Category Archives: Research on Newsroom Change

“Voice” Leads to More Credibility and Political Efficacy

Newsosaur blogger Alan Mutter writes what I think is a thought-provoking and interesting post in which he argues that given the current economic crisis facing most news outlets today, they might consider “whether a more outspoken, less diffident, more opinionated and less dreary press might be welcomed by journalists and readers alike.”

I don’t have time for a more complete post now in the midst of grading season, but I just wanted to note that the research indicates that he is exactly right.

As early as 1989, scholars Newhagan and Nass were finding that television news anchors were more trusted than their newspaper counterparts, in large part because people just felt like they really knew them.  This was before the cable shout-fests began, but simply being able to show a hint of personality and to be a “real person” on air led to higher credibility.

A recent study by my former Mizzou colleagues Jeremy Littau, Liz Gardner, and Esther Thorson, presented at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference in Boston last August, found that news with more opinion, voice, and analysis could be key in attracting younger readers. (Jeremy has his own blog, and I’m sure he can talk better about his work than I can, so check it out :))

They also tested the impact of voice on what is known in the academy as “political efficacy,” or the belief that you are able to act upon your knowledge.

What they found is that voice increases efficacy, in part because, unlike a dry, authoritative, institutional voice, it better engages your brain. It gets you thinking,  actively processing the information, which in turn makes it more likely that you will not only remember this information, but feel empowered to act on it, too.

There’s more research on voice, which I will write about later; one of my students did her final paper for my class on the subject.

I’m lucky enough to have many journalism friends on Facebook, and sometimes I feel like their hilarious, irreverent voices don’t make it into their more dry, institutional copy. I think it’s a missed opportunity.

Voice doesn’t HAVE TO mean less facts or more ill-informed ranting a la Fox News or MSNBC. It’s what our best columnists have always done – there’s still hard-hitting reporting, but the person behind the story isn’t completely hidden. If anything, the biases they are trying (often to little avail) to hide are instead transparently represented to the audience and become part and parcel of their expertise rather than a liability.



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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.


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Newspaper Leaders: Stick It Out Or Step Down?

I’m in the final throes of wrestling my dissertation out of my head and onto the page, not to mention teaching, serving on various committees and all the other frantic doings of a new professor, but I couldn’t resist commenting on the question posed by David Westphal on who should lead the digital transformation in a piece he wrote in the resurrected Online Journalism Review.

Westphal is a senior fellow at USC Annenberg Journalism School’s Center on Communication Leadership and until recently the Washington bureau chief of McClatchy.  His piece came on the heels of the departure of Steven Smith as editor of the Spokane Spokesman-Review, a paper I admired for its robust and creative embrace of transparency.

Westphal wonders if editors deeply invested in print-centered culture and routines are the best people to lead their changing newsrooms, or if this task would be best given to younger folks who have less to lose.

My own research and the literature developed among scholars of organizational change doesn’t answer this question directly, but it offers some insight.

First and foremost, I should say that this literature warns against saying that any particular leader or staff member is “the problem.” All too often, systemic factors are at work and it may turn out that the sense that “if only we could get rid of THAT guy (or woman)” proves to be a red herring.  Individual personalities and leadership style of top editors are indeed important factors in organizational effectiveness, but this is something that has to be carefully evaluated on a case-by-case basis and can often be improved through executive coaching and the like.

Although editors have clearly read the writing on the wall and have the best of intentions in moving their newsrooms into the future, it is true that unconsciously they may resist the kinds of changes that undermine their authority and the skill set that took them to the top of their profession.  The Web’s need for immediacy tends to push decision-making authority down, and figuring out what goes on 1A – the most powerful job in the newsroom – is no longer as relevant as it once was.  This strikes at the very core of top editors’ professional competence. Not to mention that for better or worse, it is so easy to measure the response of readers to individual stories online that these metrics are increasingly driving the prominence of stories on newspaper Web sites.  There is still clearly a place for seasoned journalistic judgment in any media, but the hierarchical structure of the newsroom is no longer as effective as it once was.

For example, here’s a question – how many newsrooms that talk about being “Web first” really do put the Web first at the traditional morning and afternoon news meetings?  I think that many do – but what was the time gap between the time when top newsroom leaders started encouraging their staff to embrace the Web site and the time when they changed this most fundamental of newspaper rituals, which arguably is the one thing they have the most control over?  (Staff members can “work-around” other directives, but that news meeting is often still run by the editor or managing editor.) This is a big opportunity to set the tone for the entire staff, telegraphing what is important and what will be rewarded, and in many cases, I suspect it was missed for quite some time.  What else is being missed?

It may sound a little wishy-washy to talk about editors’ “unconscious” resistance to change, but the research shows that this can be a powerful thing because it does have such a profound effect on what they reward and what they pay attention to in the thousands of small interactions an editor has over the course of a day – much more impactful in the long run than sweeping pronoucements made at staff gatherings.

In my view, I’d prefer frankly to see most editors stick it out.  I think that those journalism values that Westphal references via a quote from former Plain Dealer editor Doug Clifton – “powerful, meaningful reporting, urgency, passion” are as important now as ever – we just have to figure out how to deliver them in a way that works better for new media.  However, I’d also like to see more senior leaders – obviously this is somewhat self-serving – bring in more researchers with knowledge of leadership and its impact on organizational change, as well as those studying audiences’ news needs online.  It’s time to learn a lesson from other businesses around the globe – we don’t have to figure this thing out all alone.  Sometimes research really IS practical.

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A Very Useful Resource

Many of you have seen or heard about this already — Amy Gahran at Poynter’s E-media Tidbits has also highlighted it in her posts — but I just wanted to be sure to mention an extremely useful study by the Pew Research Center for People and Press about changing news habits.  This can help you think not only about big issues such as site redesigns but also I think about how to better target your limited resources at producing online content that will be useful to people.

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Leading in a Time of Change

Research on organizational change shows that its critically important for leaders to reflect on exactly what they reward and what they punish. Employees are closely attuned not only to what you SAY about change, about the future of news and what needs to be done in your newsroom, but also more explicitly what you do and how you do it. Indeed, researchers who study organizations are trained to look closely at leaders’ rewards and punishments as important indicators of what the “real” priorities in an organization are, regardless of what might be formally espoused.

By rewards I don’t necessarily mean raises or promotions or formal awards, although of course those count too. A important reward is also praise and even just attention, and people notice and become demoralized when these are lacking. For example, if someone on your staff puts together a video for your Website, can you respond yes when they stop you in the hallway to ask if you have seen it? They know you’ve read that front page. Do you spend most of YOUR time focused on the print paper, even as you give speeches about the importance of thinking Web first? What kinds of things deserve a newsroom-wide email of praise – the exceptional effort of your team in its election coverage (important, but pretty standard) or the creation of a new interactive component of the Website that lets readers contribute ideas? How do you run your news meetings — when do you talk about what you’ve got for the Website (if at all?) Who gets the floor at those meetings and what gets the most energy and discussion? (The news meeting, I would argue, remains largely perceived as the place where “the most important stuff” gets talked about.) What makes you stop by someone’s desk? Who on your staff haven’t you spoken to personally in awhile? What messages are you sending with your body language? Who do you exchange jokes with?

My research seems to indicate that many newsroom leaders are basically sitting back and waiting for the individuals that work for them to step up and take on the host of new challenges that await them. Knowing that risk-taking is important in times like these, leaders are actually often quite tolerant, as they should be, of mistakes made — the important metric is simply the willingness to jump right in without much prompting. This works out just fine for the self-confident and the self-starters. They will not only adjust but quickly figure out how writing for the Web helps their work in print, too. Those who are willing but require more guidance or structure to adapt to new responsibilities (and many people do) are often viewed as weak, and, while perhaps not overtly punished, essentially ignored or worked around.

In many ways, this makes sense when you think about a typical newsroom’s culture, where learning by DOING is more important than degrees attained, hand-holding is disdained, and rising through the ranks based primarily on experience and action. I still remember my first boss’ response when I went out to cover my first bank robbery (really my first true breaking news story of any kind) and briefly asked if he had any advice on my way out the door. “NO, JUST GO!” he yelled. The key to pleasing him was always to stop asking questions and just jump in and get dirty.

Indeed, leaders seem to be relatively unwilling or at least slow to spell out their expectations in the multimedia environment and, critically, to launch process changes that would make it easier and more clear to everyone what direction to paddle. As I’ve said before, its the weight of the still largely unchanged processes for putting out a newspaper that stifle people’s ability to do more online far more than a recalcitrant attitude. Most leaders say that this is because it is an uncertain time and they aren’t quite sure what their expectations should be. Fair enough. But if you want your newsroom to be more Web first, start thinking more specifically about how you can make that happen rather than just hoping it does.

Also — yes, it’s important to empower those below you rather than issuing specific edicts from on high. That’s just good management, and I applaud it. However, I think there may be a tendency among some news leaders to fall back a little bit too hard on this argument. While I don’t think it’s intentional, it may be somewhat of an excuse that is used to push responsibility for change downward.

I’ve been thinking about this for some time, and was thrilled this morning to also see it reflected in a post written a couple of days ago in Mindy McAdams blog, Teaching Online Journalism, which I just discovered…and I think she says it more eloquently than I just did. She notes that the same phenomenon in j-schools as well. Check this quote out:

“The dean, director or department chair says a lot about convergence and updating the curriculum, but then sits back and waits for the faculty to somehow magically transform themselves from worried, frightened people (or just plain overworked people with no spare time) into the innovators and early adopters who have already made the change. These are different types of people. The worried ones are not going to change into the other type. However, the worried ones are not the same as those crouching behind the barricades with a barber’s basin on their head.”


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Hitting the Stretch Zone: Changing Habits To Foster Creativity

I was interested to see a story by Janet Rae-Dupree in the New York Times about how you can change your habits and develop new skills hover on the most emailed list for quite some time – I guess this indicates that there is a real self-improvement fever out there somewhere.  It also has some interesting implications for organizations that are undergoing major change.

One thing the article suggests is making a number of small changes rather than one big one and finding your stretch zone, in which you are somewhat uncomfortable but not so stressed that you can’t focus.  This reflects studies done by organizational researchers such as Ralph D. Stacey, author of the book Complexity and Creativity in Organizations — creative organizations operate on the very edge of chaos, in which there is just enough instability to push people to be at their best and get out of their comfort zone, but just enough security that people aren’t overwhelmed by fear.  It’s a tricky balance, and it generally falls to the leaders of organizations to produce it.  I’ll have to write more about Stacey in the future, because it’s some really fascinating stuff.

The article also prescribes cultivating a sense of wonder and to simply try new things, rather than focusing on eliminating an undesirable habit:  “Once those ruts of procedure are worn into the hippocampus, they’re there to stay. Instead, the new habits we deliberately ingrain into ourselves create parallel pathways that can bypass those old roads.”  It suggests avoiding the cultural pressure to be a decider and staying open to all possibilities for a longer period of time so that you don’t prematurely cut off your options.  This also generally reflects Stacey’s organizational research.  Organizations tend to become obsessed with control and often decisiveness is associated with power and status, even in environments such as modern newsrooms where the habits and needs of the audience is changing so rapidly that constant revisions in priorities might be necessary.

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Schudson and the “Social Empathy” Role of the Press

Today the well-known scholar and University of California San Diego professor Michael Schudson came to the Missouri School of Journalism to speak to an eager crowd of what I will fondly call a bunch of nerds, myself included.  The room was packed with plenty of folks sprawled out on the floor and the PhD-student list-serv had been afire with witty banter about bringing our lighters to show one of our field’s most respected scholars our appreciation, until it was disclosed  by one of the cooler among us that kids these days use cell phones at concerts instead.  Oh.  Well, anyway.

Schudson outlined what he sees as the functions, or roles of journalism in society, which he believes are more complex and nuanced than commonly espoused normative mission of serving democracy.  I won’t list out all of his functions, but I did notice that they essentially paralleled the principles of journalism outlined in the Bible, aka Elements (by Kovach and Rosenstiel).  For example, he cited investigations or digging up information,  providing a public forum, making complex issues concise and comprehensible, etc.

The one I thought was most interesting was what he termed “social empathy.”  This is the idea that a primary role of journalism is to bring an compassionate understanding of how people very different from us experience their lives.  These may be people who, for whatever reason, cannot or will not vote, and as thus they do not play any kind of active role in democracy — but Schudson thinks that journalists’ role in  helping us understand  their perspectives and creating social empathy is one of the most important functions of the press — and one that, in his view, news organizations are increasingly doing a better and better job at.

Schudson cited some preliminary data — he’s still doing the research — showing a marked surge in the use of the anecdotal lead and what he termed the “analytic/interpretive” lead from the 1960s to today, supplanting the more conventional hard news lead.  To his surprise, stories from the Vietnam era very rarely lead with an anecdote or analysis; today, the use of these types of leads in Iraq coverage have absolutely skyrocketed.  A reporter writing today about a malady faced by soldiers, for example, is significantly more likely to begin with one soldier’s personal  story before digging into the larger issues at stake.  In his view, reporters are doing a better job than ever before in giving us entry points into a story and showing us why we should care.  It’s certainly nice to get some props from a press critic

What wasn’t entirely clear to me (and I welcome clarification from others who were there) is why he thinks that these functions he described somehow refute the late scholar Jim Carey’s statement that journalism is a another name for democracy (which Schudson referred to as more of a “normative plea” rather than a factual statement). He seems to be saying that journalism is about much more than giving people the information they need to vote, which I would agree with, but I’m not quite sure who, including Carey, wouldn’t.  Elements describes the most fundamental purpose of journalism is to give people the information they need to be free and govern themselves, and I think that the “be free” part has a broad meaning and scope.  If at some very fundamental  level we don’t understand and feel compassion for each other (at least some of the time), the respect for the rule of law and the ability to cooperate on common problems, both cornerstones of democracy, would be threatened.  I don’t know, though.  I am probably only feebly understanding his point here.

Some of my friends who study new media were also were somewhat dissatisfied with his view on blogs, which he seemed to think were all fine and good, but didn’t have much of a role to play in fulfilling any of these functions.  I wasn’t quite sure how to parse what he meant there.


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Unhappy Journalists Aren’t Productive Journalists

I hope to periodically use this blog to summarize recent academic research relevant to managing change in the newsroom. Today I picked up one of the Newspaper Research Journals that have been piling up on my desk, untouched, and spent a few minutes quickly reading through a study that found that one-third of copy editors are dissatisfied with their jobs. Not exactly groundbreaking, but since it’s relevant to managing change I thought I would take a look.

Obviously, these findings are not good, given the relationship between job performance, productivity, and job satisfaction organizational scholars have long established, but nevertheless are not at all surprising to anyone that’s been in a newsroom lately.

Published in the summer 2007, the findings came from an online survey of ACES members conducted by Andrew Zahler, a copy editor for The Spokesman-Review in Washington state who has an MA from Mizzou.

Why were they so dissatisfied? Well, the main reason was increased workload, often due to more responsibilities as newspapers produce larger amounts of copy for the Web as well as print, combined with shrinking staffs. Many of them said the quality of their work had suffered — both a cause and an effect of job dissatisfaction.

What was most interesting to me were some of the suggestions made by the copy desk to improve their situation, which seem relevant to the many newsrooms who are contemplating a continuous news desk. These included staggering copy editors’ schedules, and “orchestrating a prioritized plan for moving content through the editing process based on its relative importance” (pg. 32). These are the kinds of things some newspaper managers fear will be resisted but think will be necessary, so it’s somewhat telling they are raised here.

They also noted that teamwork is important and that reporters have to do their part in terms of turning in clean copy on time. This is a theme that I have found reflected in my own research as well: There is a widespread feeling in some production departments that these folks are being asked to bear a disproportionate share of the burden of these lean times in terms of shrinking staff sizes and increased responsibility. I’m not at the stage yet where I can say for sure if this is really the case or not, but issues of fairness and justice in the workplace are absolutely vital when it comes to creating a productive and effective work environment, according to my professor Michael Diamond, an expert in organizational change.

Of course, there are limitations. The response rate for this study wasn’t bad for such things — about 41 percent — but clearly those who responded may likely be generally more engaged in their profession than others.

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Using the Media Choice Model

There is nothing so practical as a good theory.

I’ve long found the above statement pretty dubious. Yes, I’ve spent years, upon years, upon years, in school, prostrate to the higher mind, and all that, and now I depend on the Ivory Tower for a living. However, I can’t deny I’ve always had very little patience for the turgid prose that academics use in what amounts to a “I’m smarter than YOU are!” pissing contest that often either does not reflect the real world, or simply will never be translated in a way that real people actually could put to use. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m as fascinated as the next nerd by deep thoughts, but I’m more interested in using them to help people.

That said, in these turbulent times for journalism, I’ve finally realized that, indeed, there is nothing so powerful as a good theory to help us understand some of the fundamentals of human nature that don’t change as fast as technologies and organizations and business models do.

As thus, I think that the Media Choice Model is really useful way to evaluate the various ideas and proposals news organizations are coming up with as they attempt to carve out a viable presence on the Web. This model is based on the work of Acting Dean of the Missouri Journalism School, Esther Thorson, and acting associate dean Margaret Duffy.

Media Choice Model spells out the fundamental needs people are seeking to be met when they go online:





Uh, okay. Sounds pretty vague, right? But where the rubber meets the road comes in helping you to avoid doing something…Web video or audio, for example…just because you CAN, thereby wasting valuable resources. Save those tools for when you think they will meet people’s needs. Say you have an idea on how to pull together some evergreen content your organization already produces in one place on your site. How does this proposal meet the above needs? For example, have you provided opportunities for your audience to interact with that content in ways that meet connectivity needs? And so on and so forth.

Any other ideas on how to apply the media choice model? Please post them here. I will be posting some more on this subject, with the help of some of my friends who study this model in much more detail than I do.


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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. 🙂 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).

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