If you love something, set it free: a lesson for old media

I woke up this morning to news that Ezra Klein is pulling a Nate Silver and likely leaving The Washington Post.

If you want all the details plus smart takes on what this means, I recommend reading Dan Kennedy’s piece and also Mathew Ingram’s.

For my part, I’m going to tell you a story. Once upon a time, I wrote a blog called The Daily Daley on a now defunct site called The Windy Citizen. It was about Richard M. Daley, the iconic mayor of Chicago, son of the arguably even more iconic Richard J. Daley who was mayor before him.

It was 2008 and this was my first foray into media, a pivotal moment in my life. I had not gone to journalism school. I had not studied it as an undergrad either. I had never written a blog before. I didn’t know anything about how online publishing worked. Brad, Windy Citizen’s founder, had to walk me through everything. He introduced me to the fundamentals of blogging, gaining an audience, how online traffic worked and so much more. From then on, I learned on my own. I read everything I could about media and journalism and eventually became a small, but vocal voice in the “future of news” crowd, online and off.

As for the Daily Daley, though I worked on it for only slightly more than a year and although it never reached a mass audience, it was read by nearly everyone in the local media. It was snarky and funny and politically informed and I liked to believe that journalists read it because I said the things they couldn’t. I remember that years later, I was at an interview for a job at the Chicago Tribune and my interviewer turned out to be a reader of the blog (this happened more than once). I remember him saying he was sad to see it stop. By then, I just shrugged, smiled and didn’t say much. There was a time though, when similar interest from a person employed by a major media organization gave me palpitations and delusions of grandeur.

In February of 2009, the Chicago Journalism Town Hall took place. The reason it was convened was this:

Ken Davis, former Chicago Public Radio guy, realized talking to his peers that, as he said, “People are freaked out” by the shift from traditional to online journalism.

Let’s put aside for a moment the fact that people were “freaked out” about the shift to online media in 2009. It was a great event and although nothing substantive was accomplished, decided or agreed upon, I believe it was a turning point. It drew attention to the fact that there were definitely two sides in this big sea change that was happening. There were the traditionalists who would cling to the bitter end to the old ways of doing things and there were the futurists who wanted to change everything. Since then, some people have changed sides but the sides remain and they remain obviously not only in Chicago, but all over the country and the world.

But back to my brush with grandeur.

In the ladies’ room at the event, I ran into a woman who worked for the local CBS affiliate, let’s call her Sue. She too was a fan of the blog. She was enthusiastic and gushed about how she loved my take on politcs. To my delight, she said she had been talking to her boss about putting blogs on their station’s website. She said maybe I could blog for them about the impending Rod Blagojevich trial. My eyes must have widened to the size of saucers. An actual media outlet might employ ME? At that point, I hadn’t even done the freelancing that would eventually start me down the path to doing actual journalism and getting paid for it.

Sue and I would bump into each other at future events and I would often email her to ask whether I could come in and meet with her boss to talk about the blog. She always said she was working on it. I was naive then and just starting down my path of self-education about how media worked. I actually thought that just because I was good at something, I could get a paid job doing it. Eventually Sue broke the news to me. “He just isn’t going for it,” she said with genuine regret.

Fast forward back to today and the news about Klein and I find myself crestfallen that things haven’t changed significantly. Sure, every old media site has blogs now. They’re all on Facebook, Twitter and everywhere else. So much has changed. Except that what is most important has not. What hasn’t changed inside the majority of media organizations is the attitude, the culture, or whatever you want to call it. And what else hasn’t changed is the rigid hierarchical structure of most news shops. This was the lede of Kennedy’s piece for good reason:

What should a 21st-century news organization look like? A single entity, run from the top, with a common set of values? Or a loose network of related projects, sharing a brand and to some extent a mission but operating semi-independently?

Unquestionably it has to be the latter. It must. There is no other way forward, because while it seems right now like the status quo can endure, this won’t be the case forever. There are a number of reasons why this is so, but for today I will make the case that someday very soon, news shops that still function like a corporation from the 80’s won’t be able to attract the best and the brightest. Oh, they might work there for a while, like Silver and Klein and others have done, but they will invariably leave for one simple reason: freedom. The freedom to do what they want. To test new things, to fail and start over, to iterate, to reach new audiences, launch new products and create the future of news. People will say they left for more money. And that might be true to an extent, but it cannot be the full story. It cannot because people like these don’t do a job for the money. I know this because I am one of them.

Now, I am hardly a wunderkind on the order of Klein or Silver. I’ve nowhere near their accomplishments or reach. But I have been fired from one media job and willingly left another, because I cannot work in an environment hostile to innovation. I feel suffocated, frustrated, chained. I am horrified by the inefficiencies and the lack of a will to embrace new things and new ideas, regardless of where they come from.

A company where people do as they are told and don’t feel free to suggest changes or, even if they do, know that they have no hope of being heard or implemented,,, this is not a company that can succeed in the 21st century. A company that doesn’t embrace their star performers and give them every means to become better is not a company that has a bright future.

I have no doubt that the higher-ups at every major media organization would say, if asked what their mission is, that they want to deliver the news, inform the public, uncover important stories and of course (for many) make a profit while doing so. If that were really true though, there wouldn’t be an apparent need to tightly control all aspects of that mission. If you love something, in other words, you have to set it free. I hope it’s a lesson old media can learn before they become totally obsolete.

3 Comments

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  2. Ballco January 7, 2014

    I’m wondering what makes you think that the “best and the brightest” back in the ’80s and the ’60s and the ’40s and the … you get my drift … didn’t leave the corporate world to strike out on their own? Stars have always been able to write their own ticket. Just my opinion.

    • tooter2@gmail.com January 21, 2014

      Are you asking about why people didn’t do this in journalism or other fields? I am speaking specifically about journalism and the news business.

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