It’s easy to get caught up in the mystique that Silicon Valley workplaces are vastly different to traditional newsrooms.
They are not.
In fact, I see a lot of similarities between Google’s culture and the typical newsroom, which I will explore in more detail later in this blog post.
Without a doubt, media companies have learned a lot and still have a lot to learn from those tech companies that shuttle sleepy workers out of San Francisco every morning in plain white buses. But no matter how you sell that hour-long drive between the sea and the hills, it’s still a dull commute, just like in most cities in the world.
And the destination that awaits those workers — just like pretty much every office in the world — is a communal desk with a computer in front of you. Maybe there’s some space for a photo of your kids or dog, if you’re lucky.
What happens next, after you flick on that screen, is the really important bit. And that’s the challenge of every business — from Perth to Pittsburgh.
How do you and your colleagues deal with the armada of software programmes leaping out at you — from e-mail to Jira to Confluence to Slack to Google Analytics to Chartbeat to Hightail to HipChat to Hangouts to WebEx to Premiere Pro to Photoshop to TweetDeck to Facebook to Instagram to Snapchat to … maybe even talking to each other?
What always initially bedazzles visitors to the big and medium Silicon Valley companies is the accoutrements — the gourmet food, pingpong tables, internal bars, and even Lightsaber lessons.
None of this is especially radical or new.
I once worked at a Fleet Street newspaper that foolishly had a bar on the ground floor. You actually had to walk past the bar to get to the canteen to buy your lunch or dinner.
No prizes for guessing how often workers never made it to the canteen.
Nothing was free, though. Everyone was happy to pay for their pints. (As an aside, a News Corp editor once pitched a brilliant idea to Rupert Murdoch. He recommended buying the pub opposite the company’s Sydney headquarters. “Pay them on Thursday morning, boss, and get it back on Thursday night,” was the flawless business strategy. It was a rare missed opportunity in Rupert’s global expansion.)
The modern equivalent of the internal bar is places like Bleacher Report, where employees have to walk past the beer taps to catch the lift upstairs to work. It’s a fantastic little set-up and, amazingly, the staff treat it responsibly. Times have changed.
The same is true with pingpong tables.
In another newsroom where I worked, the inventive souls bought a net and turned the news conference table into a battleground with bats. The only problem was the conference room was surrounded by glass walls on three sides and the games turned serious. The editor eventually called a halt to the activity before a body was carted to the hospital covered in blood.
It was crude table — nothing like some of the funky ones you see in San Francisco offices today.
There’s a reason tech companies supply all these distractions. And who better to explain why than Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg, the Google executives who wrote the excellent book How Google Works.
“A new visitor to the Googleplex will immediately notice the dazzling array of amenities available to employees: volleyball courts, bowling alleys, climbing walls and slides, gyms with personal trainers and lap pools, colourful bikes to get them from building to building, free gourmet cafeterias, and numerous kitchens stocked with all sorts of snacks, drinks, and top-of the-line espresso machines,” Schmidt and Rosenberg wrote.
“These things usually leave visitors with the correct impression that Googlers are awash in luxuries, and the mistaken impression that luxury is part of our culture.”
It’s not, of course. The culture is built around engineering a product that acts as the world’s brain — ask it a question in any language and it will spit out an answer. And the culture and work ethic behind executing this ambitious idea is far closer to a newsroom than you’d think.
Sergey Brin and Larry Page had no business training or experience when they started Google. But instead of seeing this as a hindrance, they actually saw it as a potential competitive advantage.
The Google execs never had any time for the MBA way of running a business. They knew exactly how MBA-trained executives were going to react. Often slow and predictable.
What Page and Brin created was almost exactly the opposite — fast and fluid with a minimum amount of paperwork.
When Schmidt and Rosenberg arrived at Google, they thought they would be bringing adult supervision to a chaotic and juvenile workplace. They were wrong, and big enough to realise they had a lot to learn if they were going to succeed.
They made a crucial decision: rather than impose their idea of business on the Google staff, they instead bent their naturally more rigid processes to fit in with how the engineers and founders were already operating around them.
They let the incumbents teach them rather than the other way around.
Schmidt and Rosenberg explored some of the core ideas they learned from the Google culture in their book. I’ve picked out a few and give them a twist to show where I think they overlap with newsroom cultures.
1. Keep it tight.
Google deliberately keeps its workplaces quite cramped: “Crowded, messy, and a petri dish for creativity.”
Outside the office walls, Google creates a university campus feel, but inside space is minimised to force people to talk to each other, interact, and have random conversations that spark creativity.
This is how newsrooms have always worked. Journalists working side-by-side in a restless environment that is both collegiate and full of competitive tension.
Our newsroom — which produces TV news and current affairs shows, newspapers and Web sites — operates on the same principle. The key decision makers have the least amount of space of anyone in the newsroom.
It’s a heaving bustle of ideas and constant deadlines.
2. Keep it loose.
Newsrooms have always operated on a principle of organised chaos that others struggle to understand. There is a highly regulated structure and rhythm to every day. It includes quite a few fixed meetings, but in between there are loads of fast, sharp ones shaping the decision-making toward an end product.
Google adopts a similar approach.
3. Fail fast.
One of the mantras of Silicon Valley has always been a staple of newsrooms: Ideas flow thick and fast. The best ones rise to the top quite quickly.
Every idea is given time to be heard, but no offense is taken when a weak idea is shot down or passed over for a stronger one.
4. Fail slow.
You have to have faith in the tough stories or ideas that may come to nothing. The corporate analysts always struggle with the concept that a journalist may spend a month on a story that doesn’t get published for various reasons.
On the flipside, that story could well be your biggest of the year, the one that adds another intangible brick into your company’s wall of credibility.
My editor once gave a colleague time in between her normal work assignments to chase a single story for six years without writing a word. That’s a lot of faith in an uncertain outcome. But the outcome was an innocent person wrongfully convicted of murder walking free after spending 12 years in jail.
5. Smart creatives.
This is one of Google’s great themes, and the type of employees they want to attract. Its definition is a person who combines deep technical knowledge of his or her trade with intelligence, business savvy, and a host of creative qualities.
More than ever, journalism is full of people who fit this description while expertly managing to navigate the editorial/commercial divide to pursue new business opportunities.
6. Small team, big impact.
Newsrooms can mistakenly be seen as one big office full of people. They’re not. In fact, they are an intricate collection of small teams working together.
These groups fit the Jeff Bezos, two-pizza rule that Google tries to follow: Teams should be kept small enough so that they can be fed with two pizzas at any time.
7. Passionate people don’t use the word.
“A fine marker of smart creatives is passion. They care,” Schmidt and Rosenberg wrote.
No need to go into this one further.
The best journalists only look at a clock to check how many minutes they have until deadline.
8. Enough with the meetings; just get on with it.
Editorial organisations have always had one boss. The product is often an extension of that person’s personality. But below that boss is a remarkably open forum for dissenting ideas.
In our office we have continual impromptu and several scheduled fixed meetings in an open forum where anyone on the news floor can listen or interject. One person runs the meeting, but there’s no point in shrinking violets taking a seat. We challenge, we debate, we decide. Fast.
But all this esprit de corps is fine — to a point.
Sometimes a boss just has to get quietly angry to fix a problem immediately.
My favourite example of this from How Google Works proved to be one of the company’s most critical moments. I’ll let Eric and Jonathan tell the story, because they tell it so well. And I think every reader will recognise an incident from his own newsroom similar to this:
“One Friday afternoon in May 2002, Larry Page was playing around on the Google site, typing in search terms and seeing what sort of results and ads he’d get back,” they wrote. “He wasn’t happy with what he saw.”
“He would enter a query for one thing, and while Google came back with plenty of relevant organised results, some of the ads were completely unrelated to the search.
“In a normal company, the CEO, seeing a bad product, would call the person in charge of the product. There would be a meeting or two or three to discuss the problem, review potential solutions, and decide on a course of action. A plan would come together to implement the solution.
“Then, after a fair amount of quality assurance testing, the solution would launch. In a normal company, this would take several weeks. This wasn’t what Larry did.
“Instead, he printed out the pages containing the results he didn’t like, highlighted the offending ads, posted them on a bulletin board on the wall of the kitchen by the pool table, and wrote THESE ADS SUCK in big letters across the top. Then he went home. He didn’t call or e-mail anyone. He didn’t schedule an emergency meeting. He didn’t mention the issue to either of us.”
Yep, he went home.
But the culture of Google was so strong that, over the weekend, a team of engineers — not in the advertising department — solved the problem by Monday morning. What they built became the foundation of Google AdWords — the gigantic leap that turned Google into a multi-billion-dollar business.
Disclosure: The author once won a major journalism award in Australia after using a series of Google searches to check a key fact in a court story. It led to a Supreme Court judge being jailed for perjury.
Editor’s note: Michael was one of 30+ attendees on INMA’s Silicon Valley Study Tour 2015, which is how we met and roped him into sharing his words of wisdom as a blogger on a regular basis. INMA’s 2016 Silicon Valley Study Tour, October 17-21, has a few seats left. Cheers!