Think of newsroom ‘tribes’ when making change — API report

APIAs someone who has been studying organizational change in newsrooms for many years, I think the recent American Press Institute report on a culture-based strategy for innovation in newsrooms is well worth a look.

I especially liked the way it described newsroom structure as one of “tribes.” Human beings naturally organize into groups based on their role in an organization and/or their level of experience, congregating closely with others we feel most comfortable with or need access to, the report says.  In newsrooms, sports reporters and the copy desk are just a couple of examples of tribes.

Tribes are tremendously influential on organizational behavior because people act in accordance with others around them, and they can make or break attempts at change, the report says.

This jibes with the academic literature on leadership and culture as well as the newsrooms Groves and I have observed and studied, and I think it also describes the phenomena in a way that is easy to grasp and therefore act on.

Although newsrooms are notoriously hierarchical, I’ve also long felt that they differ from the kinds of average corporate environments described in much of the academic work on culture. Top leaders are important in newsrooms, of course, but a) most journalists tend to have an aversion to power, which is, after all, to some extent part of their job description and b) journalists have an abstract sensibility that the real leader is “the public,” and can often find ways to defend the status quo on that basis. This leads to different dynamics in terms of how people respond to directives.

[Caveat: I’m speaking very generally here, and it’s always important to note that each organization is different.]

Thinking about tribes as a key influence on what kinds of change people accept helps make it clear how leaders’ priorities can be undermined, even assuming that these priorities are communicated clearly and rewarded, which often is not the case.

Shameless plug: The API companion report on best practices for innovation in news organizations, by Craig Silverman, mentions our model for change, which encompasses culture, innovation, and strategy.