Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The Daily News Way

Hey Gang,

Hmm-- my computer appears to be playing tricks on me again, making the email I was just working on disappear halfway through. So if you guys got a half of a message about morale at work, I apologize. And if not, I'll try to repeat it here.

In my job as the union steward, I hear a lot of your concerns and complaints about the workplace. I'm always glad to hear you speak up and glad to work with you on whatever the issue is. Sometimes there's nothing we can do, but mostly, we're able to figure something out that improves the situation. Though we've endured endless challenges as a staff in the five years I've been here, we always seem to find a way through them and still put out a great paper. That's all because of you-- the fact that we can put out such great work with so few resources is a testament to your skills and sharpness as journalists.

In talking to people over the years, I've noticed a pervasive attitude, one that started a long time ago from the top and filtered its way into every level of the newsroom-- I've heard it called the Daily News way. I first got a whiff of it when I interviewed for a job here and I was told by someone in senior management that people are overworked, underpaid and quit frequently at the Daily News. Rather than trying to do something about all three of those issues, people just get it beaten into them that we're this kicked around underdog that'll never have the money, the people or the equipment it needs to compete.

This mentality trickles down to everyone and as a result, a lot of good people have left and a lot of others have gotten used to the bizarre, broken down ways that sprung up. Colleagues don't communicate, bad conditions get tolerated, we get used to dealing with situations that would have never come up if someone had spoken out.

It reminds me of something that happened to me as a kid-- I hurt my wrist once playing football. Instead of going to the doctor and getting it taken care of in the proper time, I ignored the pain and just got used to not bending it certain ways. Eventually, it didn't hurt anymore. And my wrist didn't move the way it was supposed to. It still doesn't.

And that's what happens here at the paper-- when things go wrong, someone leaves, something gets screwed up, something seems amiss, all too often, no one says anything or does anything about it because they've become conditioned that it'll never get better. Like my screwed up hand, if we don't find a way to fix things in a timely fashion, they really will never improve.

In the past, it was very easy to get caught up in that mentality, but we've got a rare opportunity now. With new management in place at the top, we can work to get rid of the things that didn't function before and find new ones that do. We're never going to get that huge investment of capital that this place sorely needs, but we can at least improve what we've got.

And that'll never happen unless we speak up and stand up for ourselves. If you're overloaded with work, tell your manager. If you don't have the right gear, request it. If you see a way things could run more smoothly, an area of the paper that's lacking, a way to improve morale, make your voice heard. If you don't feel comfortable saying it yourself, tell me-- that's what the union's here for. We're here to lobby for those changes and work with management to make sure they get enacted fairly.

It's always hard to be the one to open your mouth, but if you don't, you validate the situation. Every time someone leaves, we all take up a little of their slack and stretch ourselves a little thinner. While that's certainly part of being a team, there are also limits to how long you can do that. Every time a manager makes a bad decision and you just take it, rather than letting them know, you send them the message that it's ok to do so.

That's how this place got itself so far in the hole-- when problems arose, people just got frustrated and quit, rather than making a stand and solving the problem. That just fueled this defeatist attitude that there was something inherently wrong with the workplace and that it would never get better. It'll take a long time to dig ourselves out of that hole, but we can do it.

I'm not saying that every time you're asked to do something that you complain-- far from it. But when you see something happen that's not right, whether it's getting put on a comp-time shift without being asked or an editor fooling with your copy without running it by you, speak up. Don't just complain, but tell them how things should be done. Do so firmly and politely and almost all the time, that'll fix the situation right there. If not, don't be afraid to take it to us-- that's why we've got a whole detailed grievance procedure for situations exactly like that. In my conversations with Ron and Melissa, they seem interested in changing the culture of the newsroom, so let's find a way to change it so it works for all of us.

So I'll close now with a final anecdote, then get off my soapbox and let you get on with your evenings. A much admired former editor shared this with me at a going away party once-- it was loud and late when he told me, so I may get a couple details wrong, but the substance of the story really encapsulates the nature of the problem here.

Many years ago, the Daily News' Sacramento bureau had an ancient, perpetually broken fax machine. It conked out regularly, necessitating frequent repair. At the time, the corporate policy (and I believe this was several coporations ago) was that in order to prevent waste, any salvageable machine would be fixed, rather than replaced.

The only trick was, this thing was so old and so crummy and so far away, each repair cost hundreds of dollars. But since the order was that it would be wasteful to throw out the old machine and buy a new one for a few hundred bucks, the company ended up spending thousands of dollars on a machine that kept breaking. Rather than upset the company policy, people kept signing off on it and kept throwing money away. The practice finally ended when a departing reporter from the Associated Press bequeathed their ancient, but slightly less junky, machine to the bureau, thus stopping the breakdowns and the endless waste of dollars.

Let's not let ourselves get trapped in that illogical mentality. Just because things were messed up here in the past doesn't mean they have to always be that way-- we can either work together to make it better or we can watch this place keep breaking down like that old, patched up machine. Let's make that the new Daily News way.

Thanks for listening,


Blogger Steven Rosenberg said...

From the top down, baby.

2:11 PM  

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