Tuesday, August 2, 2011
The Slow Fade of Institutional Memory
When I joined the staff of the newspaper in 1972, at the age of 22, its City Hall reporter was a man named Howard Sheerin. Sixty three years of age, chain smoking, and hard of hearing, he had been with the paper nearly 40 years. By that time he was counting out the days to his retirement a year and a half later and most weeks generated a volume of work that would have horrified the productivity experts of today.
Yet he was in many ways a highly valuable member of the news staff. When a local politician from the 1940s or 50s was unexpectedly dispatched to his eternal reward, Howard could turn out a masterful obituary within an hour, capturing both the essence of the man and his precise contribution to the local scene.
There was no such thing, in those days, as computer searches for information, but with Howard close at hand, it wasn’t necessary. Everyone from the editor to a cub reporter like myself could go to him with a question of fact or context and get a solid answer.
He was, in short, that most valuable of assets — the institutional memory of the organization. His pay didn’t reflect his value, but the same could be said of all of us.
Fortunate is the business that has such a person, and there are fewer that do with each passing year. The modern business environment makes it all but impossible. For starters, staying with a company for four decades requires loyalty in two directions. Howard worked for a small family newspaper group that believed in that kind of loyalty to its employees and got it from them in return. Just inside the front door was a wall of photographs of the “Quarter Century Club,” people who had been with the company that long. Even the terms of employment were generously counted; if you left, for a period, to serve in the military, that time counted toward the 25 years.
Few businesses foster that kind of climate any more, and few employees look for it or value it. At just about any newspaper today, Howard would have been let go in a round of layoffs and replaced with a younger man or woman, innocent of the community but able to provide more copy at a fraction of the cost.
Newspapers themselves, which might be considered the institutional memory of the community, are similarly in danger. It is still hard to challenge the incumbent paper, even with a free, exclusively online publication. By virtue of having been around so long and having covered not only public affairs but the individual passages of life (births, deaths, marriages) for so long, the existing newspaper has a standing that is hard to topple.
It may prove to be the case that the business model for the newspaper can’t be sufficiently adjusted to changing times and that newspapers will go away, leaving communities without their institutional memory. It may be that the entire concept of institutional memory will vanish as people come to believe that a few keystrokes on a computer can provide any answer they need. I hope not.
The newspaper I used to work for now has no editors or reporters who were there before the year 2000. If someone dies who was active in civic affairs in the 1970s and 80s, I am likely to get a phone call or e-mail asking for a quote or information. In a sense, I have become the newspaper’s institutional memory, and the irony is not lost on me.