On Bomb-Throwing

May 24 2008

Note to visitors coming via Jay Rosen’s Twitter feed: Nowhere here do I say that Curley and his team were “not effective” at WPNI. Not effective as they could have been is a better reflection of my thoughts.

So: Curley and Co. to Las Vegas, one of the non-secret secrets of the Web journalism world. Among the reactions?

Patrick Thornton: “Now the real fun will begin at WPNI. He is taking his whole team with him.” Steve Outing: “Big ouch for WashPost, eh?”

Well, yes and no. I say this as a former WPNI employee who knows Curley and his team (we weren’t best buddies, but friendly enough). Let me also say that he and his team were always nice to me, and I admire them for doing what they do.

But to respond to Steve’s assessment, it would be a bigger ouch for WPNI if Curley’s team was more a part of the organization, but it was clear from early on that they were, if I can borrow the phrase, a pluggable app rather than deeply ingrained in the organization. Curley puts it this way: “I love The Washington Post and all that it stands for, but I probably wasn’t the best fit with the organization.”

I agree. Here’s my take: Curley probably figured out quickly that being a bomb-thrower (in the best sense of the phrase) was gonna be tougher at the Post than it was at, say, Naples or Lawrence. He couldn’t get rid of the IT staff (at WPNI, his unit was entirely separate in every way, which was the best he could do). He couldn’t make people at the paper do his bidding, although certainly they sought him out to build things, and his team did some great work. But there was a lot of pushback; some of it for the wrong reasons, some of it entirely justified.

And from the perspective of good portion of the staff of the Washington Post newspaper, this Curley guy talked a great game, but some were always a little skeptical. It’s a natural enough reaction, but at an organization that size, that’s a tough situation for anyone to overcome. So I think Curley and his team did what they could and didn’t get too attached. I can totally understand that choice, but the end result is that Curley’s departure won’t spell doom for WPNI, as his group was never really a part of the team. Will it reduce WPNI’s ability to produce some cool stuff? Absolutely. But it would hurt a lot more if circumstances were different.

Certainly there was resentment at his arrival and the attention paid to it, which Curley couldn’t have done much to mitigate. And it’s not in his nature to do so, from what I saw. He’s a very smart guy, and there’s no need to apologize for that. He had to realize that some folks wouldn’t be excited to see him, or would be jealous of his resources and ability to pick and choose projects, so his team mostly kept their heads down and did their work.

That’s the thing about bomb-throwing: it works best when you control the environment around you (think Lawrence and most likely the situation awaiting Team Curley in Vegas). Throw a bomb when you’re surrounded by people who aren’t already your allies and you risk alienating more people than you intended. I say this as someone who routinely chucked bombs during my career. It may have been slightly more effective at smaller organizations; it certainly didn’t work at the Post when I tried it, and I was wrong to do it as often as I did. I didn’t pick my spots well, and as a result I alienated people who could have been my allies.

I say this not just because Curley’s leaving, but because I see a lot of this behavior in the journalism blogging community. It’s not done with bad intentions, but it seems terribly counterproductive to me to condemn people who are facing an uncertain future and don’t know how to respond to it as people who “cannot be helped.” Shall we take them out back and shoot them, then? Once you start dividing your newsroom into people with a future and people without, imagine how much fun that’s going to be for everybody. Imagine the impact on your workplace culture.

Yeah, it sure feels good, in that revolutionary zeal sort of way, to toss some grenades over the wall. But who does it help? So much of journalism blogging is preaching to the choir that you get the sense that if rest of the industry just would get out of the way already, everything would be fine. Things are more complex than that, and it’s time we started being serious about that complexity.

May’s Carnival of Journalism question is this: “What should news organizations stop doing today, immediately, to make more time for innovation?” Which is a great academic question - because that’s pretty much what this exercise is: academic. Imagine, if you will, walking into a typical newsroom, picking out a person who has worked there for, say, 5-7 years and saying: “What you’re doing? Stop it. It’s worthless.”

What, that’s not what you meant by the question? I’m sure every newspaper veteran will see it that way, too. My response was to suggest that we work on improving existing processes rather than trying to tell people who already fear for their futures that we don’t need them to do the job they’re trained to do anymore. These aren’t abstractions that can be neatly tied up in an all-encompassing blog post; these are real people. Just because someone is not willing to get fired doesn’t mean they’re not of value. I’m sorry, but if you’re 25 and single, you have yet to understand why losing a job would be a very bad thing for you and the people who depend upon you. Let’s not approach our colleagues with a raised middle finger when there are more productive avenues.

While we’re at it, let’s not all pretend that we’re the cool kids rebelling against the man. Let’s not all assume that replacing 15-inch stories with blogs works in every circumstance. Let’s not all assume that the answers are so obvious that anyone who disagrees “just doesn’t get it.” There’s a gap, people, and talking about it only helps so much. I’d love to see more creation, more building of tools that will help us get to a better place. Advice is cheap, and worth the price in too many instances.

My intent here is not to shut people up; that’s not a good thing for anybody, either. It’s to encourage all of us to think a little longer before issuing sweeping pronouncements like “no more meeting stories” or “everyone must blog/twitter/facebook/pownce/whatever or else they’re useless.” Those are not fixes to real problems; they’re revolutionary slogans. And as revolutionaries the world over have found, revolution doesn’t always translate well once you’ve attained power. Then you have to make things work.