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Get Smart About Your Readers: Ideas & Insights
Thursday, July 17, 2008

How to save young employees from the buzz saw of newspaper culture

(Vickey Williams)

For several years, studies on the millennials have concentrated on their technological savvy. Echo Boomers, as they are sometimes called, have also been labeled distracted, self-indulgent and driven by a need to be seen as cool by their peers. The bad press turned nasty with the recent release of a book by Emory Professor Mark Bauerlein speculating that this could be the Dumbest Generation.

But I think there's much more to this generation, and that they can offer traditional news organizations invaluable help as they try, in chaotic times, to invent the future. The question is, will existing newspaper culture let them?

MillennialsToday's 20-somethings are team players, problem solvers and highly tolerant of differing viewpoints. A recent webinar by research and marketing consulting firm Just Kid, Inc. noted that in fact, they are so comfortable with diversity of all types, "they think that's what makes the world fun and interesting."

If their comfort level with all things wired wasn't enough, those attributes also make me think that if they were allowed to exert influence, the millennials could be a powerful, positive force for helping old media find its way in a digital age. But I fear they might not get the chance.

My work on changing culture in newsrooms shows that young journalists intend to leave because the pace of change is too slow. (Report here). They are turned off by the tendency of veteran journalists to argue down new ideas, cling to old ways, and avoid risks. As Readership Institute research has shown, those are outcomes of newspaper people's tendencies to be oppositional, perfectionist and conventional.

I've seen the generational friction play out dozens of times as younger voices get shut down by veterans who fall back on ingrained behaviors. In one case, younger staff worked for weeks to develop and launch a blog on the paper's Web site with a youthful perspective on the local scene. At the next staff meeting, most veterans said they hadn't noticed and a few admitted never having looked at the paper's Web site at all.

Leaders who want to see every segment of staff contribute their best will recognize the influence of culture. Keeping your share of the millennials means you must:
  • Engage them in meaningful ways -- in problem-solving sessions, cross-departmental task forces, high-profile projects, post-mortems

  • Give timely responses to their ideas. "Yes," "No" or "You haven't given me enough information to decide" are really the only fair responses.

  • Teach them about the business side – so they can make the business case for their ideas.

  • Help them maintain their consumer focus. They're known for demanding quick service and solutions, and products that do what they say they will, meaning they can be great advocates for your audience.

  • Provide lots of feedback. Many in this cohort are actively seeking mentor relationships.

  • Make collaboration and trying news things basic expectations.
Veteran staffers should:
  • Partner with a younger staffer for mutual benefit: In every newsroom I've been in, veterans said they have certain skills knowledge that goes untapped – often in topics where younger staff, when polled, said they want help. Tips on storytelling in trade for a Twitter orientation? It could work.

  • Recognize there are some common values: Both veterans and newcomers put a premium on increased autonomy or independence.

  • Get over the fact that millennials work differently. Insisting on a work-life balance is healthy; it is often the perfectionism in the boomer journalist that keeps us at work after hours.

  • Accept that for them, intense electronic multitasking is a way of life, not a distraction or a sign of rudeness.

  • Offer cues on things like the importance of appropriate dress and that one well-considered memo can be more valuable than numerous emails.
Of course there are exceptions to both the generational and culture profiles in any organization. What I see generally are young journalists who don't expect to win every point in a discussion, but feel strongly they are due a seat at the table. And they may be naturally inclined to the constructive styles that could help their organizations connect with audiences and move forward. That is, if they stay around long enough.


By Vickey Williams (vickey-williams@northwestern.edu)
Vickey Williams is director of the Media Management Center's Digital Workforce Initiative.


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