Culture and the newsroom…

This week I made another trek out to North Carolina. Officially, I was invited out there by Phil Meyers, the renowned journalism professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I spoke to his graduate class for about three hours, giving me plenty of time to gab about my work at the Rethink team at the Mercury News, and the Next Newsroom Project.

While I was out there, I also hosted a gathering at Duke for folks to talk about the Next Newsroom Project. My goal for the event was pretty modest. I wanted to gets some folks from different campus media groups in the same room to simply have a conversation. If it sounds innocuous enough, well, it wasn’t.

As I’ve spent more time talking to campus media groups and advisers, a common theme has emerged. There’s a distinct unwillingness to work with other media groups on campus. These groups tend to view each other with distrust, and often disrespect. This has been a surprise to me, given the move toward more and more collaboration in the professional journalism world.

A group The Chronicle hired earlier this year to study its space needs noted this issue in its final report. The planning folks held several focus groups with students at The Chronicle and found:

“Student editors responded that there are many lures to working for the Chronicle. The tradition of the paper on campus, its dominance within campus media (and perceived superiority to campus TV and radio stations), the congenial atmosphere among the writing staff, and a general interest in writing at an institution lacking a school of journalism are the primary reasons that were discussed. No student participants indicated that they chose to attend Duke specifically to participate at the Chronicle, but all participants indicated that getting involved with the Chronicle has enriched their student experience. Most participants were not receptive to the idea of co-locating with other campus media outlets as the Chronicle is viewed to be the best media experience on campus and the other media (including publications, television and radio) are viewed to be a hindrance rather than an opportunity for the Chronicle. Students indicated a lack of confidence in these other organizations, and a desire to preserve the unique identity of the Chronicle. The fact that Chronicle photographers often work for both the Chronicle and the yearbook was pointed to as a potential efficiency, but students were generally not receptive to the media center concept.”

I was also warned about this mindset by Juan Giner, the newsroom designer, who said getting different groups together to reorganize a newsroom is often the toughest challenge he faces when working with a new client:

“Normally, if we were talking to a private media company, the main opposition usually comes from the leaders of different groups. They are usually very reluctant to mix. They would all like to keep their independence. If you are asking them to join a multimedia newsroom, there will be a lot of concerns.”

I would expect that mindset in a large, entrenched media organization. But finding that mindset on the college level has still been surprising. In the professional world, we’ve stereotyped college-age journalists as folks who are far more new media savvy and flexible. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Somehow, the college media groups tend to inward facing. And there’s even less willingness to try new things.

This means I walk a fine line with this project. The folks at The Chronicle are justifiably proud of their independence, quality and culture. As one Chronicle staffer who attended our gathering noted, the paper has a long, rich tradition and there’s a feeling that in some ways, that isolation has fostered and deepened the bonds that people feel for The Chronicle.

At the same time, people we’re talking to for this project are giving us an unmistakable message: Journalists need to learn how to collaborate, adapt, and try new things.

So that brings me back to the gathering, I wasn’t expecting any radical breakthroughs or epiphanies. But I very much wanted to get a few Chronicle folks sitting at a table with students and academics from other media groups on campus to at least talk. So on that level, it was a success. And it was a vibrant discussion. There were folks there from other undergraduate publications, the student TV station, WXDU, the center for Documentary Studies. We also had a couple of Chronicle staffers, and two board members.

I won’t give a blow by blow. But we heard from a lot of non-Chronicle folks about how much they respect the Chronicle and how eager they were to find ways to collaborate. A lot of these groups have spaces – or no spaces in some cases – that are even worse than The Chronicles. So they’re understandably eager to think about the Next Newsroom.

But I think for The Chronicle, this is going to be a tougher, cultural challenge. And I have to walk this line very carefully. I know when I worked at The Chronicle 20 years ago, I would have blown off any old alum who came back and tried to tell me how to do things. So I need to find a way to get folks there to be excited about the possibilities, without feeling like they’re under attack or being forced to something.

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