From AJR, May 1998 issue
The Change Agents
Editor Cole Campbell and consultant Richard Harwood are in the midst of an ambitious effort to radically revamp the culture and approach of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch newsroom.
By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.
I T IS AFTER LUNCH, AND A CONSULTANT IS BEGINNING the second part of an all-day training session for a dozen leaders of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's newsroom. Attending the January session are the editor, the managing editor, a bunch of assistant managing editors, the metro editor and the editorial page editor.
Outside it's snowing; inside a fire roars, yet the room is cold. Almost everyone is dressed in jeans. The eight male editors have left their ties at home. The atmosphere in this rustic lodge an hour from the newsroom is relaxed, but it's evident that some are confused by the consultant's message.
Cole Campbell, the fifth editor of the 120-year-old paper owned by the famous Pulitzer family, has hired Richard Harwood of The Harwood Group to, in Campbell's words, ``help us learn how people think about public life." The $250,000 project is known as the Harwood Initiative. Campbell is not leading the all-day retreat; Harwood is. But Campbell speaks the same language as Harwood. It is not always an easy language for journalists to understand.
Harwood is trying to help this ``leadership group" think differently about how to gather and present the news. They, in turn, are to pass on their new knowledge to the staff. The morning session of the second of four leadership group retreats was full of talk about aspirations for the paper and for these journalists. Harwood spoke about getting to the ``essence" of a story, trying to connect with readers, reshaping ``news reflexes," providing ``coherence," finding ways to make a newspaper ``authoritative and authentic."
At lunch, Bob Rose, assistant managing editor for graphics, confesses he's having a hard time grasping everything he's hearing. ``My head thinks the Harwood Initiative is the right thing to do, but my heart is an ink-stained wretch that balks at this kind of talk. But I think I can see why we are doing this."
Harwood was not surprised by Rose's remarks. He encounters such sentiments often at his other newspaper clients, which include the Orange County Register, the Miami Herald and the Arizona Republic. After sandwiches and chocolate cake, Harwood asks, ``How does everyone feel? Do you feel comfortable disagreeing?"
Carolyn Kingcaide, assistant managing editor for night news: ``I just feel as if I'm going around and around."
Rose: ``It's a little unclear, not knowing the bottom line, how it's going to look or whether we are going to get there."
Jim Mosley, metro editor: ``The tension or feelings we have are not a bad thing. We are a very traditional paper and have traditional ways of thinking. We are basically trying to do things we've never done before. It's going to be hard. It's hard for me."
Kingcaide: ``The concept of what we are going to do is good. I'm looking forward to it. But maybe I'm just a little impatient. I hear things that are theoretical, but I can't see how it's going to be practical."
Margaret Freivogel, assistant managing editor for projects: ``I don't even know if we are talking about the same things. Do you think there's some common values, some common ground we share?"
Ellen Gardner, assistant managing editor for features: ``I think I'm going to like the way it looks when we get there."
Christine Bertelson, editorial page editor: ``My frustration is we put a lot of things up here [on a flip chart] and never get to a point."
Richard Weil, managing editor: ``I've got a very optimistic approach. Most of us are in the business to help serve people. I think the process is going to help us."
Harwood sums up what is happening:
``Any tough thing you learn in a week doesn't become clear right away," he explains. ``That's what usually happens with this. The notion of a journey is very important. Keep asking yourself the question: What value can I see here at this given time that will allow me to go forward? I sense everyone around this table is committed to doing this, whatever this is."
Back in his Bethesda, Maryland, office, Harwood elaborated on the challenge of overhauling a newspaper. ``These projects are phenomenally difficult," he says. ``You are challenging people to examine who they are and what they do. There's a lot of dissonance. Resistance for sure. What we find is the resistance goes on for about eight months. First the journalists buy in. Then they don't. They get confused. There's a whole period where they say, `We already know how to ask questions. We know to go into the community.' Then there's a period where they hit rock bottom."
But, he adds, ``once they hit bottom, about three weeks later they take off."
S INCE COLE CAMPBELL ARRIVED IN ST. LOUIS in October 1996 after leaving the editorship of Norfolk's Virginian-Pilot, he has embarked on an effort to dramatically change the structure and the culture of the Post-Dispatch newsroom. But while much of what he has been doing may seem radical, he emphasizes that he sees his mission squarely in the tradition of the newspaper.
``A big part of what I'm doing is grounded in what the first Joseph Pulitzer did," Campbell says. ``The first Pulitzer built his paper around three broad concepts: making the paper readable; making it exciting, which he did through human interest stories and crusading; and the third was making it educational. There's a real brilliance to those strategies. If it's not readable, they wouldn't read it. If it's not exciting, they wouldn't buy. If it's not educational, they wouldn't come back to it. I want to apply those three concepts to the paper of the '90s."
Unlike his predecessor, William Woo, who left in July 1996, Campbell has been given plenty of running room for his efforts to rouse the newspaper from what some describe as a deep and protracted ennui.
``In the 10 years I've been at the paper, there's been a noticeable lack of leadership," says Philip Dine, a reporter in the Washington bureau. ``While I'm not in the newsroom, it seems to me there is a sense of direction and mission. I don't know if I agree with everything being done now. Most of it is in the right spirit. But at least it seems like someone is in charge."
While Woo was hamstrung by sporadic hiring freezes during portions of his tenure, Campbell has been able to spend more freely. He has hired about 50 new staffers to fill old and new vacancies (total editorial staff is 290). And he has also brought in quite a bit of outside assistance to help him transform the Post-Dispatch. He's hired a consultant to redesign the entire paper, a former Episcopal priest with a master's in business to help teach leadership techniques, and Harwood, a non-journalist, to help redefine the newspaper's content. The Harwood Group's goal is to help Post-Dispatch reporters and editors discover new ways of conducting interviews, new ways of telling stories, new ways of planning coverage, all in an effort to both better connect with readers and boost circulation.
Even before Campbell arrived, a new wave management consulting firm, Synectics, Inc. (see ``Consultants in the Newsroom," September 1996) started work on reinvigorating the Pulitzer Publishing Co. Synectics developed the Odyssey Project, which played a major role in the Post-Dispatch's decision to change editors nearly two years ago.
For some, there's simply too much outside help. Harper Barnes, 60, worked at the paper for most of his career until he took early retirement last August to edit St. Louis Magazine. He says Campbell didn't drive him out, but the influx of consultants worries him. ``There are a lot of people at the paper who feel there are too many consultants telling them what to do, and the money could be better spent," says Barnes. ``You hire good people, and simply let them run the paper."
Campbell wants to revamp the culture of the Post-Dispatch newsroom, an objective as lofty as it is challenging. He says he wants to move from a ``judgmental culture to a collaborative culture," a journey that he hopes will strengthen the way the newsroom operates and produce more relevant stories for the citizens of St. Louis.
To make that happen, Campbell says he needs outside consultants to help the newsroom think differently about the way it does its job. ``I use my instincts for instinctual work and skills (mine, our staff's and anybody else's) for skills work," Campbell replied in an e-mail when asked why he is using consultants.
It's a slow process of reeducation that, not surprisingly, is encountering some resistance. Many staffers are not yet clear on precisely what it is that Campbell is trying to accomplish, even though Harwood is training 16 editors and reporters in addition to the top leadership. (Actually, the leadership may look different by fall. Campbell is meeting one on one with each senior editor ``to discuss what leadership constitutes. The outcome may be that some people leave.")
After years of drift, staffers are eager to embrace change. But this isn't necessarily the change they had in mind. Some see the newsroom's senior editors tied up in seemingly endless meetings. They feel forgotten.
``Cole has definitely energized the place," says Washington Bureau Chief Jon Sawyer. ``But with Rich Harwood coming in and this local ex-minister coming in, it's sometimes hard to find an editor in St. Louis to work on daily stories. The top folks are all off in meetings and retreats. I'm just eager to get past the stage where we are all enveloped in inward development and get back to daily journalism."
Others are frustrated by the way Campbell speaks. The editor, the son of an Episcopal clergyman, can be an inspirational orator, but he also uses a lot of consultant-speak that can leave staffers mystified. They hear the boss talk about ``the need to build capacity" and wonder what that means. They hear him talk about the need ``to articulate what collaboration looks like" and are equally puzzled.
Asked what the paper must focus on next, Campbell responds, ``We spent the first year working on a strategy and sense of direction for the newspaper and newsroom. Now we are building capacity to achieve the strategy. It's not unlike a marathon runner doing sprints to build stamina. We are working on our stamina. I think people think building stamina is wasted time because they don't see the direct connection to achieving the end results. Right now we are building capacity, and that's not a whole lot of fun. It's like doing calisthenics instead of playing football."
But ``building capacity," as some at the paper complain, isn't a phrase one could put in a newspaper without explanation. I asked Campbell to translate. He replied, ``It's acquiring new skills, building a better way of understanding what readers value. It means learning to talk more directly and candidly and openly. Learning to take responsibility for your work rather than pass the responsibility up to the boss. It means changing the mindset and the culture."
The fear is that there's too much emphasis on changing the culture and too little focus on what actually goes into the newspaper.
``Right now the biggest emphasis has been on building the capacity of the newsroom to be innovative and problem-solving," says Campbell. ``Once that capacity is developed it should start producing changes in the content. But we're not there yet. We are still early in the journey."
Dine agrees. ``There's a real strong focus on process," says the Washington bureau's Dine, who is part of the 16-person rank and file group Harwood is training. ``How you interview rather than on what you know. I tend to be interested in content. But I'm hesitant to judge.... The important thing they are getting us to do is to challenge our beliefs and assumptions and each other at a place that has done everything by rote."
S OME JUST DON'T SEE HOW THE RHETORIC APPLIES to the job at hand: putting out a good newspaper. ``There's nothing wrong with working on making the paper better," says columnist Bill McClellan, whose distaste for consultants was made clear in a March 6 column (see ``The Feedback Consultant," page 46). ``The language is very Dilbert-like, and I haven't seen it translated into anything newspaperish."
Campbell isn't surprised by that reaction. He, too, is waiting for the time when his newsroom staff will understand how he is trying to strengthen the paper. ``I think in the end my greatest contribution to the paper is going to be liberating the frontline journalists, and I don't think they have any sense of that yet," says Campbell, 44. ``Right now people think a lot of this is just words."
Campbell's goal is to get reporters and editors to think differently about how to run a news meeting and how to cover a story. For example, Harwood says, he and Campbell want to come up with a better answer to this question: ``How do teams work together to produce good, meaningful stories?" Too often, Harwood continues, ``the reflexes are not to do this. The only way to get a story on one-A is if it's a conflict story. So the editor tries to make the story a conflict." That's not how Campbell wants his newspaper to operate.
``The paper doesn't reflect the Harwood Initiative a whole lot yet," says Campbell. But, he adds, ``a week ago, we ran a story about a controversial highway extention through an environmentally sensitive area. That story shifted away from two sides arguing and toward a broader look at what are all the issues and how might we go about resolving them. It's somewhat subtle. But it is the kind of way the Harwood Initiative will change how we present stories about public controversies."
As the training progresses, it becomes more hands-on. Harwood says he and his deputies will begin to meet four at a time with members of the ``core group"--16 editors and reporters chosen for their credibility and, in some cases, their skepticism--for two or three days, in an effort to help them start putting theory into practice.
``We've discovered how journalists think and the pace they like to learn at and how to deal with the skepticism over time," Harwood says. ``And when to push and when to let them beat us up. Sometimes we have to just let them beat on us because what we are doing doesn't seem relevant enough to their daily work. But it will."
GO TO PART TWO