Theory (of all things) Can Shed Light on Jarvis/Rosenbaum Dustup

I read about the tiff between Ron Rosenbaum and Jeff Jarvis today with some interest – and not only because like any cantankerous journalism type, I’m drawn inexorably if reluctantly to conflict.

In a nutshell, Rosenbaum, writing for Slate, basically calls Jarvis a pompous pontificator who thinks he has all the answers and who almost appears to gloat as mainstream media journalists lose their jobs in droves; Jarvis fires back with a bazooka, essentially saying that far from callous, he’s working as hard as he can to come up with fresh ideas and light a fire under journalists’ butts to get them to hold themselves more accountable for building a sustainable future for their craft.

Both of them, in my view, have a point. (Jarvis does come across as arrogant, but our industry needs provocateurs right now.) But what’s more interesting to me is what theory on how organizations change (or don’t) can tell us about this tendency for the “old guard” and the “new guard” to get into spitting matches as Rome burns.

Research by Schein (2004) on organizational culture shows that assumptions about the nature of human relationships affect the ways in which organizations resolve conflict and make decisions about the future. My research seems to indicate that journalists generally tend to take a very individualistic view of organizational life, which causes leaders to focus on “who is with us, and who is against us?” rather than examining common values and larger systemic factors that contribute to — or inhibit — change.

The journalism blogosphere is full of frustrated rants about various ways in which individual resistance is one of the biggest impediments to change (and believe me, I too have been one of the frustrated). Even in individual newsrooms, some people are tagged as those who will embrace change readily and will as thus be relied on heavily to step up (and keep stepping until they are nearly burnt out) to contribute in a variety of ways to adapting to the digital world; others just are dim-witted and must be worked around. Not incidentially, from a psychological perspective, this allows many in leadership roles to bump up their own status as ones who are savvy enough to “get it” while simultaneously giving them a scapegoat for lack of progress — those “other folks” who just don’t and never will.

The truth is, the more time you spend with individual journalists listening — really listening — to their ideas about their role in the future — lo and behold, you find people who are smart enough to have read the writing on the wall and have actually thought quite creatively about how their particular skills apply well in an online world. They remember the typewriter fondly but are nevertheless incredibly articulate and passionate about the role of, say, page designers or graphic artists in a new medium. Some of these folks are, yes, the kinds of people who have more structured learning styles and aren’t the first to jump in to take risks, but that doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t take them in the right environment.

What’s holding these folks back is not so much individual failings, but systems. Newspapers are still putting out a print product every day, and the routines that make it possible for them to manage chaos and produce the daily miracle on dead trees each morning are notoriously hard to change partly just because they do WORK to make that possible. People who have built up power and status in a particular specialty are scared of change that calls the knowledge and experience that got them there irrelevant. Underlying assumptions about the importance of hierarchy and the relative prestige in print are still operating. Publishers shortsightedly cut resources. Most mainstream media journalists are working long hours just trying to stay afloat with a massively increased workload.

These systemic issues are not insurmountable. The key, though, is to stop seeing this as a “I get it, you don’t” environment and start working at the organizational level to identify specific impediments to change and collective solutions.

3 Comments

Filed under Research on Newsroom Change, Uncategorized

3 responses to “Theory (of all things) Can Shed Light on Jarvis/Rosenbaum Dustup

  1. Nice post. Great to see some rational thought applied to this spat, and the wider issue.

  2. Pingback: Unrequired Reading {13.11.08}

  3. Pingback: Why change in the newsroom is so hard (Kristine Lowe, 24/12/08) : Centro de Estudios de Medios

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