May 12, 2007

It Didn't Stop With Lileks

When nationally-known columnist and blogger James Lileks revealed that the Star Tribune had axed his column and assigned him to local news, we wondered what the Strib could be thinking. After all, the new management has a failing newspaper on its hands, and instead of using one of its most valuable assets to improve their situation, they buried Lileks in an assignment which makes no use of his national standing.

At the time, we thought that the Strib might be pushing Lileks out because of his connections to the conservative blogosphere. Now, though, it looks much more like a case of complete managerial incompetence, because the new editors have most of the Strib's reporters playing musical chairs:

As many as 100 newsroom staffers at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis may be taken off their current beats and forced to apply for new assignments when a week-long shake-up is finished, according to a guild official who called the overhaul "the worst ever" situation for employees in her 19 years there.

"I've never seen anything as sad as this," said Pam Miller, secretary of the local Newspaper Guild, and the paper's religion writer. "It is being handled without attention to individuals or their talents. People are coming out sobbing."

Editors have been calling in those affected to inform them since Tuesday, Miller said. "They are being told 'what you do now, you won't be able to do anymore'," Miller said. "Either the beat is going away, or they won't be doing it." ...

"It is quite unbelievable," said Doug Smith, a 20-year Star Tribune employee who has been an outdoor writer for 11 years, but was told his beat had been dropped. "The job was basically eliminated. I will have the chance to apply for other reporting or editing jobs, but it is not real pleasant."

At least James wasn't crying, but in all fairness, James has more options than most of the staff.

The wholesale reassignment sounds as foolish as one can get. It sounds like someone read a book that talked about how good cross-training can be for an organization, but that overlooks the fact that the paper has to get the news published. The best people to cover stories for the paper are people who have built expertise in the topics involved. The Strib will not improve by eliminating beats like Outdoors -- in a state where people love outdoor activities -- or by transferring them to less-knowledgeable but cheaper reporters.

We are seeing the last throes of a major metropolitan newspaper. This plan will almost guarantee that the quality of news reporting will follow the same trajectory as its editorial writing.


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Comments (6)

Posted by docjim505 [TypeKey Profile Page] | May 12, 2007 8:48 PM

American management strikes again! Or, as I often say:

If there's a right way, a wrong way, and a stupid way to do something, guess which one management will choose?

Posted by CKV | May 13, 2007 12:26 AM

Is it be possible the new ownership recognized the need to change the cult of leftist propaganda permeating the paper and wanted to shake things up to have a better paper?

Posted by Lew Coffey | May 13, 2007 9:26 AM

Sometimes at the bottum of a huge pile of horse manure, there just isn't any pony. All you get is just horse manure!

Somewhere in the management structure of this organization, there exists a purportedly intelligent human being to whom all this make's perfect sense. From out here however, it just looks stupid!

Posted by Adjoran | May 13, 2007 10:36 AM

The newspaper business - in which I labored for decades - is the perfect illustration of the Peter Principle: people keep getting promoted until they reach they personal Level of Incompetence, at which position they remain forever.

Once at a small newspaper I managed the publisher demanded "across the board" cuts (due primarily to poor sales and lavish spending in the printing division, which had nothing to do with the newspaper side). Not only could I not convince him to confine cuts to the area causing the bleeding, but he wouldn't even hear of alternatives to "across the board." I tried to explain that the advertising staff was the main SOURCE of our revenue, and it made no sense at all to apply cuts there.

No matter - it wouldn't be "fair" for other departments to bear the burden, you see.

Give an otherwise intelligent person a position of executive responsibility at a newspaper, and he will turn immediately into a babbling idiot.

Posted by amr | May 13, 2007 10:58 AM

Not so unusual, it appears to me. Once on a 12 month temp assignment I saw 3 VPs and associated subordinates rotated in the top management positions. They kept trying the same failed policies. I told the last one that I should have kept a diary and given it to him documenting the job’s history. On another project at a major nuclear site, the management was reshuffled every 12 months as policy to maximize the manager’s exposure and enhance their career opportunities, it was said. I was talking to the VP who had overall management of the site once who was lamenting about his weak management. He told me about a job in Sweden he had visited where he had gone out to diner with every senior manager on the site even as the plant was going through a major overhaul and was due to come back on line the next day. The American asked the managers how they could be out with him when such an important milestone was eminent. They replied that they had subordinates who had decades of experience and were well qualified to bring the plant one line. The American VP finished his story and still could not see why his faculty had serious management problems when he had just explained to me the difference management philosophy in Sweden and the result.

From one who quit college and joined the military during Vietnam and who had a very successful career as an construction field engineer, I have observed that our culture has come to believe that staying in the same job/notch and doing what you do best is an indication of weakness, fear of the unknown or new challenges or just plain laziness. That may sometimes be true, but why not be proud of what you do and perfect and hone your skills such that you aim to be the best at what you do regardless of your job/career. Maybe that is why we have so many failed college aspirants. I would suppose that being a boilermaker would be considered a demeaning and unsavory craft for those elites who know a boilermaker’s job description, but there would not be any gasoline being refined in short order if they disappeared tomorrow. They are paid well and have good benefits but have had difficultly in recruiting apprentices; my boilermaker friends’ sons aspire to go to college too.

Posted by Ripclawe | May 13, 2007 3:07 PM

Still think they can't outright fire people, so the next best thing is to make it miserable for them to quit.