Newsroom Teams Enjoy Rapid Growth in the 1990s

By Schierhorn, Ann B.; Endres, Fred F. et al. | Newspaper Research Journal, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

Newsroom Teams Enjoy Rapid Growth in the 1990s


Schierhorn, Ann B., Endres, Fred F., Schierhorn, Carl, Newspaper Research Journal


The concept of teamwork in the workplace has permeated business literature for 25 years, but the concept of a newsroom organized around teams only recently has been accepted on some newspapers. This descriptive pilot study seeks to determine, among other things, the prevalence of teams on newspaper staffs, how they are operating and how their effectiveness is measured.

Teams, described in business literature as self-directed work teams, self-managing teams and cross-functional teams, are small groups of employees responsible for turning out a finished product or service. The team members, who possess a variety of skills, share responsibility for the finished work. (1)

In his classic work, Management, published 25 years ago, Peter Drucker predicted the team would become a permanent structural design in business. He contrasted the team model, in which workers with different skills and tools collaborate to complete a job, with two other organizational models for work, in which 1) work moves where the skills and tools are, such as on a factory assembly line, or 2) work is done sequentially in one place, such as building a house. (2)

The team became fashionable in the United States in the 1980s when companies looked for ways to improve performance. (3) W. Edwards Deming advocated eliminating barriers between departments so that employees in research, design, sales and production could work as a team to improve productivity and quality. (4)

In 1987, 1990 and 1993, Edward Lawler of the University of Southern California and researchers Susan Albers Mohrman and Gerald E. Ledford Jr. surveyed Fortune 1000 corporations on their use of participatory management techniques. Their studies showed that most of the corporations responding reported they had chosen a participatory management style, which includes teams, in response to market pressures, particularly global competition. (5) Specifically, the firms gave as their primary reasons "to improve productivity," "to improve quality" and "to improve employee motivation." (6)

The Lawler study showed 70 percent of the companies surveyed in 1993 had employees involved in self-managing work teams compared to 47 percent in 1990 and 27 percent in 1987. (7)

Among mass communication businesses, Doyle Dane Bernbach is credited with first employing the idea of a creative team in its Volkswagen advertising campaign of 1949-51. (8) In that campaign, a writer, creative director, art director and account executive teamed up to launch a successful print advertising campaign. In the newspaper industry, Paul McMasters cited a 1983 team-building project at The Charlotte Observer and News in Newsroom Management Handbook, but few newspapers picked up the idea in the 1980s. (9)

Since then, newspaper designer Mario Garcia of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies has promoted the "WED" concept, the collaboration of writers, editors and designers from the idea stage to completion of a project. This represents a break from the traditional approach, in which designers are called in after the story is written. (10) In a videotape and related materials distributed by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Buck Ryan has advocated "the maestro concept," which he also describes as reshaping the relationship between reporters, assignment editors, photographers, copy editors, designers and artists by moving from an assembly line to collaboration. (11)

By 1995, Carl Sessions Stepp, writing in American Journalism Review, could cite newsrooms using a team approach at The Virginian-Pilot, the Star Tribune, The Oregonian, Dayton Daily News, The State and The Orange County Register. (12) The experience of The Wichita Eagle staff is described in a report of the Editorial Leadership Initiative operated jointly by Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and J.L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management. (13) Although no survey comparable to Lawler's study of the Fortune 1000 has been conducted to measure use of teamwork in the news media, the dearth of literature in academic and trade publications on newspaper teamwork until the 1990s suggests that newspapers lagged behind other industries in adopting a team approach. …

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