The self-indulgence of oppositional defiance

Jeff Jarvis zeroes in on how to handle curmudgeons -- "get us past the growling as soon as possible and onto a substantive discussion:"

"You can always find reasons not to do things. Then fine, don’t do them. Far more interesting and useful is to explore what might happen if you do them. ...

"Well, the hour is far too late and the state of the industry far, far too desperate to waste time with these sideshows. They had their time and the objections needed to be addressed in that time. But I haven’t heard fresh objections in a few years. What I want to hear instead is fresh ideas; we must have more of those."

Of course, simply moving on works better in the public debate than it does in the organization.

Debate that moves us forward is good, but destructive sniping, complaining, and passive-aggressive undermining is not. The unpleasant cure in the workplace may be to show the curmudgeons the door. We just don't have the time.

Especially irksome is curmudgeonly behavior that shows up as submarine attacks.

What's a submarine attack? You've seen it. Curmudgeon goes to all the meetings with folded arms. When pressed, curmudgeon says the right words. Then curmudgeon sinks the program with a series of silent, hidden maneuvers.

You might have gotten away with that in the old days. Every curmudgeon was hired at one time for discernable strengths. When things are going well, a newspaper can simply move curmudgeons to positions where they can do little damage.

But every editor in America right now knows that at any moment the publisher could respond to yet another horrible revenue month by asking for more cuts. How badly do you want to be on that list?

Newsroom curmudgeons would do themselves -- and their families -- a favor by abandoning the self-indulgence of oppositional defiance.

Figure out a way to help your coworkers and help yourself. You can't control the Internet, or the boss, or market forces, or Sam Zell, or whatever other ogre you want to blame, but you can control your own attitude and behavior. Or move on.


As part of a minority group of people who left newspapers and returned again (yes, I know I'm weird that way), I can tell you that what new media people refer to as the "curmudgeon" is not specific to one industry. I saw a lot of these types when I worked at AOL. I think it's a characteristic of companies that have, or once had, a nice steady revenue stream that they're afraid of diverting through too much action. And when the stream starts to run dry of its own accord, they decide to focus on the basics that worked in the past rather than make the drastic changes they must in order to stay in the path of the moving stream (or rather, streams these days). This can happen in a mature company, or in a relatively new company that has had too much early success. Curiously, after only 10 years of existence, executives at AOL commonly referred to it as a mature business as a way of rationalizing newly flat revenues. Then in the next breath they'd talk about how futuristic the place was. I think we're also seeing some of this double-speak in newspapers. The solution is to ignore negative feedback and tactics and remain focused on serving the unique needs of consumers. That goes for "news" types, "advertising" types, "circulation" types and everything in between (and especially for Product Managers like me).

It's interesting that you would say that, Dan. I've seen a lot of cases in which journalists profess to not care about business issues, but make assumptions about the effects of decisions on business outcomes. You'd think the journalistic imperative would be pretty simple: tell the truth to as many people as will listen! And yet you see journalists making decisions that ultimately are about protecting assumed business/product models, and not at all about supporting an informed and empowered citizenry. But it's not limited to journalists. On the ad sales side, it's common to see salesfolk who make assumptions about what's best for the newspaper, and act on those assumptions ("focus on the basics that worked in the past").

I've had plenty of conversations with veteran journalists who are as eager to make the changes that will strengthen their newspapers as the most brash entrepreneur. The challenge is figuring out what changes to make. The longer a veteran as been around, the more he or she will have been down the road of failed experiments. They have learned the hard way of so many innovations that didn't work, so they're harder to convince that a new idea will be more successful. Now that I'm in the middle of my career (15 years as a journalist proceeded by 15 years in marketing), I have a foot in each camp -- radical and conservative. I can see a parallel to something I observed when I covered education. Often, teachers will rush toward a new classroom technique because they know the old ways don't work. But too often they uncritically accept faddish theories without demanding quantification, so they flit from New Math to Newer Math or Phonics to Whole Word reading instruction like a school of fish darting to and fro. I think a lot of the curmudgeons are tired of the fads and are waiting for some documentation -- an outlet that has found the path of growing circulation AND growing revenues. In the mean time, they don't like to give up behavior that they know has at least worked at some point in history, even if it's not working spectacularly now.