Journalism, at its best, involves constant collaboration.
In television newsrooms, reporters, producers and assignment editors engage in a continuous conversation about stories and often edit scripts together in real time. While real-time group writing is a relatively new phenomenon in education and business, reporters and producers frequently write story introductions and “teases” together. This traditionally involves no electronic screen-sharing or web conferencing, but rather colleagues shouting to one another across the newsroom or two people hunched over a single terminal. In newspaper newsrooms, a similar continuous dialogue occurs among reporters and editors. Some colleagues get to know one another so well that they even finish each other’s sentences.
All of this newsroom interaction requires informality. Corporations and government agencies are increasingly embracing informality, because of a growing realization that formality compromises value creation. But informality is nothing new in newsrooms. The informality of journalism dates back at least to the early 20th Century when few reporters got “formal” higher education and the socialization that accompanies it. Newsrooms then felt more like police stations in which colleagues sat in an open room exchanging sarcastic, irreverent banter. And though most journalists (and many police) now graduate from college and the journalistic culture has evolved, newsrooms have nevertheless retained much of their informality.
Films about journalism have captured this informality. Examples include the 1931 and 1974 versions of The Front Page, written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, about newspaper reporting in Chicago. Also, the 1976 film, All the President’s Men, directed by Alan Pakula, about Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s investigative reporting on the Watergate scandal, reveals the constant conversation among all the players in the Post newsroom. The conversation continues down corridors and into the elevator where executive editor Ben Bradlee (played by Jason Robards), in a dramatic moment, instructs Woodward (played by Robert Redford) and Bernstein (played by Dustin Hoffman) to “print it” meaning to run a story about Watergate.
Fast forward to 2011. Traditional journalism is under siege, in part because of the Great Recession’s
ravages but mostly because of systemic shifts in the media industry. These include shrinking audiences and advertising dollars flowing to Web-based alternatives including social media. Against this backdrop comes Page One: Inside the New York Times, a documentary directed by Andrew Rossi, which attempts to capture a leading newspaper and its people at a pivotal point. (Photo of Times newsroom above courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)
The reviews have been mixed, a charitable adjective for Michael Kinsley’s take on the film that ran in—of all outlets—the New York Times itself. Kinsley takes the documentary to task for flitting “from topic to topic, character to character, explaining almost nothing.” Kinsley suggests that the movie is disjointed and confusing. The film does take up a series of topics: WikiLeaks, the Pentagon Papers, the Times survival, Comcast’s purchase of NBC Universal, Twitter’s impact, the Times’ plagiarism scandal involving former reporter Jayson Blair, Iraq, the Apple iPad, and the ups and downs of the Tribune Company, among others.
And all of this comes in the form of a continuous conversation upon which we as the audience eavesdrop. “Like a shopper at the supermarket without a shopping list, “Page One” careens around the aisles picking up this item and that one, ultimately coming home with three jars of peanut butter and no 2-percent milk,” Kinsley writes. Yes, but the collaborative process is rarely pretty.
In The Culture of Collaboration book, I identify the Ten Cultural Elements of Collaboration that are typically present when collaboration works. One of these elements is collaborative chaos, which is exactly what Page One reveals. Collaborative chaos, the unstructured exchange of ideas to create value, lets the unexpected happen and generate rich returns. In the film, we see former cocaine addict and current Times media columnist David Carr sharing ideas with his sources, his colleagues and his editor, Bruce Headlam. These exchanges culminate in value creation, Carr’s columns. And the film invites us into the Times daily story conferences during which editors jostle over which articles should appear on the front page.
Kinsley, no stranger to journalism as the former editor of the New Republic and Slate, would undoubtedly argue that while confusion may prevail in newsrooms, it’s the job of the filmmaker to present a more organized picture. But attempting to sanitize or beat the collaborative chaos out of the Times or any news operation would present a distorted view. It would be like eating street food in an upscale setting, a current trend in the restaurant business incidentally.
Journalism, and collaboration itself, involves a continuous conversation during which collaborative chaos prevails, recedes, only to prevail again all the while creating value.