Twilight of the curmudgeons

(this is a restored post; comments lost)

Jay Rosen has been worrying about curmudgeons. I’ve developed a different attitude. I try to just ignore them and if I can’t, I yell at them. The other day, I was on the phone with a few consultants who were getting free advice, gladly given, but when I heard the fourth curmudgeons’ cry — this one: “Well, look at what’s on the home page of YouTube” — I finally had it and replied: You’re wasting my time. If you use that as your excuse to ignore the power and potential of YouTube and video then that’s your fault. Grrr. I do believe that the day of the curmudgeons is over. Their stewardship of the future has failed. Get out of the way.

But curmudgeons still do damage, of course. Vickey Williams at Medill’s Readership Institute says the force out young people, who take their new ways and innovations with them.

My work on changing culture in newsrooms shows that young journalists intend to leave because the pace of change is too slow. (Report here). They are turned off by the tendency of veteran journalists to argue down new ideas, cling to old ways, and avoid risks. As Readership Institute research has shown, those are outcomes of newspaper people’s tendencies to be oppositional, perfectionist and conventional.

I’ve seen the generational friction play out dozens of times as younger voices get shut down by veterans who fall back on ingrained behaviors. In one case, younger staff worked for weeks to develop and launch a blog on the paper’s Web site with a youthful perspective on the local scene. At the next staff meeting, most veterans said they hadn’t noticed and a few admitted never having looked at the paper’s Web site at all.

I’ll quibble on one point: It’s not about age. I’ve also seen plenty of young people who, having arrived in the castle, want to pull up the draw bridge behind them. I know lots of fellow graybeards who are eager bomb-throwers. I will also disagree with some of her advice, telling the veterans to help young people: “Offer cues on things like the importance of appropriate dress and that one well-considered memo can be more valuable than numerous emails.” You wouldn’t say that at Google.

I agree heartily with Williams that these institutions should teach innovators — I’ll call them that instead of young people — business “so they can make the business case for their ideas.” That’s why I teach entrepreneurial journalism. But I shuddered at this: “Engage them in meaningful ways — in problem-solving sessions, cross-departmental task forces, high-profile projects, post-mortems.” Those are the places where ideas go to die. Maybe instead they should be given the rope and resources to start new businesses.

Williams’ overall point is right and important: Curmudgeons do damage by killing change and those who bring it.