Today’s Thought: Institutional memory and inertia

Are institutional memory and inertia killing the newspaper industry?

After reading the comments on a myriad of posts from journalists stuck in the past, I can’t help but think that there is no future for newspapers as long as the majority of their staffs (editorial and business) — and their collective institutional memories — are still around. Every change that is proposed, every new idea that is thought of, every staff cut that is made, is always compared to the old way of doing things.

The problem is that the old way of doing things for newspapers shares nothing in common with what 21st-century journalism is shaping up to be. What we are seeing is not a major change for the newspaper industry. It is a monumental rethinking of everything that newspapers have ever done.

This isn’t going from gas-powered cars to fuel cells. This is more akin to colonizing space.

And if you’re not prepared to colonize space, get the hell out of the way.

  • Pat, while I agree that almost all newsrooms are plagued by inertia and slowness to adapt, I don’t believe the attitude you express here is particularly helpful either. In fact, it’s this arrogant “do it my way or get out of the way” attitude that rubs many veterans the wrong way. They are not afraid of change, they have just lost faith in the ability of their leaders to actually come up with real solutions other than trimming staff and reducing newshole. Many of them had enthusiastically gone along with earlier attempts to transition to new media, but are simply tired of seeing their papers jump from one bad idea to another and paying for those mistakes with their jobs and their colleagues’ jobs while the people who concocted those ideas don’t pay the price.

    To use your analogy, many veterans are more than ready and willing to colonize space, they just don’t think their leaders know how to get there, especially after all the ideas those leaders came up with resulted in catastrophic explosions that killed their colleagues.

    You can’t successfully move forward without knowing where you came from; that’s why institutional memory is an important part of any attempt at innovation (and considering that Tampa’s new innovation is the same idea that has already been tried by various other papers, perhaps it needs a little more institutional memory to remind them about that).

  • Pat, love you to death, but I think it’s a little unfair to reduce the angry comment posters on my blog “journalists stuck in the past.”

    These are people who lost their jobs. They lost their income. They have mouths to feed and bills to pay. They have two to four weeks to find another job in an industry that’s quickly tanking.

    They misunderstood me in thinking that I’m glad they were laid off – that’s not the case. The Trib could have laid them off and done nothing else. I praised the new efforts to change up the reporting model, and they thought I was praising their job loss. It’s an honest mistake, and I would expect responses like that.

    And firing people is not an option I would recommend. It hurts and so long as a news organization could afford to, I would recommend training these people rather then setting them out to pasture. After all, they are people, not cows.

    People can disagree with me and insult me. It’s OK. They’re angry and they have every right to be.

    I can handle it. I have tough skin.

  • pat

    @John,

    Maybe the leaders need to be the first ones to go. When I said the majority of staffs, I certainly meant a healthy dose of editors and business execs. Let’s keep that in mind.

    The real problem might be that the days of printing a product every day might be over for most newspapers. That might be the reality that too many newspapers are going to come to realize too late in the game.

    The thing is, I think it would be much easier to start a modern news organization than it would be to transition a legacy one. That’s the problem with institutional memory.

  • pat

    @Jessica,

    Well certainly not all the angry comments were from people stuck in the past.

    But what about this comment? It’s not the only comment that screams, “you just don’t get it.”

    “Further, newspapers are now GIVING AWAY on the internet the one thing they have always had to sell: local news coverage and in-depth analysis that NO ONE ELSE is or will provide. newspaper executives bemoan declining subscriptions and revenues, but they have plenty of readers on the internet. the point is, why in the world would the public BUY something they can get FREE? exactly what kind of business model is THAT?

    one by one, newspapers — which historically have been incompetent at marketing themselves — have been cutting their own throats ever since the advent of the internet. i love being able to read newspapers from across the country on the internet, but they are not making any money off me.

    indeed, newspapers have been doing everything they can to PUSH paying readers TO the free internet. that’s a “business model” for extinction. but it continues.”

  • No, you’re right about that. Some of those posters ARE stuck in the past, but not all. That’s all I was pointing out.

    As for that specific issue, I don’t think I have enough knowledge to argue it yet. But feel free to battle the angry blog mob yourself.

  • pat

    @Jessica,

    I agree that many of them are not stuck in the past, and some even have valid points.

    But what really fires me up are all the people threatening your future in journalism like this:

    “I’m an editor at a medium-sized paper and I’m sending your name around to everyone I know in the business to make sure that you are never hired anywhere.”

    I’m not actually going to replace the majority of the staff at any news organization. But there people reading your post, threatening to black ball you from the industry?

    And for what? Championing change.

  • @John Zhu – An excellent point about managers jumping around from one half-baked idea to another. That has been a long and disastrous problem, and it certainly has played a role in bringing newspapers to this point.

    Some people might say the rank-and-file should not have simply waited for the leaders to tell them what to do. I say it’s more complicated than that.

    A lot of people who had great ideas were pooh-poohed by management. A lot of people have become disillusioned while trying hard to help their news organizations change intelligently. I think those people are often among the ones who JUMP at a buyout, because they are sick and tired of the way the organization has been managed.

  • @Pat,
    I can’t agree with you more that the days of a daily print product is nearing an end and that it’s probably easier to start a new media company than trying to transition an existing one. They are both ideas I’ve long believed in. However, the biggest reason I believe it’s easier to start a new company is not the institutional memory of the newsroom, but rather the institutional memory of the executives, the business people, and the shareholders. Almost all of the talk we’ve seen about transforming newspapers back into viable entities have focused on the editorial side of things: type of content, presentation of content, timeliness of content, delivery of content, etc. There has been little discussion about the need to revamp the business model and financial expectations. In short, I believe that owning a media company will never again be as profitable as it had been in the past, given the fragmented nature of online revenues. There will still be a lot of money to be had, but few companies would be able to achieve the near monopolies that newspapers had enjoyed in their markets. However, the people making the business decisions, which ultimately affect the newsroom budget and the staffing level, refuse to accept this new landscape. Inevitably, whatever editorial change they make only goes toward squeezing a few more bucks out of an antiquated business model to help them meet antiquated and increasingly unrealistic financial expectations. In the face of that, no editorial change is enough to “save” the paper, which will result in a continued spiral of staff and content cuts, resulting in a dying business rather than a growing one, which is what a startup company, built to spec in the new media landscape and with realistic revenue expectations, has the chance to be.

  • “The problem is that the old way of doing things for newspapers shares nothing in common with what 21st-century journalism is shaping up to be.”

    Really? Nothing in common? Like reporting, analysis, facts, good visuals or solid writing? Good thing you’re here to educate the rest of us on how this whole thing will work out. Now, the old way of doing things does differ from the way you do things in that there was not nearly enough self-promotion going on.

    Institutional memory has its uses at news organizations – when people pass on good contacts, tips for beat reporting, that sort of thing. I know it has been invaluable to me, and someday when you actually have a beat, you might understand this. But don’t let that prevent you from being the self-appointed expert on running news operations.

    And please don’t stop issuing more sweeping generalizations (after you finishing recommending further firings or layoffs at papers you’ve never worked at). “Get the hell out of the way”? It sure is easy to denigrate people you’ve never met and don’t know. Make you feel like a big man pounding that out on the keyboard?

    Whatever your message, if it’s delivered via a punch in the face, chances are your reception will be slightly less than enthusiastic. Iconoclast? Demagogue is more like it.

  • One thing coming out of this: We see how classless the Hats In Reverse bunch is.

    Pat, Mindy, Jessica, et al. are presenting themselves as buffoons on this one. I’m all for some changes, but cheering and boot-licking while people are laid off for reasons as weak as working in another city are acts that cannot be respected.

    I assume John Zhu and I have disagreed in the past, but in this case, I praise him for his posts here and elsewhere.

    Pat: It’s time for you to grow up and get a clue. Simply shouting “Change!” with no substance is spineless. You need to realize that.

  • BTW, just thought I’d share this Twitter exchange between clueless Pat and tactless Jessica:

    jdasilva @jiconoclast ok, remind me why the F newspapers are still printing anything. http://www.google.com 06:21 PM July 01, 2008 from web in reply to jiconoclast
    jdasilva @jiconoclast it must be for all the old people. 06:03 PM July 01, 2008 from TwitterFox in reply to jiconoclast

    The ignorance level is amazing.

  • After Jessica DaSilva’s post I just picture a huge gang fight in newsrooms across the country.