Is the fun gone?

Convenor: Ralph Gage

Reporter: Matt Thompson


Nora Paul

Matt Thompson

Chris Peck

Dale Peskin

Mike Van Buren

Ken Sands

DiscussionFun - pg 24

Assume everything below is rough paraphrase.

Question (Ralph Gage): Is the fun gone?

Nora Paul: In some ways, now that convergence is making everyone have to be buddy-buddy and share-and-share-alike, the fun of competition is gone.

Dale Peskin: Outside traditional newsrooms, it seems journalists are all having fun.

Matt Thompson: It feels like everyone’s looking for a template — what story form/new technology/etc. can I replicate in my newsroom?

DP: Organizations like API, with our “best practices” mindset, may perpetuate this.

Chris Peck: As journalists have gotten older, they lose the willingness to experiment with which they entered the field. They start to fear that the techniques and skills they’ve developed over time no longer apply.

NP: The advent of computer-assisted reporting seemed to get people who were willing to try it excited again.

CP: There’s a downer element in many newsrooms. Maybe we need to address those folks?

DP: Journalism is so much about self-worth, which is diminishing across the industry.

CP: Many journalists are convinced their craft actually isn’t that important anymore, that few people are really paying attention. Furthermore, the economic and other pressures within newsrooms are squeezing down even on the young, new journalists.

DP: During Katrina, journalists seemed to be having fun.

NP: It was like after 9/11. Everyone was thinking, ‘Oh, they really need us.’

NP: The early online doomsayers have contributed to the sense of un-fun, telling traditional journalists they’re so out of touch, they’re irrelevant, etc.

Ken Sands: People begin to worry they’re becoming untethered from their values. But maybe the quality they need is the ability to appreciate change.

CP: Maybe the sense of fear that’s squeezing the fun out.

MT: Seems like a lot of wonderful, creative young people aren’t excited by the possibility of journalism. We need more of the dyed-hair, crazy film geeks who are out doing documentaries for pennies a day.

DP: I describe myself as a “recovering journalist.” I’m having a blast right now.

RG: You hear so much about staff cuts and layoffs, it’s really dampening the mood of the industry.

DP: We had a session at the WeMedia conference with Jessica Cohen (of Gawker Media) and some other media professionals. Jessica’s getting like $30k a year and having an awesome time, while these loaded media pros are totally depressed.

RG: Part of what I see is that the folks who are working on the cool new media stuff seem to have fairly regular hours, while the people doing the business of putting a paper out every day are working odd shifts, ruining their social life, being completely unhappy.

CP: That’s a symptom of the culture of the newsroom that needs addressing.

NP: Is the newsroom a maze of cubicles? That’s another symptom and cause of all the depression.

DP: Because of our ‘best practices’ mindset, every fresh new perspective that comes into our newsroom ends up becoming the same stale, old perspective very quickly.

KS: Everything matters less than journalists’ perception (or lack of it) that what they do matters.

CP: You have to talk more about the fact that it does matter. That kind of explicit encouragement makes a difference in the newsroom.

NP: Does having a hyperlinked byline (so people can shoot the reporter an e-mail) help?

CP: It’s hit-or-miss, because people respond unevenly to stories, regardless of the reporter’s effort or passion.

NP (joking): Maybe we should send people e-mails from anonymous fans raving about their stories …
DP: Do you get the sense that mid-level editors are being dumped on?

CP: Yes. While there are personality types who enjoy middle management, a lot of folks in that realm feel dumped-on. Big managers who’ve come up through the ranks from an earlier era get a whiff of these new happenings and ideas, and tell their underlings, ‘Go do something new!’ But these folks have to concern themselves with putting out a paper every day.

KS: We have to make more room in our organizations for even mid-level editors to exercise their creativity.

NP: Not allowing them to be an integral part of our change (even in matters like redesigns) hurts the whole organization.

Michael van Buren: How much of a chill is there from the threat of lawsuits?

DP: The legal aspect is a big question.

CP: And unions, while I appreciate their role, are a big part of it.

RG: Another legal element is the amount of paperwork and bureaucracy needed to do anything. We drown in FOIAs.

MT: Might it just be that our organizations are too big? Too corporate? Part of my sense of fun comes from the perception that I’m part of a small, scrappy team, fighting together for a common cause. Should we need mid-level editors?

NP: I remember when editors used to lunge at reporters in the newsroom. There was passion and anger and messiness. Is there something about that mess we miss?

RG: So is the fun gone?

CP: In many, perhaps most, places — yes.

DP: Maybe it’s time to go back home and start asking that question in our organizations.

KS: I’m having more fun than I ever did. But this is a rare thing. I’m not sure how many people are able to embrace creativity and innovation. They find those things scary.

MVB: Yep, the fun’s gone.

MT: What was it like when everything was fun?

DP: We’ve sort of got a selective memory of that time.

NP: There were a lot of zany, idiosyncratic characters. Maybe for me it was even a nostalgia for that ’40s-era style.

DP: But I also remember characters who were tyrants, sexists and drunks.

CP: It might be that we just plain need an infusion of new people. People who are at that early, experimental stage in their careers. You have to work at getting them. Then you have to celebrate those experimental moments when they do come. If you’re going to frame and highlight something, highlight those awesome moments.

DP: In the military, they call it, “One ‘attaboy,’ for every five ‘aw shits.'”

MT: So how do we get that infusion of new people?
CP: Hire them. Bring ’em in through new media. Bring ’em in through citizen journalism. Just hire them.

NP: Then give them actual room to work their magic.

CP: It’s not just youth. Many old-line journalists are also seeking change. Find them too! Find these ‘fun nodules,’ the elements who will inspire creativity and enjoyment, and put them in key places around your organization.

RG: Let’s bring it back. When we leave here, we’ll go back to our organizations and ask, “Is it fun?” If the answer’s no, we’ll ask, “When was it fun?”

CP: There’s a danger in “going back,” in reminiscing about the days when. We need to explore forward.

RG: Ken, why are you having fun?
KS: A lot of it is your perspective. We need to begin appreciate the moments and possibilities for change in our own careers.

MVB: Management often sets that tone.

DP: This is bigger than management, though. It’s culture, how people related to each other, their work, and more.

NP: If managers want to create a learning organization, they need to keep learning themselves. They need to go out and play golf.

MT: Could we try thinking small? Of course, we imagine ourselves being soooo big, we’ve got aaaall these responsibilities, we’re stretched to the limits. But somehow, giant Google is able to give every employee a day a week to just indulge her own passions.

DP: Yep, but part of the deal is they have to bring something back. Some companies offer flex time, which is literally time to be inspired whichever way works for you. Take a walk if you need to.

CP: There’s something to that idea.

KS: You also have to create an organization where people feel that freedom organically. That’s what Chris did. But people are going to resist that, because of the pride they feel in their work, and their sense of constant need to do, do, do.

DP: At the Media Center, we have a policy of no meetings inside the building, to get a regular shift in perspective and tone.

KS: Again, part of this is in having fun yourself.

Nancy Margulies: What are ways we can help people have fun?

CP: There’s this whole stiff atmosphere about news organizations we just need to puncture sometimes. Make jokes.

NP: That’s the role of those idiosyncratic characters. Does your newsroom have any, Chris?

CP: We have some. But some of them are throwbacks. We maybe need some new characters.

DP: Sociology has looked into this from a generational perspective. Something about Generation X, the folks who are now mid-level managers in a lot of our organizations, they’re just kind of depressive, as a group. Gen-Yers, the youngest generation in most of our companies, are for whatever reason optimistic, creative, appreciative of change.

CP: Could we have some fun around that tension? Even dark humor.

DP: There are a lot of these folks out there. It’s a matter of finding some sparks. I’m optimistic.

CP: We need to find an alternative to some of the big, traditional journalism organizations. The mentalities plaguing our newsrooms have gotten ingrown there. We do need to find sparks, then nurture them where they exist.

MT: At the Fresno Bee, I had the good fortune of heading up a committee of young folks from in and out of the newsroom, these sparks with outstanding ideas who were thriving in an unlikely place.

DP: One of the questions we’d ask some groups of newspaper readers was, ‘If the newspaper was a celebrity, who would it be?’ The folks from the newspaper always wanted to hear they were Tom Hanks. But what every single group would answer, in meeting after meeting, was “Walter Matthau.” Either him or Walter Cronkite.

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