Home > Columns > Penny for your thoughts? Yeah, right.

Penny for your thoughts? Yeah, right.

September 21, 2012

I’ve been asked a lot of things in my time as a community newspaper reporter. But the one thing I’ve never been asked is what I think my newspaper chain can do better. I’ve thus also never been asked how it might make more money, or produce better content, or alienate fewer readers, or piss off fewer employees. (Which is, of course, one of the reasons I started this blog.)

Every now and then you’ll read a story about an innovative company that is great to work for. What sets these companies apart isn’t usually what they produce, but how they produce it. Google allows workers to set aside something like 20 per cent of their time for their own personal projects. Toyota asks front-line workers to suggest improvements to allow it to run more efficiently. Other companies ask their employees what they can do better. Not newspaper companies. At Postmedia, which has blessedly sold off its community papers, Paul Godfrey set aside time a couple times a year to answer employee questions. Which is a nice gesture, I guess, but also condescending and ridiculous and symptomatic of all that’s wrong with the industry.

Or you have the old executive visit. This happens at most every paper: you’re working a pumping out another edition when the publisher or editor brings some guy in a suit around to your desk. Your boss states your name and position, makes small talk and facilitates a handshake. It’s an utter waste of time and demeaning for all concerned, the equivalent of dogs sniffing each others’ asses. Except at least the dogs might find something interesting.  The reporter and editor goes through the charade because they have to, obviously. The boss does it to plant the company’s flag and show his face and, if he’s an idiot, because he (it’s always a he) thinks it’s good for morale.

If the guy really cared, of course, he wouldn’t ask about the news of the day or how the family is doing, but rather if there’s anything he and the other folks at head office should know that would make the paper run better. To pull this off requires skill and the allocation of actual time and effort on the part of the suit. The workers need to know he’s coming (so they can prepare their pitch) and be promised that any suggestions they make won’t come back to bite them in the ass. But it’s not that hard. And it shouldn’t take that much time: most employees will be too shy, or too apathetic, to offer suggestions. Some might, though. Maybe it’ll help. Maybe processes can be streamlined. Maybe new markets can be found. Maybe smart new employees will reveal themselves. And maybe somebody will show that even non-executives can have good ideas, or at least the same old bad ones.*

Maybe the suits will ignore all the suggestions. But at least they’d be pretending to fucking care.

*One of the problems with newspaper chains is that innovation (if you can call it that) tends to only happen from the top. All the websites (save that of the Powell River Peak) look the same, and all changes can only be implemented on a chain-wide basis by somebody working at some head office or location set apart from the individual papers. There is no room for experimentation. An idea is conceived and implemented across dozens of websites. This takes substantial time and money. If it fails…scratch that….nobody’s allowed to admit failure because doing so requires someone to admit that all that effort was wasted. And because the chains discourage failure, they inevitably discourage innovation and promote imitation. Imitation, of course, is safe and comfortable and allows the suits to keep collecting their salaries while they cut from the bottom.**

**Maybe that’s why chains don’t want to hear from us.

  1. September 21, 2012 at 11:49 pm

    Good post. Thanks. I’ll try that approach on my next site visit.

    One quibble: while newspaper websites generally look like their sister papers (easier to implement on a broad basis), there is still some room to experiment and innovate at the individual site level, at least in Glacier, anyway. We’ve done some of it in Kamloops (the Kamloops Project being one example) and we’re looking at more. The editor and publisher have to push for it to make it happen, though.

    Oh, and @Mighty pen and pad: not all of us suits come from sales. A few are editorial types (or started there, at least).

  2. Mighty pen and pad
    September 21, 2012 at 1:27 pm

    You ever notice that it’s always a suit that pays the visit, just like one of Gatti’s capos when he visits the crews? Have you also noticed the group editor, editor in chief or managing editor is never asked to pay visits to other papers in their chains – that it’s always someone who came up through sales? Suits are only nice to editorial during efficiency fact finding trips and before chains are sold.

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