Editors! Beware Management Grubs Taking Over News

Never so many newspaper investigations of newspapers: internal investigations, outside investigations, hand-wringing, soul-searching. All of it important. And yet, I’d like to suggest, there has been one investigation that has been left undone, one phenomenon left unexamined, even though it has reshaped the entire culture of newspapers-some might say the entire media culture itself. And might bear some responsibility for the mindset behind the scandals.

I’m speaking about the culture, indeed the cult, of management theory, about the management-theory gurus who have become, as a rare outside study of the subject calls them, the “unacknowledged legislators” of American business culture. Who have been given a virtually free hand to “re-engineer” the way newspapers define their mission.

The study, a scathing examination of the largely baseless pretensions to science of management theory, is called, pointedly, The Witch Doctors . It was written by two smart Economist editors (John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge) and was published in 1996 by Times Books. It calls the “intellectual discipline” of management theory-the one that newspaper executives have adopted to restructure America’s newspapers-”still far from respectable,” rife with internal contradictions, addicted to fads, gurus and untested, unexamined theories which nonetheless are swallowed whole by many newspaper managers who want to look au courant to their superiors and shareholders.

A recent letter to the Romenesko media-news Web site (from Brad Smith) argues that “the ever-more-strident rhetoric of journalism management gurus” now threatens the editorial integrity of America’s newspapers by seeking to break down the traditional separation of advertising and marketing from influence over editorial content. And yet the news pages of America’s newspapers, as far as I can see, have not done much to investigate the so-called “discipline” that is transforming them.

Will it ever happen, this investigation? The Economist editors’ book is a perfect starting point, but it’s now eight years old and doesn’t focus specifically on the newspaper industry’s engagement with management-theory gurus. So it’s still an investigation that needs to be done: Nobody knows whether the great institution of the free press in America is being shackled (sorry, restructured) by self-proclaimed experts who don’t know what they’re doing. Two documents that have emerged from the recent scandals suggest both the urgency and the unlikelihood of such an investigation.

One is the impressive 28-page report, written by three respected independent journalists commissioned by USA Today , on the Jack Kelley scandal. A report that doesn’t excuse Mr. Kelley’s responsibility for his fabrications, but demonstrates how his privileged status as a marketing tool -as a personification of “the brand,” as USA Today ‘s publisher called the newspaper-made him virtually immune to critical scrutiny.

The outside report, written by actual newsmen (Bill Kovach, John Seigenthaler and Bill Hilliard), also demonstrates how a standard management practice such as the “performance review”-supposedly designed to rationalize and humanize potentially arbitrary judgments-became the chief instrument in creating a “climate of fear” that stifled those who raised questions about Mr. Kelley’s fabrications-questions that might threaten the brand.

The second document is the remarkable cri de coeur that Howell Raines published in the current Atlantic , a wild psychodrama of a screed called “My Times.” One that has mainly been studied for its value as Times Kremlinology. And yet suggests in both anecdote and rhetoric how management-speak, management-think, has infiltrated the mind of someone who was once an outspoken critic of management-theory gurus.

In his first few pages, Mr. Raines uses buzzwords and phrases such as “change agent,” multiple “platforms” and “zone of comfort”; describes a newspaper as “a carefully assembled packet of information that was agnostic about how it traveled”; and discourses on “silo management.”

“Silo” as a management-theory buzzword also appears in the report on USA Today . Some newspaper people, particularly newspaper execs, seem to have a perverse affection for throwing around management-”science” jargon because it allows them to demonstrate they are not just ink-stained wretches concerned with that old-fashioned concept-”news”-but rather cutting-edge managers who can swim with the sharks at the I-banks and who know that “news” must now be called “packets of information,” deliverable on “multiple platforms” to aid “brand extension.”

But do the management consultants who invent the jargon even know what the hell they’re talking about? Are they any good at what they’re doing? Has anyone ever measured the efficacy of their techniques, their “retreats,” their role-playing games? Just in terms of the bottom line, forgetting for a moment the insulting condescension of their disingenuous New Age game-playing, does anyone know whether their whole project has produced positive results or has just been a massive waste of time that’s kept managers away on retreats while the Jack Kelleys and the Jayson Blairs fabricate away unsupervised?

When I read the outside report on the Jack Kelley scandal and the culture of management-theory toadyism that enabled him, I thought about the Other Kelly, Mike Kelly, someone I wrote about recently (see The Observer , April 5, 2004) as the Anti-Toady, someone who represented the polar opposite of the management-theory culture that is imposed on newsrooms today. Alas, the prevailing culture is more likely to produce Jack Kelleys than Mike Kellys.

There have been several tip-offs that the management-consultant culture is an unacknowledged, uninvestigated factor in the past year of newspaper scandals. First there was the egregious language of the USA Today publisher, (Craig Moon)-who, after accepting the resignation of a top editor over the Jack Kelley scandal, issued the reassurance that this “opens the door to move the USA Today brand forward under new leadership.”

There seemed to be no understanding that calling a newspaper a “brand” moves things backwards to precisely the thinking that allowed Jack Kelley to thrive-protected because he was the public face of a “brand,” not a newspaperman whose facts are subject to review.

The outside report on USA Today is really worth reading in full (it’s available at http://www.USAToday.com). Its comments on the problem of anonymous/confidential sourcing (who should know what in the editor-reporter-reader triangle) are particularly thought-provoking on a complex issue. Under what conditions should whistle-blowers, for instance, be given anonymity to protect them from reprisals, and can their agenda be disclosed without revealing their identity? (It’s not an easy issue to resolve, and the Kovach report resorts to deletions for the sake of confidentiality at times itself).

But to me, the high point of the report is its acute, almost literary sensitivity to the subtle, tyrannical abuses of the “performance review” process. How what was meant to make things more fair became distorted: At USA Today , anyway, when it came to covering up for Jack Kelley, the “performance review” process became a thin veneer of rationality disguising an intimidating culture of personal agendas and psychic torment.

It’s an illustration of the way management theory has turned a human interaction-a sometimes unpleasant, but sometimes helpful, human truth-telling interaction-into a snake pit of lies, favoritism and hypocrisy. A brand extension of the culture of toadyism.

I don’t know Times culture well enough to know how much merit Howell Raines’ substantive analysis of the situation has, and how much is special pleading. (The frequently expressed personal attacks would suggest the latter. Villains, it seems, abounded at The Times , but there was really only one hero. Guess who?)

But most discussion of the Raines piece has focused almost exclusively on who his friends and enemies at The Times were-through the lens of Times Kremlinology, in other words. As opposed to what it reveals about newspaper management-theory culture.

To me, the pièce de résistance of the Raines essay-the anecdote that captures the true texture of management-guru culture-is his description of the elite management retreat in which a management-consultant guru painstakingly explains to Times executives the management-guru-approved method for firing people.

From the reporting of Ken Auletta in The New Yorker , we know that The Times loves to organize “retreats” for executives, and there are some who defend them for humanizing employee relations or encouraging editorial-side execs not to arrogantly reject the business side’s concern for economic survival. Others object that management gurus show little awareness of what makes newspapers and their First Amendment responsibilities different from other corporate entities where only profit matters.

Mr. Raines describes this particular retreat as taking place “about a decade ago,” when “several dozen Times editors convened for a retreat at Arrowwood, a sleek, soulless conference center in Westchester County.”

Soulless, but not without a price, I bet. I’d love to see an accounting of how much big newspapers spend on the “retreat industry,” with its sleek facilities and slick facilitators-and see how many more reporters could be covering news (a.k.a. “information packets”) for the money wasted on New Age hustlers. Or whether the budget might be better directed to investigating the “retreat” industry, rather than getting into bed with it.

At this particular retreat, Mr. Raines tells us, the “coach and facilitator” announced the lesson for the day: “how to fire people.” The poor Times execs were coerced into dividing up into groups to role-play firing scenarios Or, as Mr. Raines puts it, the groups “practiced termination interviews.”

Note: “termination interviews.” Don’tcha love it? It’s hard to decide which is more absurd, the invention and use of that Orwellian euphemism, or the attempt to foist it on people whose business is supposed to be the honest use of words.

Anyway, Mr. Raines tells us, the “main precepts” communicated by the “termination” guru were “to sit directly facing the employee in a posture that indicated openness, receptivity-legs uncrossed, arms resting loosely on the arms of the chair. After saying to the person in a calm tone that he or she was being dismissed, and giving a brief, neutral explanation of the reason, we were to listen patiently while the employee vented freely. If he or she became angry, we were to say we understood the anger. At every turn we were to express personal sympathy but to offer no concessions. Once the soon-to-be-exiled worker realized the hopelessness of his or her situation, we were to collect the person’s identification card, if that could be accomplished without a wrestling match.” In other words: break them down, treat them like children and kick them out while disguising your contempt for them.

Isn’t this totally fascinating (as well as degrading): someone being paid to teach newspaper editors how to be hypocrites, how to indicate (i.e., fake) openness, how to ” say we understood the anger,” how to feign “personal sympathy,” and finally how to deny the fired employee the dignity of clearing out his office himself. I know some smart newspaper people who say that for all their faults, such methods are preferable to the often cruel old ways. But putting perfume on effluent doesn’t make it smell good.

Let’s face it: It was training in how to eliminate any true human interaction, in order to cover up-to “manage”-the ugliness of the situation. Newspapers do this? Sure, probably all the time. But to make it a part of formal management training? Shouldn’t someone investigate the “emotional intelligence” of “termination training” instead of just taking the management guru’s word? Again: Newspapers should be investigating this, not investing in it.

Newspapers take skeptical looks at the validity of every institution in society except this one. Where are the hard-hitting investigations of the management-consultant industry that is “re-engineering” the media with its oh-so-brilliant, deeply visionary talk about “brand extension,” “multiple platforms” and “packets of information”? Does anyone know whether they’re any good ? Does anyone know whether the advice peddled by these slick-talking hustlers has actually done anyone any good, ever? Are they cost-effective, or do they incur costs-not just monetary costs to newspapers, but intellectual and spiritual costs to the media culture they shape far beyond any good their jargonizing does?

And yet, newspaper executives seem content to hand over the future of truth-telling in America to speakers of Orwellian corp-think who-without any accountability-are the ones really running things at such “retreats.”

Could it be that little or no investigation of these consultants appears in newspapers because newspaper executives are so in thrall to consultant culture that reporters and editors fear to offend them by pointing out that the consultants have no clothes? Do newspaper management consultants enjoy the same immunity from examination that Jack Kelley’s fabrications did?

I don’t want to say I told you so, but in my own modest way I tried to sound a note of warning. Let me cite something I published in The Times more than 15 years ago which raised this question. It was a Sunday book review of a slim nonfiction work about the venerable scientific consulting firm Arthur D. Little Inc. by veteran New Yorker writer E. J. Kahn Jr.

In it, Kahn chronicled the change that Little was undergoing: from a legendary enterprise based on the ingenious application of hard-core scientific testing to include the “softer” science of management consulting. I focused in my review on what I called an “astonishing … dismaying” fact that Kahn had turned up in the course of interviewing an Arthur D. Little executive. That, after giving its advice and collecting its fee, the management-consultant side of the company “frequently has no idea which alternative a client may adopt. It considers its staff’s time one of its most precious assets; and because hours or even minutes spent following up on a completed case cannot be charged to that client or anybody else, ADL can sometimes only guess how fruitful its efforts have been ” (my italics).

This doesn’t exactly comport with the scientific method, which entails doing an experiment and then examining its results . Unscientifically, this is known as “learning from experience.” But Kahn suggested that unless ADL were paid to examine the results, it couldn’t be bothered to follow up. Instead, it was on to the next company.

Or as I put it in the review: “Did its [ADL's] recommendations save the client company or destroy it? It doesn’t want to know. It doesn’t want to find out …. It [is] a corporate culture deliberately biased against unbillable curiosity.”

And I asked why nobody seemed interested in “the question of the effect the so-called science of consulting has had on American corporations.”

It was a plea, really, for someone to do for 80′s consulting culture what William H. Whyte had done for 50′s corporate culture with his book The Organization Man . I can hear someone saying: “Why didn’t you do it?” But I was working on another book, and I assumed someone would take a close look at this juicy subject.

But who knows? Perhaps after reading my scathing comments, things changed in the consulting culture. I’m sure Arthur D. Little and other corporate consulting giants took my advice to heart and are now extraordinarily attentive to the results of their advice, even when they’re not paid to be attentive. I’m sure they’ve seen that, in the long run, it’s in their interest to offer advice that improves rather than destroys corporations. In a purely Darwinian sense, they don’t want to completely kill off their prey.

I’m sure they’ve incorporated a culture of self-examination and self-critique into their corporate culture. Look how smart their advice to the corporate culture of the 90′s boom turned out to be. ( Business Week reported in 2002 that McKinsey & Co., one of the nation’s leading management-consulting firms, “was a key architect of the strategic thinking that made Enron a Wall Street darling.”

But what about newspapers that pay for and take their advice? Have they ever investigated whether they’re getting their money’s worth? Whether their consultants are any good ? Whether their advice has helped or hurt their institutions and the public they serve? They could, of course, hire consultants to consult on the consultants. Or they could start by reading The Witch Doctors , which validates my intuition that much of the pretense to science in the management-consultant industry is a joke, because the industry is more given to fads and fashions than to self-examination and self-criticism.

It’s time for newspapers to investigate their own consultants the way they (finally) went after fakery in the rest of the corporate world. After all, newspapers have all these employees working for their “brand” whose job it is to investigate things. Find out stuff. Like whether institutions are effective or just slick-talking shams. These employees are called “reporters.” Who is going to be the editor brave enough to sic some reporters on the corporate consultants who are jargonizing the integrity of newspaper culture away?