There's a nice little exchange going on between my friend Steve Buttry and Emily Olson, managing editor of the Register Citizen in Torrington, Conn., about a powerfully evocative question: How can we recapture the joy and excitement that was once part of the group experience of committing journalism?
It's an important question, because what outsiders don't really know about the old world of newspapering is that once upon a time, it was a lot of fun. People (myself included) routinely worked an extra 10 to 15 hours a week without filing for overtime simply because the job could be such a rush.
I'm not suggesting that unpaid overtime is a good thing. I'm saying that a rewarding workplace is a tangible company asset. Neither am I suggesting that everything that made newspapering fun is worth conserving. Many of our Mad Men-era attitudes were ethically irresponsible, intellectually lazy and infuriatingly arrogant. But newsroom morale isn't a touchy-feely issue. It's a quality and productivity issue.
Steve offers Olson six pieces of advice, then gives news executives four additional suggestions. They're all good, but I'd like to add six items to that list of executive advice, just to get it to an even 10.
1. Stand for something: The best people in the news business are people who came in with a sense of public service and preserved it. That didn't make them all crusaders, but they did their jobs with a sense of commitment to a higher calling, and the industry encouraged those high-minded ideals until its profit margins dropped.
Standing for something today -- to the extent that you demand quality and integrity of yourself and others -- will either burn you out or put you on the next layoff list.
In other words, if you want your people to work with inspiration, try inspiring them instead of disrepecting them. Attitude reflects leadership.
2. Fire all those assholes you promoted: Come on, you know you did it, and you did it on purpose. You promoted the yes-men, the bullies, the vengeful hacks. You gave authority to the sycophants who made you feel good about yourself despite your confusion. You replaced experienced leaders with the wisdom to recognize bad ieas and the integrity to oppose them with sociopaths who would aggressively repeat utter nonsense so long as the job came with a corner office and a small raise. You created a Reign of Terror and you promoted people who would do the dirty work so you could keep your hands clean. "The beatings will continue until morale improves" is a funny joke, but it's not a business plan.
3. Cut back on your publication schedule: You cut your news staff by a third while increasing its workload. Then you mandated "aspirational" weekly story quotas. Plus, once you gave up on trying to kill social media, you raced toward it like a binge drinker who spies an open bar at his nephew's wedding. You enforce senseless policies that encourage smart people to Tweet inanities. You think nattering about your paper on Facebook is somehow going to make money for someone not named Mark Zuckerberg. Meanwhile, you're forcing your overextended staff to churn out depressingly threadbare blogs, unread live-web updates, awkward podcasts, and astoundingly awful video.
Responding to the problem of the cheap-information glut by trying to produce more cheap information is, to say the least, counterproductive.
What you really ought to be doing is cutting back on the number of print products you publish each week. Put all your breaking news online and do a better job with your websites. Then raise the quality standard for the articles in your one-to-three-times-a-week print products. You don't produce enough interesting, shallow copy to fill seven metro papers a week. But if you had fewer editions, you could write stories that people couldn't find elsewhere, and you might accidentally make yourself relevant again.
As an added bonus, you could drop your Associated Press subscription. Think of the savings!
4. Stop doing stupid stuff: Here's an ugly little secret about your company. You think that a few old men (and a few old women who've joined the old-men club) in your outfit should enjoy a monopoly on all the relevant information and insight into business practices. On the flip side, you have this quasi-religious belief that nobody above the age of 26 understands digital media. So you run around shoving outdated business ideas down people's throats, while promoting callow cleverness with an astounding lack of review.
Treating everyone in between as if their only useful roles are silent-worker-drone or sadistic-plantation-overseer isn't exactly a recipe for fun-time creativity.
You know what really kills journalists' morale? Coming to work and finding out that you're about to make them do something obviously stupid. Again. Or reading a quote from their boss that makes them want to slam their heads against the wall just to make the pain go away.
5. Listen to your insightful peers: I'm awfully hard on the industry as a whole, not because I'm particularly mean or bitter, but because the industry as a whole has earned the nation's disdain.That's not to say there aren't enlightened, courageous, visionary executives out there. I've met a few. But they're outnumbered, outgunned in industry groups, and generally disrespected. Many have given up and cashed out, but a few are hanging on, hoping to make their communities better. They may not be right about everything, but they deserve to be heard, not mocked.
6. Go out of business: Seriously. You can't change, and you really have no interest in changing. You've had years to figure this out, you waited until you were broke to consider the problem, and yet you still don't invest in R&D. You think innovation is surfing the leading edge of the status quo, and let's be honest: All you really want to do is kill Craigslist, make people pay to read your increasingly crappy content online, and jack-up your display-ad rates.
Since you can't do that, you're following the Harvest Model -- cutting costs while you milk every last penny out of your obsolete business before shutting it down. But that will take years, and the longer you take, the harder it will be for competent start-ups to fill the niche you occupy in your local media ecosystem. Shut down, liquidate your physical assets, retire to Florida. You'll enjoy the sunshine, and we'll enjoy the journalism that follows in your wake.
There's an excellent future out there for the American news media, and I'm optimistic that we'll get there, somehow. But the same systemic flaws that are killing the morale of journalists are also standing in the way of that future. I suspect that making newsrooms better places to work again will also make our companies more viable, but I can't prove that. There's just not enough data from actual experiences.