At the end of an exceptional first week for our new program in News Innovation and Leadership at the Newmark J-school, the students — five managing editors, a VP, a CEO, and many directors among them — said they learned much from teachers and speakers, yes, but the greatest value likely came from each other, from the candid lessons they all shared.
When I first proposed this program about four years ago, I suggested it should offer a smorgasbord of courses to be taken at will. Then I was fortunate enough to recruit Anita Zielina, the ideal news executive, to create and run it. She said (nicely) that I was wrong and that the program had to revolve around a tight cohort of students sharing their education together. She was so right. This week, I watched this group build trust, respect, and empathy — and a common store of knowledge and insight … as well as exasperation.
Next Saturday in Philadelphia, the Tow-Knight Center at Newmark, will take part in the first meeting of an international gathering of product leaders in the news business. Our involvement grows out of one of a handful of communities of practice my colleague Hal Straus has been running for a few years, bringing top product, audience, commerce, and talent-and-inclusion executives in New York together to share — and sympathize — with each other. Aron Pilhofer at Temple and Damon Kiesow at Mizzou generously offered to include us in a collaboration to build a national product organization whose aim is to answer the question, “How do we make news organizations more audience-oriented, data-driven, and product-focused?” In short, how do we save the news business?
These people — like the Social Journalism students I wrote about so proudly last month— are our innovators. They will be our leaders. But they are frustrated by the state of the business and, of course, now and then by their bosses. They see the imperative for change; they have ideas; they are eager to run. But where? What frustrates them — and, in fairness, their bosses — is that the solutions are not evident and thus finding them requires risk, experimentation, failure, and investment of capital we do not have, capital we can acquire these days only from others who bring their own goals and agendas. Does this mean it may require letting some institutions burn to the ground so a radically new journalism can be built from the ashes?
I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately about Gutenberg and the birth and long progress of printing toward its eclipse in our age of digital data and connectivity. And so this morning I came across an article by Otto Fuhrmann, a book and Gutenberg historian and former director of graphic arts at NYU, in the 1926 edition of the Gutenberg Gesellschaft Jahrbuch (Gutenberg Society Yearbook). He wrote about the New York Club of Printing House Craftsmen in a lovely evocation on the value of sharing in our field, which we used to call printing.
“The times are not so far distant when every foreman or executive jealously guarded his technical ‘secrets’, in the mistaken idea that by doing so he would make himself indispensable to his employer,” Fuhrmann writes.
So it was quite natural that the younger element should find out that a business can be run without secrecy, as long as the essential facts are recognized and dealt with. A friend working in a competitor’s shop did not cease to be a friend just because his employer did not like the other employer. And the men [sic*] who had the same or similar problems to meet in the actual running of their employers’ businesses found that an exchange of views and ideas benefitted them without hurting their employers.
It is true that employers first frowned upon the very idea to have their foremen meet other foremen…. However this prejudice is gradually disappearing, in the same measure as the spirit of cooperation and fair dealing, instead of the old method of slamming a competitor, is growing. Naturally, a large city like New York was the best place in which to inaugurate the craftsman idea, and it succeeded as it deserved.
Fuhrmann attributes its success in part to “a gradual change in business ethics that has taken place in the last 15 years.”
This change is signified by the word “service”. It meant, fundamentally, a complete change from the old standpoint of the producer or seller that the customer had to take the goods as they were offered, or do without them. The technique of advertising became more refined, and instead of forcing goods on an unwilling customer it became a fine art, all over the business world, to find out what a customer wanted and to satisfy his desires…. Developed to the n-th degree, “service” today often means anticipating the client’s wishes…
There is nothing new. I have been arguing for years that we should see journalism not as the manufacture of a commodity — content — but instead as a service. Here is Fuhrmann in 1926 arguing the same for printing. And that is the argument made by product people (though I’ll contend that their self-anointed label is a misnomer, for their craft is all about understanding customers’ needs and desires so as to serve them; they don’t make products so much as they serve people).
Fuhrmann notes that he is writing about his craft in a time of deep disruption. The Linotype had been patented only 40 years before. Rotary presses and dry stereotyping came about the same time. Paper made from pulp came not long before. Thus the business of publishing changed greatly, becoming a mass medium. In the shop, all these technologies spread and robbed the craftsman — whose heritage was in centuries of hand composition and hand presses — of their sense of control of their art.
The increasing mechanization tended to lower the skill and to narrow the range of the individuals in the printing business. It came to the point where specialization made it hard to find good all-around craftsmen. So it can be seen that the time was ripe and the background prepared for an attempt to bring the essential factors in our industry together for frank discussion and study of their problems.
What was needed, says Fuhrmann, was for executives to have a full understanding of every technology of the industry — “he must know enough about paper, engraving, electros, binding and finishing processes” — and perspectives from other fields. “That calls for real men of no mean calibre; and, of course, the man with the greatest fund of knowledge and resourcefulness will be the most successful one.”
And so, the club. According to Fuhrmann, monthly meetings began with dinner and entertainment to provide “a good antidote against the tension and the strain of business work and furnish a background for good-fellowship.” The building of a cohort, in our modern tongue. “We particularly lay stress upon the educational feature,” with guests and lectures. And they had an annual dinner dance. (There’ll be no dancing in Philadelphia.) The club, together with other trade associations — the New York Employing Printers’ Association and the Typographical Union — operated well-equipped schools for compositors’ apprentices and “a training course for foremen in the science of modern business management,” with employers “glad to pay the entire amount of tuition, knowing that the benefit to the foremen would ultimately redound to the firm many times over.”
And so, we attempt the same today in our rapidly changing field with meetings and communities of practice and training of journalists and managers. The difference is that from 1926, printing qua printing grew, tremendously so. Its methods and means changed significantly, which had considerable impact on the product and the profession. But it was still printing.
Today, we are leaving the business of printing and text, of content and publication, even of authoring and storytelling. But, let’s be honest, we still refuse to admit it. So the solutions talked about in classes and conferences are all incremental, aimed at getting bosses and boards to allow us to change what we have done enough to keep doing it, to save what we knew rather than start on what we don’t yet know.
Stop. Stop the presses.
The death of the newspaper has been often foretold. Yes, they are still around us. But I must ask to my Twitter peril, are they better off dead than in the hands of hedgies who milk every last drop of ink, sweat, and blood from the end of the diminishing tribe of (pardon me) craftsmen of our field? Are we better off if they die so newspapers and magazines and broadcast channels are not reinvented but journalism can be?
I take full blame myself for not being radical enough in seeking new definitions of journalism. But even that confession is hubristic. For perhaps these definitions are not new but only new to us. Perhaps they should come from other fields — anthropology, neuroscience, psychology, sociology, design, philosophy — to help us envision an entirely new service to the public and its conversation. We who have the luxury and privilege of time and salary in universities should reach out to other fields to seek new expressions of society’s goals and problems and new ways to meet them using the new tools at hand.
So when all the young leaders we are gathering above who are eager to run and ask “where?” we should be ready not with answers, for we do not have them, but with audacious suggestions: Try here, try there. Try using the tools of the net and data and listen to the public we serve in new ways. Try understanding how people make decisions individually and together (even against their self-interest) and how to improve what they decide. Try listening to, valuing, and serving the people and communities who were long ignored and left unserved by our old industry, mass media. Try using the tools of connectivity to enhance the public conversation. Try new measures of value based not on our products but on how we help people improve their communities and lives.
And when they try and fail — as they must — we should offer support, convincing their bosses and boards or new funders that there is promise in this direction or that, but only if we explore. Along this journey — which I believe will be long, generations or even centuries long — we need to provide the means to bring together these brave new leaders not just to teach them what we know (so they may challenge it) but also to enable them to teach each other, to share.
* I will apologize for the sexist language of the period and then leave it unchanged and unremarked upon as it presents a picture of a past.