This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Scientific Management and the Newsroom

            One of the great fallacies of scientific management is that everything at the workplace can be measured. Perhaps in a basic sales or manufacturing operation it can (though I have my doubts), but there are plenty of areas where judgment calls have to be made.
            Reading the recent news stories about the work culture at Amazon, I was glad I don’t work there and never will, and I was reminded of the time our small-town newspaper was prodded (with little success as long as I was around) to engage in its own form of scientific management
            The time was the mid 1980s, and the paper had been going through a spot of labor trouble, with a unionization effort that ultimately proved unsuccessful, but that made the company take a harder look at itself. Some good things came out of that, like performance appraisals and formal pay scales (I know, 50 years late, but, hey!) along with some notions that I can only regard as crackpot propositions.

Clean Desks? For Writers? Really?

            One was a suggested requirement that every desk in the newsroom should be completely clean before the occupying reporter or editor left for the day. Supposedly this was supposed to instill order and cleanliness to the operation, but to me it smelled like a recipe for mutiny. I never lifted a finger to implement that suggestion.
            Many newspaper people in those days took pride in the messiness of their desks. A typical reporter would have on the desk surface, at any given time, notes for various stories, a solid selection of coffee-stained government reports (with the most necessary one at the bottom of the stack), agendas of coming meetings, press releases needing to be rewritten, etc. These days I suppose it’s all on the computer, but back then you actually had to touch the stuff.
            A good reporter or editor knew (or claimed to know) exactly where in the mess any given document was and could, if you believed him or her, be able to produce it upon demand. Scotchy Sinclair, the longtime editor of the Santa Cruz Sentinel, had a desk that I never saw with less than three vertical feet of paper on it at any time. In multiple piles.
            That’s tradition, friend. You don’t mess with something like that.

Two Stories, Hold the Quality

            A second recommendation that died in my arms was that reporters be required to produce a quota of, say, two stories a day. To someone who doesn’t understand the business, that might seem reasonable, but to someone who does, it provides an excuse for malingering.
            If all a reporter is being judged by is how many stories are turned in, it’s easy for someone sharp to game the system. Just take two press releases you’re given, make a phone call or two on each one, and write them up. You can meet the quota in half a day and spend the afternoon on the golf course or wherever. On the other hand, if a reporter is going after the stories that should be gone after, those stories may be more difficult to complete, and some days, it won’t be possible to do two.
            A good editor ought to have a sense of whether or not a reporter is producing, and should be directing reporters to the stories that really need doing. That can take longer and call for some judgment and discrimination, but it’s what leads to a quality news product. Story quotas satisfy the bean counters — not the readers, who are, of course, the ultimate customers.