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


Jeffrey Dvorkin

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Can Media Organizations Learn from the "Surge?"


As news organizations downsize, reorganize and retrench, the acrimonious culture inside the newsrooms gets louder and the mood more bitter. That's because the usual adversarial relations between the shop floor and management has been exacerbated and the level of distrust is now palpable.

There has always been an "us versus them" mentality in newsrooms. Part of that is caused by the professionalization of labor relations. I've sat on both sides of the bargaining table (at different times in my career, of course) and both sides share similar approaches.

It's been said that all organizations get the unions they deserve. And vice versa. Unions try to get the most out of negotiations and management negotiators try to get the least. Too often, both sides are there to perpetuate their roles, rather than to create an environment of mutual agreement and trust. The folks in a company's industrial relations department are never more depressed than after a contract has been signed. Their entire "raison d'etre" is about process, not settlement. Unions are less deflated after an agreement; they will always have grievance hearings to keep them busy.

Two recent articles made me think about the newsroom culture in this environment:

First, an astonishing and revelatory piece by Peter Boyer in the New Yorker about how the US automobile industry functions, or rather, how it failed to function.

Labor and management were frequently seperated. No mingling either inside, outside, in cafeterias or toilets. The notion of "management by walking around" did not exist. Labor contracts were zero-sum gains; you either won or lost. This reinforced the idea that reward for service was time in lieu. In effect, to get away from the plant. This only heightened the adversarial relationships.

The same mentality pervaded the US invasion of Iraq. Winning over hearts and minds seemed less important than eliminating the enemy without ever clearly defining who that enemy might be. This scorched earth policy endured until an Australian political scientist and former military man David Kilcullen introduced the idea of the "surge."

Kilcullen has written a well received book on the surge entitled "The Accidental War," which advises that mingling is the necessary element in any successful attempt to change attitudes. Kilcullen had difficulty getting the Pentagon brass to listen. When they finally did, he impressed on them the notion that the troops should mingle with Iraqis and not return to their barracks every night.

The goal was that Americans would get to know and protect Iraqis and vice versa. This became a more effective strategy than attempting to wipe out Al Qaeda. So far, the strategy seems to have worked.

Can news organizations learn from the mistakes of Detroit and the apparent success of the US military surge? Once media organizations have gone through the turmoil and restructuring that they must, the role of management and its relationship to their journalists must be reconsidered. Tradition has it that after a labor dispute or similar trauma, both sides return to their separate corners to lick wounds and reinforce tribal behaviors. It might be wiser think now about a different approach such as moving managers out of their office fortresses and to embed them inside their own news operations to limit mutual suspicion and create a less divisive culture.

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