As a card-carrying member of Generation X, I am a big proponent of cultural change in newspapers and its absolute necessity if we are to have a future that is robust and exciting, not one of whimpering retreat.
I even confess to finding merit in the view of Australian author Ryan Heath, whose 2006 book Please Just F*** Off, It’s Our Turn Now, claimed urgent generational change was needed because baby boomers “hog all the good jobs, are moribund superannuated leaders whose tired methods and recycled ideas are leading us to mediocrity and decline.” (His words, not mine.)
Heath was writing about Australian society, arguing that younger people needed to be given more roles of responsibility, and their ideas allowed oxygen and impact. But I always thought his views had particular resonance for the newspaper industry globally where too many decisions about our future are made by men in grey suits who use only 15% of the technology available to them and make business decisions accordingly. (Fellas, you know I love you all individually, but as a voting block that determines our future, you regularly drive me and my contemporaries mental.)
Heath’s book was slammed as puerile, dangerous and written by an upstart — by mainly middle-aged male newspaper reviewers. No surprises there. But I always saw it as a treatise for Generation X. Shock No. 1 this month is that Heath is actually in his 20s and a Gen Y. So in his view, I’m part of the problem too. Hmmmm.
The second shock came from the recent Panpa Conference — the Australian, New Zealand and Southeast Asian newspaper conference, attended over the course of three days by more than 1,500 people.
A selected group of newspaper editors were invited to a meet-and-greet with Google in its Sydney offices, where the company's marketing, programming, HR and design teams offered a full and frank insight into the Google culture and how it created and supported innovation and creativity.
It was the newspaper-meets-IT equivalent of Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus as stunned editors heard that Google employees are freely given all the technology they need to do their jobs without forms or paperwork (!), how meetings are discouraged or kept short (!!), how staff are trusted not suspected (!!!) and that the role of management is to facilitate staff success, not get in the way (!!!!). Feedback rules at every level regardless of seniority or position. Staff work when, how and wherever they like, and work in fluid teams and groups on multiple projects as required.
The theme from the day was summed up by Google PR director Courtney Hohne, who explained that the company has rigourous hiring processes to ensure the cultural fit is right as well as the skills being top-notch. Google doesn’t interview once or twice: it interviews at least seven times. Once that’s done, Google has a culture of “unmanaging.” “If they’re smart and focused, we really just need to get out of the way and let them do what they’re good at,” Hohne says. At this point, there was a lot of uncomfortable squirming in chairs.
The difference is best explained by Google’s background in collegiate university behaviour, vs. the newspaper industry’s background in manufacturing and process.
Google is an Intellectual Property company driven by ideas, strategy and networks that encourage creativity, experimentation and new ways of doing things. Newspapers are operationally driven manufacturing businesses with set processes that seek to control an output delivered to an acceptable minimum standard all the time.
We agonise over why we can’t make our current systems and structures be more flexible and entrepreneurial. It’s because our current systems and structures are industrial revolution-based in a century of intellectual revolution.
So the shock for me was the realisation that it’s not my generation of newspaper people that are necessarily going to be the saviours of the industry that we thought we would be, if only given the chance. The challenge the industry faces is not about putting younger or more creative thinkers into senior roles to influence what we can. Nor is it about adding on extra products, ideas and outcomes, expecting old systems to somehow cope.
The cultural challenge is about embracing the major reinvention required to turn ourselves into IP businesses and move away from moribund manufacturing processes that favour operational experts over creative thinking.
It won’t be pretty. There’s bound to be casualties. But on the bright side, there’s less paperwork.
So let’s stop meeting and talking about it and just do it!
Vive la révolution!