Editors and Publishers – In a Battle Against Inertia

What got me anxious this morning is thinking about a recent interview I did with Tristan Harris the founder of Apture.com for my ongoing work with Jeff Jarvis. In the middle of the interview I ask Tristan about obstacles for a young entrepreneur in journalism. A smile crept across his face and I knew instantly what he was going to say, because I’ve experienced it as well. My words, not his: news organizations get boggled down in bureaucracy and take anyone that tries to interface with them along for the ride.

Apture is a perfect example. It’s a neat little tool any publisher could benefit from. According to Tristan it takes one line of code and just five minutes to implement. Average time before a large news organization actually implements it…. six months. Same could be said for Spot.Us – it requires no coding at all. News organizations merely need to register (15 seconds) and at the very least they’ll get content from us like a local wire service. Engaging in more meaningful ways is also relatively simple.

These pair perfectly with my theory: “It is cheaper and easier to just do something then it is to sit around and debate about whether or not to do something.”

There is a movement for change in journalism. I consider myself part of it, but make no mistake – this is much larger than any individual. It includes the president of the Knight Foundation, ad-hoc gatherings of change-makers, and goes all the way down to young reporters still in college.

There is a lot of talk about taking action, but we never discuss what obstacles are in the way for newspapers to actually make said change.
This cry for change is no longer about being cute or techie and seeing who can find the next Twitter for bragging rights. Evangelizing changes to our industry is about making the logical choice for survival. So why isn’t every day a revolution?

Probably because it takes newspapers six months to try anything new!

Often people ask me why editors are so stupid or who they should blame for the fate of newspapers and my response is… They aren’t stupid and nobody in particular is to blame.

The fate of newspapers isn’t the fault of any individual editor, reporter, publisher, etc. They are all acting within the confines of institutions. Newspapers are industrial age institutions with momentum that could pummel an elephant. To use an analogy: They operate like the military. It might not be so strict that reporters have to salute their superiors – but there is a chain of command, an expected means of behavior and decisions must go through the proper channels. As a result – newspapers turn like battleships and even implementing one line of code can take upwards of six months.

If that is our problem what does it take to break out of it?

Ironically enough: I believe it is going to take brave individuals from WITHIN those institutions.

I don’t blame editors or publishers for the situation newspapers are in. It is much larger than any individual. Newspapers, like many right now, are being slapped in the face by the information age. I think institutions that continue to structure themselves based on industrial age values will continue to be slapped until they fail.

But I do believe individual editors or publishers can act within those institutions to try and cut through the bureaucracy. If they can do so – then their organizations may stand a chance.

I don’t blame individuals for the current situation – but they should be called out for lack of action – which could turn things around.  I’m sure the jungle of bureaucracy is thick – but it is time for editors to whip out a machete and start chopping till they make a path.  If you have an idea – you should get your organization equipped to execute on it within two weeks, maximum. If it takes you longer, fine – learn from that and figure out why it took so long and try again.

Talk is cheap and so is my blogging: Time for me to get back to work doing what I can. I recognize I’m in a place of privileged to write about breaking bureaucracy – I run a startup with no institutional inertia whatsoever. This is just me writing down what I’ve noticed when I interact with people who are working within those larger news organizations that so many of us are urging to take drastic steps but aren’t.

For now…. ONWARD!!!!

10 thoughts on “Editors and Publishers – In a Battle Against Inertia

  1. You just wrote my TNTJ entry for me. This month’s topic asked us whether it’s wiser to invest your time and energy in a startup or an established news organization, and as part of the latter I’ve been wondering how I’d make my defense. This is a core part of it.

  2. Wow Dave. Keep up the sincerity. I got a lot of inspiration from your post.

    I graduated from college last spring (studied Philosophy as well), and my friends and I created a startup ( http://gnic.org ) to change libraries for the better. We won a competition as well (much smaller, though, an entrepreneurship one for $7,000).

    I just discovered you and your projects yesterday. It seems that we’re doing similar things in different worlds. I’m working with libraries.

    Remember not to get disheartened. If you feel that way, it’s because you have a strong expectation and vision for the way things should be. If anything, getting disheartened should remind you of that and how blessed you are that you have a unique perspective and drive.

    You’ve seen this video I’m sure ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6gmP4nk0EOE ), and while I take the Web 2.0 hype with a grain of salt, the premise is still true. Ours is the first generation to go through puberty and develop immersed in cyberspace. We can satiate curiosity instantly — what has that done to our minds ( http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200807/google )? We have to rethink commerce, relationships, love, identity, privacy, religion, governance, etc… This is on the personal scale, let alone the institutional scale. Think of the work to be done! =)

    I’ll definitely keep up with your blog. Keep up the good work.

  3. Great post. This is what inspired me to study what other industries and non-journalism experts know about organizational change for my research and dissertation (I’m an assistant professor at the University of Memphis). What has always struck me is that there is no lack of willingness or even ideas, but trouble with the execution. Working on getting what I’ve learned so far out on my blog changingnewsroom.wordpress.com .

  4. Excellent observations. You’re spot on about corporate inertia. It isn’t just the newspaper industry. All large companies operate like this to some degree.

    But newspapers need to think agilely. If bureaucracy stands in the way of getting something done, consider spinning off another company or division with no formal ties to the legacy systems that constrain business.

    It worked well for Fox and NBC with Hulu.

    Unfortunately, the decision to create a division would take months worth of meetings. That’s newspaper culture.

  5. Right on. This kind of institutional inertia is pervasive, and corrupting. I am a recent j-school graduate and was surprised at the diversity of people I met who preferred old over new, security over risk. The tried and true is, well, tried and true–fair enough. But in journalism today, who knows how long that will last?

    I’ve helped trained journalists in multimedia and online tools and it’s kind of sad to hear about how frustrated some become when they return to their newsrooms. (Some simply find jobs elsewhere.) But what can I say? I’m freelancing in San Francisco, and while I’ve talked about trying new things online with editors, reactions have been mixed, and always very cautious. New methods or media is a tough sell, because you’re trying to sell it to editors who work at, you guessed it, an institution.

    We’ve all got a lot of work to do.

  6. This is one of your best posts Dave, nicely done. A couple thoughts.

    First, while the ideas of the 19th century sociologist Max Weber are “old hat” to most people studying organizations in the 21st century, his notions about bureaucracy and “means-ends” rationality as making up the foundations of the modern world carry a ring of truth, even today. In other words, I want you to be aware of the stakes of what you’re struggling with: not just a tendency in old media organizations, and not just a tendency in organizations in general, but a pretty fundamental part of modern life. Which doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be struggled against, only that the struggle is very hard. This became chrystal clear to me during a part of my PhD research when I noticed that the exact same organizational intertias faced by “change leaders” at the capitalist media organization Philly.com were faced by volunteers at the radical Philadelphia Indymedia Center. Two organizations that seem totally different, and yet … this strikes me as an insight into a larger systemic problem.

    The other comment I’d make is that, while organizational bureaucracy is to be fought against tooth and nail, one of the insights of early journalism institution builders was that, to properly cover and monitor bureaucracies (like the government or like businesses) it was best to build a bureaucracy of your own. The existence of the beat system, in other words, parallels the existence of the governmental subcommittee. Can we have nimble, non-bureaucratic news organizations that adequately serve as a “check” on powerful bureaucratic systems like government and business? I don’t know, but I hope spot.us is going to help figure it out!

    Finally, not sure if my new blog shows up on this log-in, but I write about a lot of this stuff at:

    http://journalismschool.wordpress.com/

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