Monday, September 15, 2008

At what point do you simply get off the treadmill?

An acquaintance who works at a local news station told me the other day that staffing changes are impairing the station's ability to develop quality news. Upon re-read, that last line feels like a "duh." But let me explain.

Specifically, he said that the station has three categories of staff: a) FTEs, ie: people with real full-time jobs; b) steady contractors, ie: people who work regularly and full-time for the station, but who don't get benefits and who can be terminated on a moment's notice; and c) traditional freelancers, ie: people who are pulled in for specific jobs but otherwise aren't part of the "team."

The problem with the setup, he said, is that, while the station has all the
bodies it needs to do the work, it isn't necessarily getting the best work out of them. The problem is with that middle category of people. The station thinks it's a good deal: It has the bodies it needs, but if it faces an economic downturn, it can let them go immediately.

What they don't realize--or perhaps do and simply don't care about--is that a person who can be let go immediately doesn't give you their best work. Not because they're holding back on you out of resentment or the like. But simply because, in order to hold on to their job, they become a "Yes Man." Good journalism results when journalists fight for the stories they believe in. When they stand up to editors and say, "No,
this is where the real story is." Good journalism does not result from journalists who never challenge a editor's take, for fearing of getting laid off.

It's stories like these that make me wonder whether traditional journalism even has a future. Instead of taking truly bold moves, making leaps to completely new ways of doing things, so many organizations seem to be simply trying to cut and reconfigure their way to profitability within the old model of doing things. And yet, you'd think that when you get to the point where reconfiguring just makes the quality go down even further, you'd conclude there is no future here.

It reminds me of that old line from the Red Queen in
Alice in Wonderland: "Now here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place."

At that point, I wonder, why don't folks just get off the treadmill and move to a new game altogether?

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