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Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.


Jeffrey Dvorkin

Monday, December 22, 2008

Who Dares Say "NO" These Days?

As the financial mess continues to grow and appears more and more insoluble, I am reminded of how news organizations often resemble the larger economic world they inhabit.

It's dizzying to try to understand how collateralized debt obligations (CDOs)and mortgaged backed securities actually conspired to create our present mess. But the clearest explanation I've seen is in the Toronto Globe and Mail, Report on Business.

Written by Sinclair Stewart and Paul Waldie, it's a step-by-step deconstruction of what happened.

But what it doesn't explain is what happened inside the organizations that got us here.

Didn't someone think "This isn't right"? Why didn't anyone who had that gut feeling say something? How did so many smart people let this happen? The regulatory system failed as did the Bush administration who now claim they sensed that something terrible was about to happen. But in the rush to profits, no one dared to speak up.

Perhaps someone did, but no one seemed to be listening.

The same mentality can often be found inside media organizations.

News organizations are also filled with smart people. But a recent post from Alan Mutter's Reflections of a Newsosaur is a shocking indictment of how media organizations tried to do more for their shareholders than for their readers.

The result for many media organizations on the brink of Chapter 11 is an average debt-to-revenue ratio of about 9:1 for US newspapers. Ironically this is happening at the same time that newspapers, on average are still making a rate of return of around 19%! So the papers and their employees are doing their job. It's their corporate masters who appear to be screwing up.

But it has meant is that the operations of newspapers have become increased streamlined and rationalized in order to sustain their profit margins. Which means that consolidation of activities is seen as a smart way to rationalize functions inside a news organization. Which means that journalists are working harder to save their jobs and their newspapers with no guarantees that what they do will work.

Somewhere along the line, the role of the house skeptic seems to have disappeared.

Is there no one inside an organization - especially in upper management who is able to ask "what's the downside?"

My guess is that in the culture of business, as in the culture of news, one avoids being given the label of "Dr. No." Being a team player is seen as more valuable. Not being a team player is seen as too risky a career move.

But the role of the outsider should still be considered useful inside any organization. How to make an organization understand the value of a nay-sayer (like an ombudsman, for example) is a challenge, and perhaps in these times, it might make it more acceptable.

Having been inside two news organizations, I can attest that people who are seen as chronic nay-sayers, pessimists, Cassandras and Jeremiahs by management quickly wear out their welcome, even if they are proven to be correct.

Too often a news organization may claim to value "team-players" even as they are encouraged to keep their doubts to themselves.

How to create a culture that respects the inside critic? Someone needs to be the person inside the management structure who asks, "What's the downside?" Ideally that person should be the highest ranking person in the organization who isn't afraid to ask the toughest questions in risky times.

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