Saturday, July 4, 2009

Why Cooperative Employees Can Be Bad for Business

You might not have noticed this yet because it is, after all, a weekend, and you do have a life. (I, however, am stuck inside working on a book I hear a violin playing somewhere?) But the media is all abuzz about a major blunder (not to mention ethics violations) coming out of The Washington Post, which will be printing a special “note to readers” about it tomorrow. Long story short: In an effort to gin up additional revenue sources, the marketing department thought it would be a good idea to launch high-level salons at the publisher’s house, giving media, lobbyists and other Washington, DC, power brokers relaxed, off-the-record, access to each other (hence – as the information food chain goes – public opinion). In theory a possibly good idea. I’m always looking for a good salon, aren’t you?

Here’s why it’s a bad idea: For $25,000 to $250,000, you too can be a sponsor of these salons. Basically buying your way into the public’s ear. Sort of like a tick. When you boil this scenario down to its core components, it comes out this way: The newspaper is selling extraordinary, exclusive access to its reporters. And it flies in the face of basic journalism ethics in so many different ways, it’s hard to know where to begin.

So I won’t. Unless you’re in journalism, you’re probably wondering what this has to do with your own business. Here it is: If the reports are true, the newspaper’s reporters (the ultimate individual contributor) don’t have it in them anymore to stand together as a group and go: “Uh, hello? Stupid idea!!!! We won’t have any part of it!” And because of this, they allowed the Post to thoroughly embarrass itself. It's quite possible that your quiet employees are letting you destroy your business, too. By accident, of course, but still...

According to today’s New York Times article, the Post ombudsman said that “the plan was well developed with the newsroom.” And that made me wonder, “Really?” Somehow I don’t think so. Not the Washington Post newsroom that I know from growing up in the Washington, DC, area.

Here’s what I’m thinking has really happened: The Washington Post reporters have lost heart. They are too busy doing the jobs of multiple reporters to really focus on any one thing. And they have spent recent years hearing over and over again how newspapers are a business and no one will have a job if journalists refuse to get the fundamental fact of newspaper life: It’s all about making money. Jobs are being lost right and left. Newspapers are closing around the globe. An essential component of democracy – the free press – has been compromised to such an extent I’m reminded of a line in the movie Breaker Morant when the main character casts aspersions on the virtue of a woman he dallied with: “Who’s going to miss a slice of bread off a cut loaf?”

Journalists are discovering the same thing that the rest of us are discovering: The only way to keep your sanity about your job is to not care about your work anymore.

I'm just guessing here, but here’s what might have happened inside The Washington Post: Most seasoned journalists spotted this groovy idea coming down from Marketing for what it was: A spear in the ribs of journalistic integrity; an ethics stink bomb just waiting for the rest of the media (competition) to get wind of it. Some of those journalists may have spoken up. And then got resolutely ignored. Perhaps some of those journalists already have a history of telling corporate that its desperate ideas are chuckleheaded. And some have resolved to not do it anymore, especially when they see people lose their jobs around them. Others are still doing it, but they’ve already been pigeon-holed as contrarians. So they get routinely ignored anyway.

Others just might not know any better. They’re young. They weren’t paying attention in their Legal Aspects of Journalism class – they certainly weren’t paying attention to the part about sustaining objectivity.

Others are just too plain tired. They’ve given up the fight for whatever has remained of the cherished Fourth Estate. They have lost that heart, that fight, that is supposed to be the red meat of good, solid journalism.

Result: Some young suit from corporate – who probably doesn’t know any better either – might have said to the gathered throng of silence: “So. We’re all in agreement, right? Excellent. Carry on.” And then the ombudsman gets to tell reporters from the competition that the plan “was well developed with the newsroom.”

I’m no romantic when it comes to journalism. The field has more mediocre schmoes in it than quality professionals – the same way with any profession. But the thing about journalists is that as a group they are more likely to be a gigantic pain in corporate’s backside than any other profession. And it should be that way.

So when they’re quiet – or even cooperative – with corporate on such a rotten, smarmy notion as sponsored salons, you know that you have a cadre of professionals who had the stuffing kicked out of them. And they just want to hang on to whatever jobs might be left in a dying profession.

As a result, the Washington Post might be a cautionary tale for leaders everywhere. When you suddenly hear silence from quarters where you would normally expect shrieks of outrage, that is not a good thing. That means that you have lost the heart and passion of the very people who used to care enough to send their very best.

Mediocrity prevails when really great people stand by and go, “whatever.”