Newsroom Culture and Change

Hopefully I’ll be able to get back to posting a bit more frequently now that an extremely busy week has ended. šŸ™‚ Here’s a final installment from the notes I prepared for a meeting in DC on managing change in the newsroom last March. Again, holler if you want more complete references.

  • Modern management trends include a general embrace of “performance-oriented” cultures, in which the hierarchies that typically characterized most businesses in the 20th century are flattened and people at lower-levels are given more responsibility and flexibility (e.g. control over work hours). Higher levels of training and professional development are also now the norm. Newspapers have been slow to embrace these trends (Lewis 1997), although the constant deadlines of the 24-7 news environment of the Web are building up pressure for authority to be spread out more broadly.
  • Hierarchies die hard in newsrooms (and not necessarily because leaders won’t relinquish power). Newsrooms have individualistic cultures. Even lower-level staffers in a newsroom have a considerable degree of autonomy and authority over their own work, and often tell researchers that they would prefer to be told yes, go for it or no, you can’t, than to be asked to collaborate with others to come up with a collective answer to a problem (Gade, 2004).
  • Team-based structures can be hard to pull off in journalism due to the individualistic culture described above. This doesn’t mean teams are always ineffective, but managers should be aware that staff may resist them and feel less empowered in these structures (Gade, 2004; Hansen and Neuzil, 1998).
  • Managers and rank-and-file are often eons apart in how they perceive a newsroom change. Each group has a tendency to blame the other and make untested assumptions about the motivation or abilities or true intentions of those above or below them in the hierarchy. For example, many managers may think that they already have mastered many of the techniques suggested by the research listed here (after all, some of them are fairly commonsensical to anyone who has spent time in a newsroom). However, when staffers are surveyed, they often rate their bosses much lower (Gade, 2004).
  • Research suggests an organizational chart is not always the only or even the best way to understand who wields power or has influence in newsrooms (Schein, 2004; Argyris and Schon, 1974; Harrison, 2005). For example, a star columnist or an administrative assistant who influences access to higher-ups may have more power to get things done than those who are technically above them in the newsroom hierarchy. An outside assessment can help you to determine how decisions are made and executed within an organization in less obvious ways and how this affects change efforts.
  • Indeed, understanding your organization’s culture is key to understanding how to change it. Researchers of organizational change understand a group’s culture by looking not only at what people say they value, but also the underlying assumptions that govern what they actually do (Schein, 2004).
  • A key aspect of understanding organizational culture involves looking at the interpersonal dynamics that underlie what is commonly known as “office politics.” In stressful situations in which an individual’s or a group’s sense of identity, competence, or self-worth are threatened, people will resort to one or several different defensive routines mentioned earlier, that can block learning and change (Kets de Vries, 2001; Stapley, 2006).


1 Comment

Filed under Research on Newsroom Change

One response to “Newsroom Culture and Change

  1. Your description of the individualist culture in newsrooms is interesting and spot on, I think. It’s also interesting to consider that so many great investigative projects are the result of teamwork. Take a look at the Philip Meyer Journalism awards for the past few years. Only one award has been given for reporting by a single journalist. The rest have all been collaborative projects. Maybe team-based structures are hard to pull off, but when done well can be extremely effective. Perhaps a newsroom can be more than the sum of its parts when some of those parts work as one.

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