Jettison the Assembly Line

Many people probably saw Jack Shafer’s Slate column published on March 14 on copy editing changes at the Washington Post (he also posted an internal Post memo on the changes). Obviously, the Post has a massive desk and more resources than most papers, but it still presents some interesting ideas on how one might tinker with structures.

I’m curious what other folks think about strategies for reorganizing copy desks for the online world. Copy editors are, of course, keepers of one of the most important core values of journalism: verification. Their role remains as important as ever, but pressure to post things online quickly is eroding the functionality of newspaper structures that move copy through an orderly sequence of baskets.

ScheinOrganizational culture/leadership guru and MIT emeritus professor Edgar Schein calls this a “monochromatic time orientation,” historically common Western organizations. This orientation is characterized by a linear view of time that is divided into a series of sequential activities and otherwise neatly compartmentalized and organized. A polychromatic time orientation, common in African and Middle Eastern and southern European cultures, shifts the focus to what is accomplished rather than the time on the clock and often involves doing many things at once.

In his book Organizational Leadership and Culture (2004), Schein writes: “Monochromatic time controls human behavior and is therefore well suited to situations that require highly coordinated actions….Polychronic time assumptions are more effective for building relationships and for solving complex problems where information is highly scattered and highly interactive so that all channels must be kept open at all times (pg. 156).”

This quote couldn’t, in my mind, fit the changes in newspapers any better. A monochromatic time orientation made a lot of sense for coordinating the activity of a lot of people in a complex, bureaucratic organization. In many ways, it still does make sense, which is why these structures are so resistant to change — but clearly, the Internet is forcing a more polychromatic way of thinking about things.

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