The Titanic’s Band: Responsibility at the Rocky Mountain News

by cv harquail on March 4, 2009

Frontpage of the Rocky Mountain News - Rocky Mountain News_1236110690252 The Rocky Mountain News, one of Denver, Colorado’s two daily newspapers, closed on Feb 27 after nearly 150 years of operation. While the print edition is completely gone, and the signs were removed from the building just two days after the closing was announced, the Rocky Mountain News online edition is (still) up, running many variations on the theme "eulogy".

A Video Tribute

The most prominent piece in the online edition, above the fold, is a video story about the closing of  the paper. This video tribute, "Final Edition", was put together by Matthew Roberts, a multimedia producer working with a team of multimedia journalists at The Rocky Mountain News. Denver newspaper

"Final Edition" features interviews with several newsroom employees and even a few of the paper’s readers, who tell you what this organization ‘meant’ to them.  Interviews and at-home footage of one married couple, both journalists at the Rocky Mountain News, give a sense of the impact of the closing not only on the journalists as employees and professionals but also as parents and partners. You can sense that they know they are losing something more than a job or a morning newspaper.

If I were teaching business undergraduates right now, I’d ask them to watch the video and read the comments about it on Vimeo’s site. Then we could have a conversation about who this organization really was. … and what it means when a cultural institution dies.

But the most telling snippet of video …

is the footage of the newsroom employees being told that the paper is closing. It’s striking to hear the Scripps  executive, explaining to the employees, tell them that

"It’s certainly nothing you did. You all (the employees) did everything right. While you were out doing your part the business model and the economy changed. The Rocky became a victim of that." (at 16:40)

The executive’s tone is matter of fact; he sounds so objective that you almost believe his truthiness . But really, he is telling a story, not reporting the facts. His story is that the economy killed the Rocky Mountain News, not bad management, a lack of executive leadership, or a corporation wanting to cut its losses by cutting off one operation. His explanation of what happened puts all the blame on the market, and assigns no responsibility to the executives themselves. He says "the business model changed" as though there were no executives making (or not making) strategic decisions. He describes The Rocky Mountain News as a "victim"’.

In his defense, this executive is only echoing what Scripps CEO Rich Boehne said in the official AP story:

"Today the Rocky Mountain News, long the leading voice in Denver, becomes a victim of changing times in our industry and huge economic challenges."

The language is so passive… and so devoid of responsibility, authority, and leadership.

If only the Scripps executives had taken more responsibility …

… maybe the corporation would have learned something. As I discussed in earlier posts about the financial crisis ( e.g., Can Taking Responsibility Be Good For You , 6 Reasons Taking Responsibility Can be Good for You) and as Bob Sutton explains so clearly in a recent post about Taking the Blame:

It turns out that research on CEO and management apologies shows that the firms with the best performance over the long haul are led by people who get credit when things go well and take blame when things go badly. Taking blame indicates that the CEO has learned something from the troubles and is going to take steps to correct course; denying blame is seen as a sign of self-delusion, a lack of control over the company, and an inability to learn.

So the executives’ words demonstrate something about their own self-delusion, their own lack of control, and their own ability to learn. How does that make the employees feel? You can tell a little bit from the expressions on their faces in the video tape, from the resignation and frustration in their voices. But also you can tell from a little, handwritten notice, taped onto the Sports Desk’s overhead sign.

The notice renames the desk "Titanic’s Band."

For more,

See "The Death Throes of My Newspaper, by Nancy Mitchell in Salon, for more on this.
Regina Mc Combs at Pointer Online tells how the video was created, in her post "Rocky Mountain News Chronicles Its Closing in Video".
For a reflection by an outside journalist, see also "A private obituary: Rocky Mountain News" by Ken Judah Freed, Media Industry Examiner.

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