Update: Shannan Bowen does a nice job summarizing the recent online conversation about this topic. The highlight? It is dominated by young journalists determined to do good work.
I would like to thank the Tampa Tribune for helping demonstrate the importance of knowing how newsrooms are organized — what skills, duties and concepts are held at different staff positions, and how those positions relate to each other.
Now, I’ve written more than my fair share of reorganization memos. All have been aimed at breaking down silos. Some have worked. Some haven’t. But all eventually create new silos. That’s because newsrooms, like nature, abhor a power vacuum. And someone always fills it.
In restructurings, there are always three important people:
- The person who has budgetary discretion.
- The person who makes the schedule.
- The person who has the power to hire and fire.
Sometimes those are three different people. Sometimes they’re the same person. But those folks have inherent tools that can make things happen — or not happen — in a newsroom. These people have what I call economic power — they control the important resources of time and money.
But that isn’t the only source of influence in a newsroom, especially an online newsroom. Perhaps the most influential people in an online newsroom over time are the people who can work laterally to collaborate with their peers. And this ability is largely a result of who has certain skills, and how many of those people have that skill. For example, if I’m the only Flash developer in my newsroom I’m calling the shots no matter how low I am in the org chart.
Well, at least in the short term. Over time, the person who has the ability to fire me can separate a skilled developer from his or her daily power, but that usually only comes after long conversations with other staff who are disgruntled that the developer isn’t working on his or her project. And only if the manager can determine whether the developer is sandbagging or whether he or she is really being asked to do more than is humanly possibly. But usually by that time, the developer — who has more career options than probably anyone in journalism — has decided to move on to another shop for more money or more (promised) autonomy.
That, my friends, is the power of the bottleneck in the online newsroom. And that’s just one of the reasons it’s important to survey folks about their skills, duties and responsibilities. The people who sit in positions of Bottleneck Power have the ability to move innovation quickly forward or to thwart even the best intentioned manager.
From the memo, I can’t tell where the position of Bottleneck Power resides within the Tampa newsroom, but I guarantee there is one.
My best wishes to my colleagues in Tampa on their reorganization. I look forward to watching how it will change the journalism they produce.