News Analysis: It's the Culture

It takes more than one bad reporter to damage the paper of record.

Jayson Blair. What an unlikely change agent. And yet the notorious young fiction writer and plagiarist has brought one of the world's great newspapers to its knees. Blair did what dozens of his honest colleagues at the New York Times could not do. He toppled one of the least popular executive teams in the paper's 107-year history. On June 5, only a year after the world's most esteemed newspaper won a record seven Pulitzer prizes, executive editor Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd stepped down. Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., who tapped Raines for the job, was one of the few who managed to look sorry.

On the surface, the tumult at the Times was about Blair's brazen dishonesty and his failure to obey the first law of journalism: Thou shalt report faithfully what you see and hear. But it soon became clear that the story was really about the cruel and unusual management that Raines had practiced in the course of garnering all of those prized Pulitzers.

Part of the problem was Raines himself. For all of Raines's liberal politics and Southern gentility, he was an ego-driven autocrat who ruled by fear, played favorites, had an idiosyncratic news judgment (witness his Augusta National Golf Club obsession), and loathed hearing unwanted truths. Again and again, he gave Blair plum assignments despite warnings from other editors that the hyperactive, erratic rookie reporter was a disaster in the making. Everyone who has ever met Raines seems to have a colorful story about him, often an anecdote that hints at his resemblance to one of the more volatile Roman emperors, albeit one in a Panama hat. But Raines's problems preceded him. Linda Greenhouse, the distinguished reporter who covers the Supreme Court for the paper, told the Wall Street Journal: "There is an endemic cultural issue at the Times that is not a Howell creation, although it plays into his vulnerabilities as a manager, which is a top-down hierarchical structure." Greenhouse points to the real villain in the New York Times scandal and avoids simply demonizing Raines. To paraphrase Greenhouse: "It's the culture, stupid."

Organizational cultures are not like breaking-news stories. They don't happen suddenly. They evolve slowly, imperceptibly, over years, if not decades. Unlike mission statements, they are never written down. But they are the soul of an organization and determine much of what happens within it. "It's the way things are done around here," one CEO told me, in defining his corporation's culture. Such cultures are collections of unspoken rules and traditions. They determine which offices are sacrosanct, whether the men wear ties, and who speaks to whom and in what tone of voice -- the red, amber, and green lights that aren't visible but that operate 24 hours a day and determine the quality of organizational life.

In the 19 months under Raines, the newsroom culture at the New York Times became more and more unhappy. Veteran journalists were routinely pushed aside, and green, malleable reporters were promoted beyond their talent or experience. Many of the seasoned writers went elsewhere -- something that has rarely happened at the Times, since it truly is the ultimate gig in journalism. Moreover, the newsroom values shifted. Hustle came to be rewarded above all. The long-accepted pattern had been for experienced reporters to spend much of their time on thoughtful, in-depth pieces. Now these same writers were expected to be plugged into their pagers at all times, so they could join 100 of their colleagues at a moment's notice to "flood the zone" on a breaking news story. It was clear that a reporter's family life was to be secondary to his or her uncritical willingness to go wherever the editors wanted.

Like all big-time newspapers, the New York Times is a pressure cooker in the best of times. It has had its share of hard-driving, insensitive managers. When Raines stepped down, former executive editor Abe Rosenthal told the media, "The management of Howell Raines won the paper seven Pulitzer awards in one year. If that reflects a poor management style, they should patent it and sell it all over the world." No wonder Rosenthal liked Raines's style. Rosenthal, too, was a newsroom tsar who controlled by fear. Just as Raines had an implicit family-last policy, Rosenthal once screeched at a favorite reporter who balked at reassignment because his wife had a good job in town: "If you're married, you don't belong in journalism!"

Forget the numbers game. Whether it's 7 or 15 Pulitzers, it doesn't matter how many prizes you win if you damage your real prize -- your talent -- in the process.

Rosenthal needn't worry about patenting Raines's managerial style. It's already practiced in countless corporations, including most of those that have imploded in scandal in recent years. Is Raines's failure so different from Ken Lay's failure at Enron? Both failed to create cultures of candor -- organizations where employees know they can deliver bad news and their bosses will listen even if they don't like what they are hearing. The Times even had its version of Enron whistle-blower Sherron Watkins. At least one person, metropolitan editor Jonathan Landman, delivered the bad news, told the truth, and tried to expose Blair. Raines, it turned out, just wasn't much of a truth listener. If he was, how long would Blair have lasted before one of his disaffected colleagues -- or a half-dozen of them -- had exposed him to Raines? Speaking truth to power is essential, but it's only half of the equation. Cultures in which power welcomes truth tend to solve their problems internally. They discover and deal with their Jayson Blairs before their Jayson Blairs make headlines. A culture of candor isn't just some warm, fuzzy way to cosset employees. It's good business.

Whoever follows Raines at the Times, he or she must have the strength of character to invite thoughtful criticism, from whatever quarter. Whenever leaders waver in their willingness to hear the truth, however distasteful, they should remind themselves of the fate of those who have covered their ears, from Julius Caesar to such latter-day casualties as former Compaq CEO Eckhard Pfeiffer. Under Pfeiffer, Compaq fell farther and farther behind its competitors because he listened only to his A list of yes men and ignored his truth-telling B list, who repeatedly tried to warn him that Dell was gaining ground, and fast.

Let me be frank. For all of its flaws, the New York Times is a national treasure. No matter where I am, I begin my day by reading it from the first page to last. In fact, I still call it The Times, to the consternation of my friends at my hometown paper, the Los Angeles Times. So I want to end with three pieces of advice for Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and the others who must now find a replacement for Raines.

1. Forget the numbers game.

Whether it's 7 or 15 Pulitzers, it doesn't matter how many prizes you win if you damage your real prize -- your talent -- in the process. Uncaring, arrogant leadership that values accolades at any cost is always inappropriate, but it is especially ill-suited to idea-driven organizations such as the Times. Whatever their titles or official positions, talented people have their own power. They have the power to walk. They will not stay in an organization that treats them like cattle, even if the name on the building is as august as the New York Times. Raines and his more imperious predecessors polarized their staffs and made them compete with each other for newsroom resources, including the favor of the executive editor. Such intramural competition ends up making people less creative, not more creative.

2. Talented people need appreciation.

We all pay lip service to the importance of acknowledging the good work of others, but most organizations can't bring themselves to do it. Like everyone else, gifted people want someone to notice a heroic effort or a distinguished piece of work. Instead of keeping his staff off balance, Raines should have devoted more of his time to praising them for the stories that won seven Pulitzers and for all the others that might have. So many otherwise able managers act as if compliments come out of their bank accounts. Had Raines sat down every morning and sent an email of praise to those responsible for the paper's 10 best stories, we would be writing about his superb management instead of analyzing what went wrong.

3. The new executive editor must have a genius for forging newsroom alliances and creating the sense that we are all in this grand game together.

Whoever is in charge, the New York Times is so rich with talent that it will survive. But if it had a truly creative, collaborative person at the top, the Times could become the envy of the information economy and a thriving, happy workplace. Do that, and the Pulitzers will follow.

Warren Bennis is professor of management at USC and the author or coauthor of more than two dozen books, including the best-sellers On Becoming a Leader and Organizing Genius (with Pat Ward Biederman).

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