Consultants in the Newsroom
Papers are hiring outside experts to help revamp their news operations. Proponents say it's wise to seek fresh perspectives. But does relying on people with no journalism background pose risks?
By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.
IMAGINE THE SCENE: EXECUTIVES WHO NORMALLY confront one another in dark suits are sprawled out on a hotel room floor, dressed in casual clothes and playing with Legos. Each team has about 25 of the children's blocks. Their mission is to create something in a fixed amount of time.
The players include the chairman of Pulitzer Publishing Corp., the publisher of its flagship, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the paper's editor, the editor of Pulitzer's Tucson papers, the company's vice president for broadcast and its vice president for finance.
The exercise is aimed at helping them refine their skills in a number of critical areas: functioning in teams; problem-solving in a new medium; building with limited resources; thinking unconventionally.
Encouraging and directing their play is Bill Boggs, a managing partner of Synectics, Inc., one of the new-wave management consultants now in vogue in the newspaper industry. Boggs is leading the men on what Synectics calls an "excursion," a new way of looking at problems and how to solve them. It's part of the Odyssey project, a dramatic, costly effort to revamp Pulitzer so it might thrive in a fast-changing media environment.
"I wouldn't call us 'creativity consultants,' " says Boggs, 48, a cigar-smoking, earring-wearing former Marine and onetime Methodist minister with a Ph.D in philosophy. "We facilitate innovation and change for our client organizations."
Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Synectics doesn't deal exclusively with newspapers. The 36-year-old consulting company boasts such giants as Coca-Cola, Chase Manhattan and IBM on its roster of clients. At its workshops, participants scribble with crayons, play word games, invent stories, paint pictures--and take color snapshots. Several in top management at the Post-Dispatch were armed with Polaroids and sent out of the office in pairs to take pictures they thought best illustrated the paper's future.
"The idea is to try to get people to think differently about problems," says Boggs, who created a stir at the St. Louis paper when he appeared last winter in a parka made from the pelts of wolves he'd killed in Alaska after they began tearing apart a black bear he'd bagged.
Boggs' presence at the Post-Dispatch is emblematic of a major change in an industry that has long prided itself on shunning the help of outsiders in designing the operations of its treasured newsrooms.
Traditionally, newspapers have tended to seek help, when they have sought it at all, from papers of similar size, or from consultants whose backgrounds are in the profession. But confronted with mounting pressures from Wall Street, lagging circulation and an increasingly competitive and diverse media marketplace, many papers are now looking outside for help, and not just for the circulation and production departments.
They're turning to consultants like Pierre "Pete" Meyer of MDA Consultants in San Francisco, who helped Portland's Oregonian set up a team-based newsroom. Meyer's company also works with insurance firms, food-processing companies, retail organizations and bank holding companies on team-building, long-range strategy and leadership training.
If ever there were an industry stuck in its ways, according to "outside" consultants, it's the newspaper business. It's filled, they say, with foot-dragging journalists who resist tampering with their time-honored practices.
But maybe, top management is thinking these days, newspapers can learn something valuable from other industries. If your goal is to strengthen leadership or improve efficiency, why not look at Mercedes-Benz or Hewlett-Packard? Perhaps, dozens of papers have concluded, they need help from someone with a completely different perspective.
"I think there's more openness now on the part of newspapers to try new ideas and to look for innovations that can affect the product delivery and customer retention," Meyer says. "I see a lot of openness to the use of consultants. Virtually every couple of months we start with a new newspaper organization."
While outside consultants can help papers change their ways, they can also leave casualties in their wake. William Woo, the editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, didn't survive Synectics' excursions.
Perhaps the most notorious example of outside experts' handiwork in the newsroom was "the grid" devised by consultants with no newspaper background for the Winston-Salem Journal. The grid, scrapped after just three months, assigned productivity goals for reporters, assembly-line style. For example, the grid decreed, a reporter should spend 5.4 hours on a story 20 to 30 inches long and produce seven such stories a week. For a more complex piece of reporting involving "uncooperative sources," the grid gave a reporter a break: five stories and 7.6 hours.
Consultants are fine for the advertising and circulation departments, says New York Times Managing Editor Gene Roberts, but not for the newsroom. "All I can say is, based on my experience, I've never seen anything but tragedy, disaster and failure come out of using consultants," he says.
It wasn't a disaster for the Los Angeles Times, which hired the Boston Consulting Group, but the firm's lack of newspaper experience left many in the Times newsroom appalled. "My little contact with consultants is they're asking us what we do," says Times Executive Editor George Cotliar. "Unless they have expertise in the business, I don't know what the benefit is."