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Now the Details

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

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Qualities of a Functioning News Organization

Former employees of news organizations are often lightening rods for discontent.

This has been my experience: as for the late former premier of Quebec, René Lévesque once told me: "It's a journalist's God-given right to bitch and complain about the bosses."

So it's not surprising that I hear a lot of discontent welling up from my former place of employment - the CBC. Interesting as well, that I hear very little from my other major employer, NPR. More on that in a moment.

Lévesque, a former CBC-Radio-Canada reporter didn't live to see the turmoil that media organizations are going through. Like so many others of his generation, the struggle in newsrooms was almost entirely internal: strange production practices, quirky fellow employees, a very tough union environment and a largely invisible upper management occasionally prone to inscrutable oracular pronouncements about the organization.

Today, newsrooms struggle with external threats that are hard to identify and harder to solve:

Is it declining/shifting audiences? Hard to please advertisers? Is the internet the savior or the enemy?

Just when you think you have nailed down the problem, a solution appears as ephemeral as ever. It's a tough time for management and a nervous time for employees.

Hence my role as an in-box sounding board for former employees who are looking to make sense of it all and possibly to find a way out of what appears to be an unpleasant and uncertain environment.

The CBC sounds like an anxious place these days if the vibe I'm hearing is accurate: a management culture that talks about change more among themselves than to a work force that feels increasingly abandoned and unappreciated. The public is confused about what the CBC is trying to do.

NPR, on the other hand, appears to be very clear about what it is doing and a work force that understands what it is expected to do. The public acknowledges NPR's value. The differences between the two organizations couldn't be more different.

A functioning news organization needs to be clear about four things:

1. what is the purpose of the organization?
2. what is the work that must be done?
3. what are the qualities of the people who work there?
4. what is the value of the product?

CBC is unable to answer those question while NPR is able to.


  1. please, tell me how NPR does it.

  2. I think that NPR - while not a perfect organization (show me one that is, and we'll all apply) has somehow created a labor-management environment that is different in many respects. Unlike the CBC where management is over-involved in corporate issues, NPR is still essentially content driven. That makes the relations between management and staff qualitatively different, imo.