Abramson, communityship and the management of news
A lot has been written in recent days about the unexpected firing of The New York Times' Executive Editor Jill Abramson. Several theories have been advanced, some more researched than others, and summed up in a paper by the New Yorker's Ken Auletta.
In the coming days, it is likely that we will gain a better understanding of the situation and what led to such an abrupt dismissal, but the case sheds light on an interesting yet often disregarded aspect of content production: management.
With great power…
A respected institution, the financial, managerial and editorial processes of the Times have been under close scrutiny from the journalistic and broader media industries for quite some time. When Abramson replaced Bill Keller — who left after 8 years very much loved by his staff and superiors — several commentators applauded at the fact that she would be the first woman in history to head the editorial process of the grey lady.
But with all her qualities as a reporter and investigative journalist, Abramson was perhaps not the most judicious choice as Executive Editor in such troubled times. As pointed out by Roy Peter Clark in Poynter, great journalists seldom make great bosses. Clark even goes as far as to argue that "the qualities that make people great journalists (urgency, skepticism, doggedness) make them bad managers".
The great responsibilities that derive from the power of producing public opinion through investigative work do not necessarily equate well in the field of management.
Providing the right conditions for creativity
In "The business of creativity", we reviewed Ed Catmull's latest book and memoir, Creativity Inc. If anything comes from the 350-page essay, it is the spirit of openness, equality and community that comes with the forging of a successful creative company like Pixar. A point very similar to one made by Henry Mintzberg who, in several of his recent publications, nearly proclaimed the end of leadership and the emergence of what he calls communityship.
Compared with Arthur Sulzberger's appraisal of Abramson's performance as Executive Director at the Times, one he described as consisting of "arbitrary decision-making, a failure to consult and bring colleagues with her, inadequate communication and the public mistreatment of colleagues", and we find both motive and explanation. Perhaps the production of creative content isn't quite the same as the managing of creative producers.
New structures for a shifting environment
In an era of great disturbance for media entities, the spirit of collaboration that stems from notions like Mintzberg's communityship — distributed leadership, collaboration, collective intelligence — should take precedence over command-and-control models.
In his piece of the issue, Roy Peter Clark threads a narrative around a baseball coach — Joe Maddon — and his unremarkable career as a player:
"Joe Maddon had one of the least distinguished playing careers of anyone who ever became a manager in the major leagues. Instead, as a catcher and then a coach, he became a student of the game and of its players. He brought to the task of leadership an emotional intelligence that allowed him to set a standard for excellence, but also to develop relationships with individual athletes to help them meet those standards in their own way."
Perhaps Maddon should send his resume to the Times.
The paper seems to be in need of a few more team players on its editorial board.