Media Management Center      Kellogg School of Management      Medill

Inside Newspaper Culture
Newspaper readership has continued to decline for three decades despite extensive research into reader issues and many reader-growth activities at newspapers across the country. So from the outset of the Impact Study, the Readership Institute felt there must be an internal, organizational factor at play that was keeping newspapers from doing the things they knew they should do. The hypothesis was that culture would be linked ultimately to readership.

This, in fact, proved to be the case. Impact research shows that newspapers with constructive cultures tend also to have higher readership (RBS). The finding echoes results from hundreds of studies in other businesses that link the culture of the workplace to employee satisfaction, customer satisfaction and business outcomes, such as profitability and shareholder returns.

So what is culture? It is the shared beliefs and values that shape employees' thinking and behaviors — or more colloquially, "the way we do things around here." Culture is about how people (or departments) are expected to interact with each other in the workplace. It is not about how staff (or departments) should do their functional or professional jobs.

To measure culture, the Institute used instruments developed by Prof. Robert Cooke of the University of Illinois at Chicago, which have been completed by more than 2 million employees in thousands of companies and organizations in more than 40 countries during the past 15 years.

The instruments measure how people are expected to behave in their organization in order to fit in. They also measure the effects of culture on people and show ways that managers can change culture to the benefit of both employees and customers.

In the Impact Study, 5,500 employees at all levels in news, advertising, circulation and marketing at 90 newspapers completed three surveys to diagnose the prevalent operating culture at their newspaper and its effect on people and the business.

Culture Types
Organizations fall into one of two basic culture types: defensive and constructive. More than 80 percent of the Impact newspapers — a proxy for the entire daily newspaper industry — have defensive cultures.

Constructive cultures tend to be outward-looking and responsive to market and technological changes. They expect achievement at both the individual and the group level. Collaboration and coordination across departments are not optional — it is how they operate. In businesses generally, those with a constructive culture deliver superior long-term performance and more satisfied customers and employees.

In contrast, defensive cultures resist change. People are expected to focus on how well they are doing, as opposed to how well the group or the organization — or customer — is doing. They tend to operate in departmental silos. In the past, defensive cultures fared well, producing consistent, reliable products and services because changes in the environment such as technology, demography and competition have been slow-moving. But today they are ill-equipped to respond to rapidly changing customer needs, surging competition and revolutionary advances in technology.

Newspaper Industry Culture
Generally speaking, newspapers have an Aggressive-Defensive culture, where people are expected to approach tasks in forceful ways to protect their status and security. The primary behavior style (the way employees are expected to interact with each other) is Perfectionistic. Persistence and hard work are valued. People feel they must avoid all mistakes, keep track of everything and work long hours to meet narrow objectives. The value of perfectionism is obvious, particularly in the news business, but an over-emphasis can lead employees to lose sight of goals, get lost in details and develop symptoms of stress.

A secondary strong behavior style is Oppositional, where confrontation prevails. While questioning is important in any organization, a highly oppositional culture can lead to unnecessary conflict, poor group problem-solving and "watered-down" solutions to problems.

This type of culture is typically found in organizations that emphasize traditional methods of quality control — evaluating quality at the unit level rather than system-wide; focusing on avoiding mistakes rather than achieving improvements; sacrificing quality in some areas to reach unrealistic or unnecessary levels of quality in others; and assigning quality responsibilities to supervisors rather than staff. The culture also tends to be pervasive in fast-paced environments, where people are required to think and act very quickly on a regular basis.

The second defensive culture in Impact newspapers is Passive-Defensive, typified by conflict avoidance and by dependent and conventional behaviors. (The main difference between passive and aggressive cultures is the way they exhibit their essential defensiveness. Aggressives tend to be openly resistant; Passives resist less obviously but just as effectively.)

In the Passive-Defensive culture, people do what it takes to please others and avoid interpersonal conflict. Rules, procedures and orders are followed without question. In this highly directed environment, jobs are narrowly defined and supervision is intense. Managers rarely catch employees doing things right, but never miss when they do things wrong.

Passive-Defensive cultures are often found in "protected" organizations, such as government agencies, organizations that are closely regulated by government or ones that operate as monopolies.

The third type of defensive culture in Impact newspapers is mixed Passive/Aggressive, which contains equal measures of those behaviors.

Current Culture Vs. Ideal Culture
There is a large gap between where newspaper culture is and where people at both staff and management levels think it should be. When asked what behaviors should be expected and encouraged to maximize their organization's effectiveness, respondents indicated the ideal culture would be Constructive. This outcome is consistent with ideal cultures envisioned by hundreds of other organizations that have taken the culture survey.

Constructive cultures encourage members to work to their full potential, resulting in high levels of motivation, satisfaction, teamwork, service quality and sales growth. The primary style in the ideal newspaper culture is Humanistic, managed in a participative and person-centered way where people are expected to be supportive and open to collaboration. The secondary style is Achievement, where people are expected to know the business, pursue a standard of excellence and plan well. Benefits include appropriate problem-solving and effective customer service.

Constructive cultures tend to be found in companies that achieve steady sales gains, seriously focus on system-wide improvements and innovations, and practice empowerment and change-oriented leadership.

When the current newspaper culture is compared with the ideal culture, the biggest gaps — which can also be viewed as opportunities for improvement — are in the following items:
  • Giving positive rewards to others
  • Encouraging others
  • Helping others to develop
  • Enjoyment of work
  • Opportunity to think in unique and independent ways
  • Maintaining personal integrity

Comparative Strengths and Weaknesses
The top strengths of newspapers' defensive culture are:
  • Intention to stay
  • Motivation
  • Job security
In other words, compared to other industries, newspaper employees have a greater intention to stay at their current workplace, are more highly motivated and feel there will always be a job there for them.

The major weaknesses are:
  • Coordination among departments
  • Quality at the organizational level
  • Teamwork and cooperation within a department
In other words, compared to other industries, newspapers operate more as "silos" both within and among departments, and produce lower-quality products and services.

Grouping Impact Newspapers by Culture
Participating Impact newspapers fall into the following culture types:
  • Constructive, 17 newspapers
  • Aggressive Defensive, 27 newspapers
  • Passive Defensive, 21 newspapers
  • Mixed Passive/Aggressive, 25 newspapers
When analyzing the results, researchers noted that newspapers tend to be less Constructive and more Defensive than other organizations that have participated in this study, and this defensive cultural orientation seems to pervade the industry. Even those newspapers whose cultures are the most Constructive among their peers are not, when compared to results in other organizations, strongly Constructive.

Additional Information

Impact Study: Overview Page

Culture and Management Practices: Overview Page

Newspaper Culture: Overview Page

Culture Report: A Profile of the Impact Newspapers and Their Departments
A complete PDF version of our study of newspaper industry culture.

Five-Minute Guide to Culture - PDF
A quick overview of organizational culture.

A Conversation about Changing Newspaper Culture - PDF
Robert Cooke of Human Synergistics and Mary Nesbitt, Managing Director of the Readership Institute, discuss the results of the culture study and what it means for newspapers.

Recommended Readings
Find additional resources on understanding and changing organizational culture.

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