Present Imperfect

Alright, by now many of you have likely read the public resignation letter attributed to W*USA assignment editor Alan Henney. If not, here ya go:

Subject: Goodbye from Alan
This message will come as a surprise.
I worked on the assignment desk and I enjoyed the work I did with all of you. You are some great co-workers. But I am not receiving the support I feel is needed to continue to attempt a quality news product on the weekends.
After receiving my master’s from GWU, I spent my life pursuing a career in journalism. Paul Irvin brought me on as a paid tipster in March of 2000. Then Tony Castrilli offered me the part-time weekend desk position in 2005.
In addition to weekends, for the past three years I volunteered to work unfilled weekday shifts and major holidays, often neglecting my ailing mother. But I treasured every shift, and never once called out sick or missed a day of work.
As we discussed in ethics class yesterday, the top-down decision-making approach is a flawed model.
WUSA frequently lacks the discussion that is vital to the success of a vibrant news operation and falls into this model. Many of us are reluctant to say anything, and the suggestion box on the first floor is not enough.
The consultants and out-of-touch corporate management have ruined the newscasts with repetitive Web clutter, endless sidebar packages, and their preoccupation with the Internet.
You won’t find a blog anywhere that will generate enough revenue to support a news operation of this size, there are simply too many. We’ve heard regular speak of “Web Winners,” but what ever happened to the “News Winners?” A dying breed?
IT IS TIME EVERYBODY WORK A DAY ON THE ASSIGNMENT DESK TO FIND OUT WHAT IT IS LIKE.
The next time you holler at one of my colleagues on the assignment desk, put yourself in their position. The WUSA assignment editors are conscientious, diehard news people who work extended shifts without union benefits, never had a meal buyout or OT, and hardly get a chance to eat lunch.
The assignment desk is the WUSA switchboard, the help desk for all of WUSA and the rest of humanity. The assignment desk does pretty much everything nobody else does. TOO MUCH. How many of you call just to ask for another employee’s phone number you should have already gotten from Renee’s list? Please be thoughtful of assignment desk workers, and volunteer to work a shift to see what it is like.
We are doing less news gathering these days and more information posting. Somebody needs to be driving the news machine at all times, actively pursuing news leads. We’ve lost our focus.
Any corporation that allows employees to blog as an excuse for not reporting to work on time is not an organization with which I want to be associated.
Effective immediately, I am placing myself on permanent furlough from the Gannett Corp. I will be mailing back my card later today.
I am frustrated, as many of you are. Please don’t let that discourage you from staying in touch. As I said, you have been great, and I’ll miss working with you.
Thanks for the great times.

This seems to me indicative of issues I’ve heard raised by many journalists within the last few years; “ruined newscasts with repetitive web clutter,” and “you won’t find a blog anywhere that will generate enough revenue to support a news operation of this size.” It seems clear the person who wrote this letter is, at the least, skeptical of the future for journalism. That letter indicates two possible failures, either of which can be catastrophic to our efforts to build, let alone conceive of, the next newsroom. Either this journalist is unwilling to make room for the future or the company for which he worked did a poor job communicating how his newsroom is getting ready for the future.

We’re going to need the experienced, hungry journalists that now fill our ranks to make this transition a success. With this in mind, I think our first order of business as we build the next newsroom is to ensure we have journalists worth filling it.

Why did Alan (allegedly) feel like this? What will help other like-minded journalists make the transition he seemed unwilling to make? I will say this for the letter attributed to Alan, I believe he is correct to assert that the “top-down decision-making approach is a flawed model” to enact changes of this magnitude. News organizations, and indeed we, must approach this change by asking those on the “front lines” in the newsroom to get involved. Buy-in is never dictated. If we lay out the tasks which must be performed on a daily basis (beat calls, text solicitation of viewer ideas, Twitter updates and solicitations, basic story “must-gets”, etc.) and ask those who are respected in the newsroom how they would organize the tasks, we will get a much better outcome and certainly one much more universally accepted.

Within my own newsroom, my boss tried to do this. There was some resistance, but where reporters and others got involved, the end result was better and more accepted.

All, I submit to you that we need to engage the very people who would perform these tasks in the new newsroom. Don’t wait. If we do, we could lose the experience and ambition that broke the biggest stories in our community and in our nation.

(For my part, I am sending invitations to people in my current and past newsrooms that I know are respected for their ability. Now we need other ideas to engage everyone.)

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One Response

  1. Michael you hit on many key points, but I will focus on one: “the top-down decision making approach is a flawed one.”I don’t know Alan, but I do know his company, Gannett. (full disclosure: I am “the boss” Michael refers to above – and thank you for the acknowledgment.) There is an approach to newsroom leadership that finds the richest fruit between the top of the trees and the grass roots below.Multi-platform journalism has allowed us to create a collaborative process with our communities. As Michael mentions, the best way to connect with the needs of the community is to read their e-mails, the comments on stories, to really listen when they call, even to complain. Even as news director, I made a point to pick up the desk phone to hear what people wanted, needed or hated.Many exclusive stories came from those calls or emails. Many interesting follow-ups came from the comments posted on a story. They provide a compass for us. They create a reality check. Too many journalists use the capital J to defend doing stories that only they care about.This is where the top-down comes in. Newsroom managers need to mandate opening the editorial process to the end-user. That is not putting journalism at risk. It is taking us back to our roots as the voice of the people. We are the instruments that give our communities access to the power-brokers, and to information they may not be trained to get. With respect to Alan, and not knowing his particular issues, managers also need to ultimately be the decision-makers, and lead the process. Sometimes this may ruffle feathers, but every ship can only have one skipper. (If you don’t believe me I’ll take you sailing some time.) The trick is finding, developing, and committing to leadership that believes the voices on the ground floor – on the assignment desk and in the field – should carry more weight. They are the foundations of our newsrooms and need to be acknowledged as such.

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