News Leadership 3.0

April 14, 2008

In the Either/Or newsroom, why not Both?

Journalists tend to see mutually exclusive alternatives
An Either/Or mentality limits choices and impedes creativity
How do you challenge this attitude?

One common newsroom approach that blocks change is Either/Or framing.

John Robinson pointed to (and challenged) a classic example of journalism Either/Or think: The notion that journalists sacrifice credibility to meet the expectations of their online audiences.

I’m not here to revive that shopworn premise. Thankfully, many news organizations have moved on. But I think it stands as a clear example of the way Either/Or thinking holds back journalists and news organizations.

The workforce culture gurus call this “oppositional’’ thinking. It’s the tendency to see two ideas as being in conflict or mutually exclusive rather than approaching them as being potentially compatible.

So it’s EITHER credibility OR satisfying readers but never BOTH. It’s EITHER an offensive, anonymous free-for-all in reader comments OR it’s no comments allowed at all. It’s EITHER “Do it the way we’ve always done it” OR “Get complaints from readers.” EITHER journalists OR bloggers. That the last one raged long after journalists were blogging and bloggers were creating journalism is testament to the power of oppositional thinking.

The problem is that this way of thinking swiftly closes the door on alternative possibilities just when journalists and their newsrooms need to be more open to them.

As I said in a comment to Robinson: As long as journalists think they have to sacrifice credibility to meet reader expectations, they will not embrace abundant opportunities to do both.

Even worse, in the Either/Or universe, one of the two alternatives usually feels more familiar and comfortable to the journalists (Be credible. Keep offensive comments out.). The old is always going to feel more familiar than the new, so the decision between two alternatives usually favors the tried and true.

How do you encourage your colleagues to move smartly from Either/Or to Both?

I’d start by borrowing from Bob Steele at Poynter, who advises journalists to avoid making important ethical decisions when they’ve only considered two alternatives. Editors who consistently ask for and offer multiple alternatives can change Either/Or mindsets that are limiting their newsrooms.

What Either/Or examples have you seen? What alternatives have you found? I would love to see comments that explore other newsroom examples of this mindset and tips how you’ve led your staff past it.


Michele, you’ve framed up one of the more challenging and persistent issues we face in the newsroom. So many things spin from the Either/Or mentality.

“Either I can cover this high school basketball game, OR, I can shoot post-game video, but I sure can’t do both.” Well, yes, you can and we did so with great success all winter long.

Our sports staff here has made great leaps in many Web adaptations, and a lot of the change started when we set the tone that, yes, it is possible for a reporter to shoot post-game video clips and still write a great story for print. Getting over that hurdle seemed to bring down other Either/Or walls as well.

The Either/Or thing comes into play in so many other ways. “Either we have every element of this Sunday package in hand and polished by Wednesday, OR, the whole thing is doomed to failure.”
Well, no, that’s not the case. Yes, we want to get a good jump on the Sunday centerpiece but, no, we don’t have to do it all Wednesday night or even Thursday night. We can make great Sunday centerpieces on Friday night, and we regularly do so.

The Either/Or dilemma is, of course, a close cousin to the All or Nothing mindset and neither is particularly helpful in producing a good newspaper on a daily basis. Oh, that we had the time and the resource and the position to claim All or Nothing (Either/Or if you prefer) status. But pages call and stories call and readers call. So we make the best choices we can, on the fly, and we keep on making them, day in and day out. And that’s just a small part of why this is such a great business.

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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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