someone above them will question what they did. This makes it almost impossible to innovate. Who can innovate if they are afraid of getting into trouble? (See pages 38 and 46.)

Leaders — Godin calls them heretics — challenge convention and the status quo, resist the urge to settle for the middle, get out in front of change and inspire innovation. (See page 50 to 55). People follow leaders because they can’t not follow them. They are so drawn to their energy. They aren’t following out of fear; they are following because the leaders makes sense to the people, the group Godin calls the “tribe.” Tribes form around great ideas and connections, and people in the tribe spread the ideas without being asked because they feel the ideas are so important.

So how does this apply to newspapers?

In the late 1990s, I wrote my master’s thesis in part on the idea that in tough economic times, newspapers managers tend to buckle down, rely on their own gut and perpetuate the status quo more rather than encourage their staffs to innovate even though innovation is what’s needed most in tough times. I found some support for this premise. (I’d link to my thesis but it was written so long ago, I have it only in print and one of those tiny discs that no longer fit on my updated computer.)

To me, it’s interesting first that I saw those as tough times. (It was the era when afternoon dailies were dying seemingly right and left.) Today, obviously, things are much worse. But the same ideas remain true. We need to innovate in newspapers more than ever before, and to do that we need to encourage leaders. We can’t afford the fear of new ideas that seems illustrated by the top-down rules about using social media use, such as the ones The New York Times and Dow Jones Co. newspapers have issued. Staffers who fear they’ll get blamed every time they try something new won’t try something new. Newspapers can’t afford to have employees who are afraid of innovation.

So how do find your leaders. I believe they are already in our midst. The staffer who was an ace at creating a community of readers before “creating a community of readers” was a buzzword. The technology-loving employee who understands the back-end computer stuff and plays with it just for fun. The social-media groupie on your staff who connects online because he gets it.

What’s the same about all these people: They do what they do because they love it, not because they have to. Harness that passion, and you’ll find innovation. Bury it, and your organization will miss out.

I’m not saying leaders won’t be found among your managers. Hopefully, they will. But if newspapers allow the news ideas to come only from people with titles, newspapers will miss out on the heretics who are already leading a tribe on their own.


9 thoughts on “Newspapers: Abandon ‘factory mentality,’ encourage leadership

  1. Gina, I read “Tribes” not long ago myself and got many of the same impressions. I love everything you wrote here about leadership vs. management.

    I wish I could be more optimistic that the former can prevail over the latter, but I also think your master’s thesis notion is stronger than ever.

    Now that I’m out of a newsroom I can resume being the heretic I’ve always been; the reality for so many who remain is to accept heavy micromanaging, passions be damned.

  2. Great post, Gina. I recently did a study in which I spent over two months in a metro daily newsroom examining its response to change, and the findings are indeed similar. The Web has a way of empowering those at the bottom of the hierarchy because of its demand for greater immediacy and direct engagement with the reader. The resistance to moving out of the factory-like structure, is, however, understandable for the kinds of human and bureucratic reasons you mentioned – people cling to the status quo when times get tough. Also, that factory-like structure has, by and large, worked pretty well for producing the daily print miracle on the doorstep every morning – which of course most newspapers are still doing. It’s hard to reverse a structure so fully ingrained in an organizations culture and daily routines, and also take away the exact skills that those at the top of the hierarchy had to master to get where they are today.

    Anyway, I’ll post more about my work on the blog now that summer is here and I’m not teaching.


  3. Gina,

    I like the spirit behind your post, but I wonder whether reporters, editors and other newsroom staff would really embrace the model you’ve put forth over the long term. In my experience as a copy editor, I can tell you that sometimes the last thing a reporter wants to worry about is contributing a headline or cutline his or her article. You say your reporter friends are kidding when they talk about working for a “paragraph factory” but are they? The pressures to turn out copy are relentless, so I don’t see how reporters are going to find the time to be a part of every step of a story’s process when they’re up against another deadline. And I can also see other staffers — copy editors, page designers — becoming very suspicious of collaborative efforts as the first step toward redundancy.

  4. @Carrie Brown

    Sounds like an interesting study. I do agree. It’s hard to change ingrained patterns that work, although I’d argue they are working less well now.

    Thanks for the insights.

    – Gina

  5. @Anthony Salveggi

    I think you’re right. I think many at the bottom or middle would resist my ideas as much — or more — than those at the top. I do think it’s a shame, though. Because I truly believe we could make a better product if we weren’t splintered in so many directions.

    The redundancy fear is very real, so people hold tightly to their status-quo-driven turf.

    The thing is I do believe that if we as an industry could let go of all that and think in a new way, we’d produce a better product. Reporters might be annoyed to help write a headline, but eventually might feel empowered. Copy editors, at least many of them, may enjoy being able to blog or write as well as edit.

    I do know that when people love what they do and are really charged up about it, it shows in the work. (And when they aren’t, that shows, too.)

    But, then I may live in a dreamworld.

    – Gina

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  7. Innovation is not about agreeing on things. Best practices are agreed upon summations of what has been the best solution to a given problem. It is about finding new ways of meeting consumers needs….sometimes it comes from a laboratory scientist but, more often, the innovation that changes the business landscape comes from the imagination of a Henry Ford or Walt Disney to name but a few. Remeber, and as you suggested through groups meetings, that innovation is indeed a team sport. Surround yourself with innovative people and work in an innovative environment, and you are more likely to receive the inspiration and cooperation that you can convert positively.

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