News Leadership 3.0

May 27, 2008

In a culture of perfectionism, it’s hard to let go

Shedding obsolete tasks challenges
traditional newsroom culture
How do you make the message stick?

There’s a lively discussion going over at this month’s Carnival of Journalism about what traditional news organizations might stop doing to free up more time for innovation. Ryan Sholin got the ball rolling at Invisible Inkling with a roundup of ideas, many from online journalists from traditional newsrooms. Examples: Drop AP and focus on being a local news provider, get more journalists working for multiple platforms, and (my personal favorite) stop writing so many full stories about meetings. John Hassell offers a thoughtful post on the power of good ideas as well.

I come at this from a different direction: The challenge of stopping doing something resonates with me as a student of newsroom culture. The research tells us that traditional print news organizations tend to reinforce perfectionism to a fault. People focus on details at the expense of big-picture thinking. Perfectionists are afraid to leave anything out, much less stop doing something. This is why stories get longer, workloads get heavier and to-do lists grow to discouraging proportions. These newsrooms also are risk-averse. So perfectionism is a good place to hide: Everybody is always too busy to innovate.

Today’s newsroom executives didn’t create this problem; it has been around for decades. But they may unintentionally exacerbate it. As we described in “News, Improved,” we discovered over and over again that top editors had dozens of priorities, and in large newsrooms, multiple top editors each had dozens of priorities. These priorities were not necessarily in conflict, but they competed for the attention of the staff. Hapless staff members often found themselves trying to do it all or to read the tea leaves to divine what the priorities really were. Sometimes staff members used the confusion as a shield against change. Your staff members may from time to time complain that they’re getting “mixed messages.” Sure it sounds like an excuse. Pay attention anyway. This is what they’re talking about.

Part of the reason good leaders lead well is that they have a knack for seeing what must be done at a conceptual and practical level. They can move quickly. But they may jump from priority to priority before anything really sticks with many on the staff.

By “sticks,” I mean each individual:

1. hears the message
2. understands it
3. gets over the notion that it is in conflict with something the leadership said earlier
4. runs out of other excuses, including “I don’t have time.”
5. accepts it or even gets excited about it
6. thinks about what it means to his or her particular job
7. starts experimenting and applying it
8. is crushed by mixed reviews from peers and supervisors (they’re perfectionists too!)
9. rebounds and decides to try again
10. masters the practice and is ready to learn a new one

Just think, grief only has five stages!

That’s the down side. This can be a significant problem, but not an intractable one. In future posts, I’ll discuss some proven strategies for making the message stick. And I welcome your ideas and experiences. Please share them in the comments.


My first job was as a copy-editor/page designer. When I was first training, my editor introduced me to the extremely complex morguing procedure we used that involved making copies in triplicate of every story used in the paper and organizing them into folders depending on the category the story belonged to. It seemed to me to be an extremely redundant and time-wasting process, as no one looked in those section-separated folders when they wanted to look something up, they just went to the basic library folder that contained all the stories, non-organized.

I didn’t say anything, and we kept up this extremely long and complicated process for over a year until the newspaper’s librarian came to us and asked us why were doing this. No one, including people who had been at the paper years before me, knew why. The librarian then infomed us that all we needed to do was copy the stories once to the library.

It probably took twenty minutes to morgue the old way, as opposed to one minute the new way. Twenty minutes, five days a week, for a year equals about 3.3 days of completely wasted time.

Yeah, phasing out obselete tasks is important.

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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

Get in touch with Michele at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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