Saturday, 27 October 2007

On The Troubles Inside the Beeheemoth

I have restrained myself from writing about Rick Rodriguez' "resignation" as Executive Editor from Sacramento's 19th Century Media Center because I didn't want to pile-on. From everything I have heard from people in the room - and I know a LOT of them - Rick was devastated. Unlike me, he wasn't eager to leave, and it was clear that his differences with Bee management went a lot deeper than mine. Though I think he had it coming, it's no fun to see another human being suffer.

Still, I feel the need to say something about that situation. People have asked me if I would go back now that Rick's gone, as if that was even an option for me (for the record: No! Sure do miss that paycheck, though). That's because the problem there is deeper than Rick, and deeper than a revenue drop. The problem is in the very style of the place.

Bee management needs to wake up and smell the millennium. The days of ordering people about like foot-soldiers, treating them like interchangeable widgets (the old, mechanical kind) and above all, of refusing to speak plainly to their own employees, are over. Or should be.

I say that because from everything I've heard and read in the paper - from Dale Kasler's press-release announcing Rick's departure, to the public editor's column hailing Rick's contributions to the paper (while avoiding any mention of mistakes) - say, basically...nothing. And as anyone except for Bee management can tell you, where there is an absence of information, there will be rumors and speculation. So it is at The Bee.

From what I hear, people over there are freaked-out, and I feel for them. If they aren't freaked out, it's because they've got retirement safely in their sights. They were counting the months and years till retirement when I was there. The news of Rick's departure hasn't changed that.

I've spoken to a lot of people there, and they relate all sorts of theories: Rick left because he didn't want to start firing people, and publisher Janis Heaphy is going to bring someone in from corporate to do just that (Joyce Terhaar, Rick's No. 2, having been passed over for the job). Another theory is that Rick and mastermind Ed Canale went head to head over who controls online content, and Rick lost.

But then, no one wins with!

There are other theories, all of them worth precisely squat. Janis is not saying a thing. No one else KNOWS a thing. Except that this is NOT good, and that contrary to management hype, nothing is going to change. At least, not in a good way.

And so the place continues to roil. The people who rose on Rick's patronage are most likely VERY uncomfortable, and that's reasonable (and, some would say, just). Some younger reporters, who still have the fire and passion for the work, have told me how upsetting this is. They wonder if there will BE journalism jobs 10 years from now. The '80s and '90s are starting to look to them, as well as to those of us who were there, like the Golden Age. Ahead lies darkness.

As a now-independent contractor of sorts, I feel their pain. The internet is amazing, and I'm partly casting my small lot on it. But as John McCrae of Cake once said (I paraphrase), "Information may want to be free, but the rent wants to be paid." No shit.

Most Bee people I know keep their heads down and hope someone is going to figure out how to lead them somewhere they want to go. They have ideas, but they're not heard. Mama and Papa know best at The Bee.

(I have, however, heard that The Bee will soon (December) be launching a website much like I've long suggested, focusing on the downtown/midtown Grid as an entertainment destination. I can't help feeling a bit wistful that that would have been interesting to try helping out on, and that I would have been happy to contribute to that. Rick had other ideas.)

On balance, I think that Rick is a good guy who was in a job that didn't suit him. I told Janis Heaphy that a year ago, which may have been my undoing (I have a big mouth). But the problems with the place go a lot deeper than Rick's (and Joyce's) rather awkward and harsh management style, or the happy-face treacheries of middle management.

The rub is this: Working for an information company that doesn't communicate with itself - especially with the people who make it work - is painful for the people who still have to do it. It's cognitive dissonance. That shit will make you crazy.

Bee employees are getting paid, and many are still doing good work that we as a community NEED - but they're working in the dark at a company that appears to be heading right down the drain. They're working at a company where individuals are not honored, or even seen. This may just be a bump in the road - newspapers make VERY good profits - but no one seems to really believe that. More common is the sense that the end of newspapering as we've known it is very, very near. And no one is happy about that.

But the least Bee management can do is be straight with its employees, and treat them well. LEAD them. Inspire them. Rick couldn't do that, for a variety of reasons. Whoever takes over next - even if he or she is being brought in to give the staff a major haircut - needs to lead, not just "manage."

The employees of The Sacramento Bee deserve better than that.


TheBronze said...

David, I found your blog via Kevin Gregory's blog.

I like what you wrote, but I'd take issue w/ your statement "This may just be a bump in the road - newspapers make VERY good profits - but no one seems to really believe that."

Newspapers (especially left-leaning ones) are losing money hand-over-fist because people don't want to read their biased/slanted and disingenuous news coverage/"reporting".

The Bee is symptomatic of that. Not only do they have severe internal problems (according to this post) but the public has major problems with the Bee's biased reporting and their circulation numbers bears that out.

The Bee and other major left-leaning papers are on the way out. For good reason.

Cynthia said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

Why did you delete comment by "Cynthia?" I read what she said and it was OK, especially since she was doing exactly what you did, rag on the Bee. Good inside view of the organization. It's high time media start watchdogging each other since everyone inside is too afraid for their jobs to actually stand up for the same things they hold others accountable to. Fear for the day when media becomes another institution.

David Watts Barton said...

I deleted it because she asked me to. She didn't say why, and I was a bit surprised, but I complied. But I agree with you that the media needs a watchdog, and The Bee needs one above all. However, I've been a bit hesitant to write much about it, since I don't want to get stuck in the past regarding The Bee, or be seen as just sucking on sour grapes.
I'm glad you noticed, though.