Even Google knows the good old days weren’t always good


TALL tales of the good old days of journalism featured at a Christmas lunch, as colleagues reminisced over a few glasses of wine about the big names, the big stories, the big deadlines, the big nights – and days – at the pub and the big personalities and colour characters that once ruled the industry.

In the days of hot metal and typewriters – and even the blinking green cursor – you didn’t have to be mad to work in newspapers. But there’s no doubt eccentricity, alcoholism, chain-smoking, and a strong streak of self-righteous hedonism (or an ability to tolerate all of the above) helped enormously.

Ah, the good old days!

As an industry with such a legacy of rule breakers and misfits doing good work for the fourth estate, is it any wonder we now have such trouble buckling down to business in the 21st century? Where is the fun in discipline, taking responsibility, good internal communication, and clear and transparent decision-making? Where is the creativity in that?

Well, it appears the engineers of Google and newspaper journalists have something in common – both have a deep and abiding distrust of the value of managers.

In the December edition of the Harvard Business Review, David A. Garvin outlines how Google introduced a special project to reverse this thinking after it was revealed engineers believed “management is more destructive than beneficial, a distraction from ‘real work’ and tangible goal-directed tasks.”

In newsrooms where the best writers or most politically connected are hired to fill senior editorial roles, regardless of their interpersonal or managerial skills, this will sound familiar. Apparently, engineers, like journalists, want to spend their time doing what matters, “not communicating with bosses or supervising other workers’ progress.”

But unlike many newspapers, Google, in its own Googley way, recognised that thinking wasn’t healthy and did something about it. Project Oxygen demonstrated, through data collected from thousands of Google employees, not only how managers added value to the bottom line, but also how they improved life and careers for employees.

Now let’s face it: This is Google. Data collection, crunching, and analysis is never a problem when you own the biggest supercomputers and algorithms in the known galaxy.

But there’s a plethora of highly researched material now out there that demonstrates the importance of good management and how it can turn suffering companies – and even industries – around.

Quantitative research from consulting firm Hay/McBer as far back as 2000 in the United States revealed conclusively that management culture accounts for nearly a third of financial performance.

Daniel Golman, founder of the idea of “emotional intelligence,” says the impact of good leadership and management is felt in the organisation’s “climate.”

This is defined as how free employees feel to innovate, unencumbered by red tape; how responsible they feel to the organisation; the aptness of the rewards; and the sense of accuracy about performance feedback, the standards set by managers, clarity around mission, and values and commitment to the common purpose.

For every story of the crazy good old days of journalism that was told over our Christmas lunch, there were more telling tales of stress, burn-out, poor health – much of which continues today. If that’s the case, some news organisations are well overdue for our own version of climate change.

Newspapers don’t need their own piece of research to understand why better quality management cultures can improve their bottom line. The hedonistic crazy days of the past were fine when we were monopolies that owned our markets. But if even Google is on the lookout for ways it can constantly improve in this space, newspaper companies need to understand we are coming from a long way behind, and just catching up isn’t good enough.

Google came up with some great insights from Project Oxygen, which demonstrated that their best managers:

  • Serve as good coaches.

  • Empower the team and do not micro-manage.

  • Express interest and concern for team members’ success and personal well-being.

  • Are productive and results-oriented.

  • Are good communicators who listen and share information.

  • Help with career development.

  • Have a clear vision and strategy for the team.

  • Have key technical skills that help them advise the team.

After learning this, Google then restructured to let the engineers engineer, while good managers can manage in as flat a structure as possible. Could taking a similar approach help journalists return to the glory days of being “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”?