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Social Media Done Right Is Reverse Narcissism

I often get asked to speak to journalists and student groups about social media and how they should be using it.

This is, to say the least, a broad topic. It’s hard to know exactly what to focus on. I’ve taught entire courses on social media and journalism, and although the new social journalism MA program I lead at CUNY is about more than *just* social media – we believe in using all the tools at our disposal to listen to and engage with our communities – our program is infused with the idea that social tools are a great way to connect people and help communities to achieve their goals.

But after thinking about this a lot over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that you can, in fact, distill the essence of social media for journalists rather simply.

It comes down to getting comfortable with an ethic of sharing and listening. If you don’t want to do that, fine, but frankly, if so, social media is a waste of your time.

But it’s all so narcissistic, gross! Plus, I have nothing to say.

I still hear something along those lines all the time,  even though we’ve generally  gotten past the idea that social media is only about what you had for lunch.

Look, I get it, to a point. We all know one of those people who are still taking duck-lipped selfies in the bathroom long past the age when such “look at me” behavior is at least somewhat understandable. There are numerous examples of people online doing all kinds of stupid, self-aggrandizing things.

But here’s the thing. If you are Doing it Right (imho), social media, especially for journalists and/or journalism academics, is NOT about saying  “look at me!” It’s about sharing, and about having a healthy curiosity about what others share and what you can learn from them. Others have written things along these lines before, but I think it still bears repeating and amplifying, given the amount of misconceptions that abound.

Fundamentally, it’s a mindshift. You are on social media to share stuff that that is genuinely valuable to other people. It makes their lives better or more interesting. You have knowledge that others can use. Every single day, any journalist or professor reads at least one interesting thing. You talk to one interesting person, or even a LOT of interesting people. You have an interesting thought or insight. You see something beautiful or unique. You make a funny.

So, drop into your stream and share it. And spend a few minutes listening and learning from the stuff other people share. Engage with them as relevant. Repeat.

This obviously and naturally means that you are sharing other people’s stuff. This doesn’t mean you can’t share your own work, of course. But if you are *only* using social media to promote your own stuff, you are  spam. I see so many authors, for example, who *only* or almost always tweet about their own books, for example. I love books, and am probably interested in yours. But if that’s *all* you do, you are basically like a telemarketer as far as most people are concerned.

This is not a technical skill. None of these tools are all that hard to use, and unless you have a big budget or a lot of time, no specific targeting tactics or carefully-wrought strategies are going to be all that helpful (I’m talking here about your personal use of social media, here, not that of institutions, which is a different story).

If you do this, the self-promotion and the personal branding and all that stuff people talk about is a natural byproduct. People start to associate you with being a reliable source of info about a few topics, with some humanity thrown in – and even the most serious among us generally prefer to engage with people not brands and enjoy some levity from time to time. It’s just that it has to come from a place of authenticity, rather than a contrived effort to get people to think you are so great, because the latter is just annoying.

And not only can social media be a source of news tips and a way to cultivate sources, it gives you a window into other people’s lives, attitudes, and beliefs that is both fascinating and valuable.

For me – and this may be a byproduct of my nerdiness – I was always doing this kind of thing through a weird compulsion to share things, long before there was social media as we know it today. I was *that person* back in the day that was constantly emailing you with articles I thought were interesting or so enraging that I wanted everybody to know about it, damnit! (Most watchdog journalism gets me pretty riled up.)  Or sending my friends in far-flung places little newsletters with attempts at humor about dumb little things I had done or had happened to me. Hell, I was collecting articles of interest and filing them away for reference when I was kid, before there was an Internet at all. When sites like Twitter and Facebook came along as places to share and connect with others and create a stream of valuable things you had read for future reference, well hot damn, it was perfect!  I’m pretty sure I’d be tweeting away even if not a single person was  paying attention, because doing it is fun  just for myself – a kind of sticker collection for adults, I suppose. Instead of scratch-and-sniff, now we collect experiences and knowledge in an accessible stream we can share with everyone. How awesome is that?

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A resolution for journalism for 2015

Journalists aiming for success in social media in 2015 and beyond need to awaken from their bubble of like-minded media mavens and join digital conversations in ways that enhance authenticity and build trust.

While I love “journalism Twitter” as much as the next person and find it a valuable source of ideas and inspiration, I think Nieman Lab director Joshua Benton is right that “journalists and their audiences often value different things in the news they consume.”

Journalists need to start listening to the communities they plan to serve in much broader and more focused ways and participating in conversations already happening online in ways that add information and insight, rather than simply broadcasting the same messages through new channels or talking amongst themselves. They need to use social media to be transparent about their process in a way that helps reassure a public that currently trusts little about any major institution, much less “the media.” I’ve got my eye on as one great example that may show us the way forward in 2015 on how to do this.

Over and over I hear from journalists that are reluctant to do more than post a few headlines and links on social media because it feels to them like the whole thing smacks of narcissism and self-promotion. I get it, believe me, but I think that gets the whole thing exactly wrong. Participating in the distributed digital conversation *is* about sharing your work as well as some parts of your personality and interests. However, if you are doing it right, it’s not all about you. The mindset should be one in which you are willing to genuinely and openly share your knowledge and ideas, mindful of what might be useful or interesting to others,  and then get some back in return.

This sounds simple and even trite but I think it’s critical and often misunderstood. Think of it this way — lurkers who just read posts but never share anything of their own are just taking and taking from the community but never giving back. I had a former colleague once who prided himself on reading everything in my Twitter feed and that of others but never posted himself. While I always argue to my students that listening is more important than talking, this felt voyeuristic and strange to me. If, as a journalist, you really don’t believe that the things you are uncovering and reading and learning on the job aren’t worth sharing, you are in the wrong profession.

Equally perplexing, however, was one journalist that recently told me about Twitter: “I never actually read my feed anymore.” Social media is a rich resource for reporting, and even if it’s only for a few minutes each day, these tools should be helpful for getting all kinds of perspectives that the traditional media Rolodex (remember those??) of typically old white men in power didn’t offer access to.  If tragic events and the resulting outrage in places like Ferguson, MO have taught us nothing else, it is that there are any number of important issues simmering in many communities that have been historically undercovered in mainstream media that are now finally getting a larger voice. Best we listen.

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Social journalism is here and coming at you in January 2015!

It is official: The CUNY Graduate School of Journalism is launching a new Social Journalism Master’s degree program in January. On October 15, we got official approval from the state of New York to launch this program, so now we are moving fast to process applications and enroll a new class to begin soon.

As the brand new director of the program, I’m still trying to get everything figured out, but I’m pretty thrilled.

Here’s what I think is cool about this degree. I suppose you can dismiss this as as shameless self-promotion, but for real:

  • We are trying to reinvent journalism for the digital age and inject a much-needed mindset that envisions journalism as a service, not a product, with a relentless focus on engaging communities. At the end of the day, if what animates you is a passionate belief that journalism is vitally important to a functioning democracy, the only way we can hope to sustain it is to keep finding new ways to ensure that we can find audiences for our work and sustain it financially. It’s pretty simple, but that’s what I keep coming back to, over and over, throughout my career: Invent or die.
  • While I don’t think everything we are proposing is completely “new,” there is no doubt that we are not seeing large-scale execution of these concepts in the profession today. Many of the core ideas of social journalism have long philosophical roots and are tied to earlier efforts to improve journalism and its connection with its readers. But, even as more and more journalists have adopted social media and other digital tools, many still do so with a “broadcasting what we think you need to know” mentality. There are many notable pioneers in social journalism who are constantly finding new ways to engage audiences, but we need to help spread their techniques much more broadly.
  • As heart-warming as all this “serving-your-community” stuff is to do-gooders like me, evidence is mounting that this is all critical to the bottom line. Researchers like my friend Doreen Marchionni have learned that readers expect and demand interactivity and that conversation builds credibility and trust. Big brands are capitalizing on things like native content and using the same terms, like “engagement,” as crucial metrics because they give you more bang for your buck than pageviews.

CUNY sign

  • Jobs. Few things are more satisfying as a professor than seeing your students get jobs. Especially cool, interesting jobs. We’ve been told by both well-established traditional media organizations and startups that these are skills they prize and are often hard to find. For example, Meg Pickard, who helped to establish the Guardian’s leadership in interactivity and now is a consultant to the industry, told us that in her seven years of hiring, she found that direct experience with communities is missing from the talent pool. Since I started working here, I’ve gotten many emails or direct messages from employers that are ready to hire our graduates.
  • CUNY Graduate School of Journalism brings together a lot of folks with seriously impressive traditional journalistic chops and an experimental, entrepreneurial mindset.  I mean,  I’m new, I’m not totally biased yet – this isn’t just marketing. I’ve long thought journalism schools need to be leaders, not followers, in helping the industry know what it needs, given that overall in academia, we have lower risk. That is what CUNY aspires to do. And as a newcomer to New York myself, I can say these are the kinds of people you dream of learning from, not to mention that we are able to draw adjuncts and guest speakers from the many major media organizations and technology and social media companies that call this place home. Heck, we are practically next door to the New York Times!

All of this is what made me bid adieu to tenure at the University of Memphis. I think this is going to be a great ride at a place where your professors want to work with you rather than just talking at you about creating the future of news. As Amanda Zamora of ProPublica put it:

“That is why I’m in journalism, is to tell stories that need to be told, elevate voices that need to be heard, and I really want us to be talking about using social, using technology, using the internet to tell stories and accomplish some of these things, and not just focus on metrics and chasing our tails.”

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Upcoming #Edshift Chat on Social Journalism: How Can We Recast Journalism as a Service?”

On Oct 3 at Noon Central/1p  Eastern, #EdShift (part of PBS MediaShift) is going to host a chat on “Social journalism: How can we recast journalism as a service and make it more responsive to communities?” It’s obviously promotional for our new initiative at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism to some extent, but really we want to talk about the larger issues raised by this idea, and how we can best prepare students for a landscape in which they will need to go beyond just creating content to connecting people with each other, engaging in conversation, producing tangible impact, etc.
If you’d like to be a participant, let me know in the comments or via Twitter. It is all pretty informal, but I’ll be hosting and we are lining up some folks in advance. Also, feel free to share with others that might want to participate, pros and academics welcome.
Some questions I’m hoping to cover, but open to ideas:
  • What  skills/knowledge journalism do students need to help communities meet their goals…
  • What are the best digital tools we can use build stronger relationships with our audience?
  • What are some of the challenges involved or obstacles?
  • How can we become better informed of communities needs and often neglected voices?
  • …and more

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Meaningful content with lasting value and engagement

For this round of the Carnival of Journalism blog fest, my friend and research buddy Jonathan Groves posed the following questions: How do you define meaningful content that has long-lasting value? What is the best way to evaluate content that fosters deep engagement with the audience? Groves wants to find a way to go beyond just “immediacy” to properly value pieces of content  with “longevity” that people return to repeatedly for connection, reference, or enjoyment.

First of all, I think that in order to increase the longevity of a meaningful piece of journalism, you’ve got to surface it for your readers at the right time, in the right way. A lot of that comes down to creating better systems for tagging and organizing content. For example, in the New York Times Innovation Report, they discussed the value in being able to do things like sort recipes by cooking time, restaurants reviews by geolocation, and similar. It’s difficult and time consuming to do this after the fact, they point out, so having a good CMS and established processes that make it a priority to do so at the time of publication are important. There is great potential here that remains untapped, even at well-resourced news organizations like the NYT.

I think Groves is right that not all of this kind of oft-returned to content has to be quite so utilitarian as recipes or restaurant reviews, although that’s an obvious place to start. What about investigative pieces that are relevant to a particular place? What about pieces that could resonate during certain events or milestones, like graduations, weddings, holidays, festivals etc.? I think there is a way to give many well-reported, well-written stories much longer lives, but it starts with making them easily findable, both through search and serendipity.

Second of all, I’m increasingly convinced that it’s less about choosing any one particular “golden” metric that will help us to quantify quality or impactful or engaging content, and more about being smarter and more sophisticated about the way we think and talk about the constellation of metrics available to us – and especially the story we as journalists tell advertisers.

I’m not an expert in advertising, but from talking to newsroom leaders at API’s Research Advisory Board meeting in February, what I understand is that right now advertisers  are also trying to parse the effectiveness of rapidly changing digital and mobile strategies. I have often heard that most advertisers don’t think click-through-rate is a great metric but continue to use it because they aren’t yet sure about  alternatives. I think journalists need to make a stronger case for higher ad rates on the basis of being associated with quality content and venerable media brands, especially on mobile. There’s nothing new about wanting to be associated with a credible brand, of course – it’s never been “only” about the volume of eyeballs. But it seems as though in the “Wild West” of trying to understand mobile and digital metrics we’ve been distracted from emphasizing these fundamentals.

For example, in her book “Saving Community Journalism,” Penelope Abernathy argues that publishers need to move from selling space to selling solutions to advertisers. She notes that a lot of the growth in digital advertising in recent years has come from search, which is all about helping consumers find products they are already inclined to purchase, but that “historically, advertising has served many other functions, from creating demand for a product to reinforcing the loyalty of customers.” She argues that newspapers should aggressively re-position themselves as a cross-platform medium that can provide ALL of those functions to the advertiser.

Similarly, the recently published API report on mobile argues that advertisers buy audiences rather than publications and that publishers need to think more creatively about cross-platform possibilities to provide useful services to people and capitalize on their unique strengths.

Maybe I’m too far off the topic of specific metrics, but I think it’s not so much about numbers, but about the stories they help us to tell about the kinds of people who read a publication, how they feel about it, how loyal they are, etc. and what that means for your credibility as a news organization and your ability to charge enough for your ads to sustain yourself.

Finally, I’m curious to follow the Financial Times’ recen t decision to move from CPMs to “time spent” going forward. They feel this metric will better value their highly engaged audience. As Sam Petulla writes for Contently:

This strategic shift is part of the broader vision that the The Financial Times sees for the future of advertising. [Commercial Director of Digital Advertising]  Slade said that The Financial Times wants to distinguish every aspect of their brand through quality, and using time as an advertising currency fits that mission perfectly.





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A few weeks ago I came across this piece in Harvard Business Review imploring companies to embrace questions like: “Why are we doing it this way? Is there a better approach?” For some reason – maybe just my usual end-of-semester frustration – this one really hit home with me. The essence, when you get right down to it, of being able to adapt to change, to constantly improve, to be the “best you can be, whee!” is to:

Question all the things


In journalism, even the most traditional of our institutions are all about “experimentation” these days as they seek to evolve and remain relevant and viable businesses:  the New York Times Innovation Report mentions this several times; Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron told all of us at ISOJ in Austin that it’s a major goal of his newsroom. Most experiments begin, fundamentally, with a question, and an atmosphere that welcomes it.

A willingness let go of:  “This is the way we’ve been doing things for 20 years — who are you to second-guess us?”

One might think the spirit of inquiry is endemic to the academic mission, but one would be wrong. Even as our sector, much like the media, stands ripe for disruption, I’ve never worked in another field in which one is more likely to see resistance to even the slightest threat to the status quo. An article in the New York Times today on G.M.’s years-long failure to fix a deadly safety issue in its cars described the “G.M. nod” – aka “the nod as an empty gesture.” While thankfully most of the issues I deal with don’t have life or death consequences, I’m often amazed by how questions are met with just that kind of passive resistance.

I use theories of organizational culture in my research, and I’m well aware of how defensive mechanisms get triggered and how and why resistance to change occurs. But I wonder if something as simple as encouraging people to always question how they could do things better  and rewarding them for doing so would be a great first step toward building an experimental culture.

There’s always a better way to tell that story. There’s always a more efficient process. There’s always a new reporting technique. There’s always a better way to teach a course. There are always questions. Maybe it’s a wholesale overhaul, maybe it’s a tweak, but there’s always something that could be improved or better understood.

In many ways, I think being able to question is also what allows us to be satisfied and feel our work has meaning. Instead of simply pointing out what we are doing wrong, bosses that encourage questioning such as “How could we do this better?”  are not only more supportive but produce the kind of atmosphere in which everyone is working collectively to come up with creative solutions to problems rather than just slinging the blame around. I find questioning invigorating and intellectually satisfying, personally, whereas when somebody just tells me something I do isn’t good enough, I get defensive and angry.

Entrepreneurs know this – this is why many tech startups are constantly engaging in A/B testing and other ways of answering their questions. For example, in his book,  The Lean Startup, Eric Ries talks about using the “Five Whys” to evolve processes. When confronted with a problem, he writes, ask “why” five times, and you will often uncover the root of the problem.

The Harvard Business Review piece points out it’s also no good to say to people who have asked a good question and uncovered a problem: Now it’s your job to fix it – without any new resources and in addition to your regular job. That will shut everybody down and create frustration real quick. People need time and space to question effectively.

George Carlin knew about questioning, too:





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Culture change at the NYT: A look at the Innovation Report

The relentless work of assembling the world’s best news report can also be a form of laziness, because it is work that is comfortable and familiar to us, that we know how to do. And it allows us to avoid the truly hard work and bigger questions about our present and our future: What shall we become? How must we change?” 

Resistance to change. It never ceases to amaze me how disruption prompts strikingly similar reactions across organizations and industries….change is constant, but human nature is far less mutable. In our research on newsrooms from the Christian Science Monitor to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to a smaller local daily and others, Jonathan Groves of Drury University and I heard almost exactly the same things the NYT Innovation Report chronicled in its interviews with staff (although to be sure, our research participants could scarcely have even contemplated the resources at the Times’ disposal –  445 engineers in its Technology Department?! Holy crap.)

And this is why I decided to study organizational change in the first place: In the first class I took with Dr. Michael Diamond at the University of Missouri, I was bouncing out of my chair (yeah, I’m a nerd) with recognition at how well theories of organizational culture and learning helped explain the things I had heard and seen in newsrooms across the country.

NYT newsroom

NYT newsroom

The NYT Innovation Report is well worth the time to read, and not just for news nerds, but for any newsroom ready to think seriously about innovation and how to overcome its roadblocks. It offers a pretty good diagnosis of the problems most newsrooms face and some excellent, specific solutions. I agree with Joshua Benton at Nieman Lab who called itone of the key documents of this media age…an astonishing look inside the culture change still needed in the shift to digital, even in one of the world’s greatest newsrooms.”

To some degree this is a shameless plug, but it fits so well I have to do it: Groves and I are working on a book that essentially hopes to help newsrooms respond to the clarion call issued by this report to develop an aggressively digital-first, experimental culture. To ruthlessly examine print-based traditions, routines, and processes with an eye toward radical restructuring. To step back from the daily demands to develop a forward-thinking strategy that allows for better prioritization of work and coordination of effort.

We hope to use more than eight years of our own research and the theories and insights of people who have studied organizational change across many industries to offer some actionable guidance on how to do these things.

Best recommendations in the report

A number of the reports recommendations are consistent with what Groves and I would suggest based on what we have learned:

  • Examine reward systems carefully to determine if the behavior leaders are encouraging are consistent with their espoused digital priorities or long-standing underlying assumptions. Sadly but not surprisingly, Page One still exerts what the report calls a “gravitational pull” on the newsroom and is heavily used in performance reviews, even as reporters and editors remain unsure if social media “counts as doing work or avoiding it.”   Leaders can talk all day about “digital-first,” and they do, but all people hear is “blah, blah, blah” if they know what”really” matters is something else.
  • Leadership is critical. It matters that most promotions seem to be going to people with more traditional print skills, even as digital types feel their skills are marginalized and they are treated more as “order-takers.” Change starts at the top. Groves and I also found that in newsrooms big and small, one of the main things people are looking for is some specific guidance on what their priorities should be. Even curmudgeons are more willing to change than you might expect, but when you tell people the current priority is “mobile” or “video” but they don’t hear any specifics about what is desired, they go back to doing what they know. As one desk head put it in the report: “We do respond, but it is a matter of shifting our burdens.
  • Build that culture of experimentation. In our book we hope to apply some of the lessons of The Lean Startup by Eric Ries and those of other entrepreneurs to newsrooms, all of which dovetail nicely with academic theories of organizational learning. The Innovation Report gets it right when it says “experimentation is about adopting a rigorous, scientific method for proving new concepts and constantly tweaking them to be as successful as possible.” It is also dead on when it talks about pushing back against perfectionism and releasing new products quickly and then iterating as they learn from users. Increasingly journalists’ competitors are the likes of Google and Facebook, which are relentless when it comes to A/B testing and other experimental methods. One person said in the report:  “Currently, the risk of failing greatly outweighs the reward of succeeding at the New York Times.” This needs to change if you want people to try new things and learn from them.
  • The need for better communication can’t be overstated. Reader data and lessons extracted from successes and failures must be shared. If people don’t even know where to begin when they want to collaborate with somebody with different expertise,  that’s a huge problem for any organization. The report’s suggestions on creating contact lists and having more open meetings and emails lists are excellent.
  • Collaborate with the business side and get rid of useless metaphors like “The Wall.” Journalism’s finest stalwarts like Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel were talking about getting rid of these even back in ~2001, because at the end of the day, everyone should be working toward the same goals. Great journalism that doesn’t get read or can’t support itself can’t do all that important democracy stuff we all care so much about. It actually really kind of pisses me off that even in 2014, even incredibly smart people like those at the New York Times don’t seem to realize the rich trove of information folks on the business side of the organization have about readers. These are people, and lots of them, who spend ALL DAY talking to readers, interviewing them, doing focus groups, surveys, etc., but the newsroom basically doesn’t communicate with them at all?? All our journalistic talk of “public service” is a wee bit hypocritical if we have no interest in what our readers want and need, and I agree with those in the report that suggest it’s a bit precious and overly dramatic to suggest that all such information will lead immediately to cat GIFs and bikini models. The report also makes the good point that in the past, the business side was mostly focused on advertisers, but today, with that increasingly becoming a smaller and smaller piece of the revenue bundle, everybody in the organization is more squarely focused on serving readers. Startups place high value on understanding their customers and that’s partly what allows them to iterate quickly in a fast-changing landscape.
  • Critical evaluation of process and structure and workflow. These things matter and are currently heavily steeped in print tradition.
  • Change is constant. That’s why building a culture of learning and experimentation, as previously noted, is so important. I really like this: “Build the newsroom out of Legos, not bricks,” because the structure may need to change. “Too often, we’ve made changes and then breathed sighs of relief, as if the challenge had been solved. But the pace of change is so fast that solutions can quickly seem out of date, and the next challenge is right around the corner.”
  • Researchers like Doreen Marchionni of Pacific Lutheran have been building up a mass of evidence that the report is correct in arguing that readers increasingly expect connection, two-way conversation, and participation. The report has a lot of great suggestions on how the paper can do that without sacrificing its reputation for quality and careful vetting. I especially like this insight:  “The first step is getting more comfortable with the idea of pulling back the curtain and providing readers with a bit more insight into how we do our work, which will only deepen their connection to it.” I also like the idea of expanding op-eds and developing that part of the paper as a place for sophisticated, expert conversation about ideas. The Times has a great advantage there in that it has the kind of brand people are eager to be associated with, making it easier for it to be more than a troll playground.

Why can’t people just get it already?

New York Times journalist and developer Derek Willis expressed some frustration about some of the report’s findings via Twitter. He said, among other similar things: “You cannot convince me that my very smart & talented colleagues can’t learn about new things & new tools. But they have to *want* to.” I suspect many other of the more digitally-savvy people who read the report wondered that at times as well. 

On a personal level, I agree. I spend a disproportionate amount of my time banging my head into a brick wall because many smart people with advanced degrees in my own organization dig their heels in at change. I’m in the category of people who basically can’t imagine NOT wanting to learn, iterate, try a different way of doing something, etc. I find it baffling.

But another thing we learned from scholars like Diamond who take what is called a “psychodynamic approach” to looking at organizational change is that people’s defensive reactions are deeply embedded in individual and group psychology. People are shaped by their past relationships and experiences, and not always in rational ways. I think we all have a tendency to assume that our interpretations of statements and events are more universal than they actually are.

In newsrooms we’ve studied, there is a tendency to assume that resistance to change is mostly occurring at the individual level  rather than structurally, when it is actually happening at both. The structural barriers come up over and over and over again in similar patterns because they are real, and people are also wired differently. In most newsrooms today there is an overall, if grudging, acceptance of the need to change, but some people will take easily to experimentation and others will be more comfortable with guidance, specifics, rules. That doesn’t make it any less frustrating for people like me who want change to happen already, but we either have to face this reality or launch our own startup (I’m starting to thing the latter is a great idea, BTW).

This is where academic theory becomes practical: It helps us understand some of the triggers for defensive reactions, allowing organizations to remove barriers to change. It helps identify all the ways in which leaders may be sending mixed messages or working at cross purposes in ways that undermine their stated goals or intentions.


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