Newspapers and Organizational Development: Management and Journalist Perceptions of Newsroom Cultural Change

Article excerpt

Dedicated to my mother, Joan Beaton Callahan, (1932-2002).

Less than a decade ago, there was a growing concern among corporate executives, scholars, and even many editors about the future of the newspaper industry. Newspapers faced stiff challenges on every horizon: circulation was stagnant, and a smaller percentage of the public was reading newspapers than at any time in the past half-century; the Internet was competing for the populace's time and advertisers' money; the costs of doing business were rising and unpredictable; and, for public companies, profit pressures were increasing as corporate managers sought to maintain control over their companies amidst waves of hostile buyouts and takeovers (Evans £ Wurster, 1997; Hirsch & Thompson, 1994; Morton, 1998; Picard & Brody, 1997; Whiteside, 1996). The message to those leading the industry was clear: change or fall victim to the forces redefining your environment.

There were also rumblings within the industry for change. Some influential editors and journalists became outspoken critics of how newspapers had lost sight of their public service mission and lost touch with their communities (Broder, 1990; Fallows, 1996; Kurtz, 1993; Merritt, 1996; Rosenstiel, 1993; Thames, 1998). These critiques often focused on the insular nature of journalism, emphasizing that journalists are "insider-oriented" elitists. This inner directedness could be understood in at least two ways: first, journalists tended to assess the value of their work in relation to how it is viewed by other journalists, not the public; second, working close to politicians and other powerful sources resulted in reporting more focused on power struggles and personal political battles than the issues that affect the daily lives of average citizens. Some editors - buoyed by support from scholars, a small body of research, and philanthropic organizations - became convinced that if journalists were able to get closer to readers, reconnect with their democratic mission, and begin framing stories from the center of their communities, then newspapers would reclaim their relevance (Lambeth, Meyer, & Thorson, 1998; Merritt, 1996; Rosen, 1997; Smith, 1997).

It is within this framework that newspaper executives - addressing both internal and external issues - re-evaluated the goals and practices of the industry and set out to put it back on course. In 1994, the American Society of Newspaper Editors created a Change Committee, a group of editors given a 5-year period to develop and experiment with initiatives that would ensure the long-term viability of the industry. Founded on the heels of a recession that had lingered since the late 1980s and resulted in smaller newsroom staffs and budgets, the committee focused its attention on exploring ways to: (1) reorganize newsrooms for better efficiency and (2) realign journalists' values more closely with those of readers and citizens (McGuire, 1994).

Change initiatives emerged that attempted to transform the culture of the newsroom, making it more externally focused on markets and readers, while internally changing the nature of work by abandoning the century-old beat system of news coverage and replacing it with collaborative teams (Albers, 1995; Coyle, 1998; Haswell, 1995; Rappleye, 1998; Stepp, 1995a, 2000). "Change" became the mantra of many leading editors and executives, and the new, restructured approach to producing newspapers was labeled "strategic," "reader-driven," or "market-driven" journalism (Bedal, 1995). Newsroom managers, recognizing that they lacked the organizational background to plan, execute, and monitor fundamental change, increasingly looked to outside consultants to guide their efforts and alleviate employee resistance (Shepard, 1996, 1998). The process of change, seldom easy in any organization, became a target of skepticism for journalists, who worried that initiatives jeopardized core journalism values and credibility (Hickey, 1998; Stepp, 1995b; Underwood, 1998; Woo, 1998). …

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