What Remains of “the Organization” at the Rocky Mountain News?

by cv harquail on March 6, 2009

Organizations are always more than an efficient way to control collective efforts, more than the aggregate of their individual members, and more than the sum of their productive parts. We can put people together to do something, but that doesn’t make them an organization. Those of us who study organizations, and who of us who pay attention to the organizations we’re part of, know that organizations have something more– and we find it very hard to describe. Is it soul? is it character? Is it mission? Is it magic?

What is it that brings an organization to life? I Want My Rocky.jpeg

I often resort to my sixth-grade science class for the metaphor: A collection of individuals is a mixture, and an organization is a compound. And so I ask "What is it that takes a group of people and turns them into an organization?" I’ve been thinking about this question of what brings an organization to life as I’ve been observing what looks like an organization’s death.

What causes an organization’s death?

When we think about what makes a group of individuals into an organization, we look for the catalyst. But what happens in the opposite direction? What makes an organization dis-integrate and break into its component parts? What’s happening at the Rocky Mountain News , an organization that purportedly died on Feb. 27th, is making me think again about the life source of an organization and what it really takes to blow that life source out.

With the Rocky Mountain News, we may be watching how (maybe even whether ) an organization dis-integrates. What pieces does it break into? How do the pieces come apart? Which parts fall away first?  What makes the ineffable, inchoate and yet palpable stuff of life disappear, so that it is no longer an organization?

Come and see what I mean. Open this window onto the next iteration of the Rocky Mountain News.

"I Want My Rocky"- the "new" Rocky Mountain News ?

Right now, and who knows for how long, the Rocky Mountain News , "exists" in the re-manifested, re-imagined organizational form of IWantMyRocky . You might almost say the Rocky is re-incarnated– but the bodies, the humans, are the same. They haven’t changed. And, it’s not quite clear that the Rocky Mountain News has actually died. Not all of its original parts are here, that’s for sure.

The for-profit mechanisms are certainly gone. Scripps took them all away when it closed the paper at the end of February. And what is still here? Is there something here that is still making this an organization?

At IWantMyRocky ‘s website, professionals from the Rocky Mountain Times newsroom are publishing their own online newspaper of sorts. Without the support of the Scripps for-profit machinery, these journalists are working together and continuing to create an information and entertainment product for their Rocky Mountain Times reader community.

What has allowedI Want My Rockystaff.jpeg IWantMy Rocky to stay/become an organization?

It helps that the cost of creating and distributing the collective product of IWantMyRocky is low. The website requires little physical structure and doesn’t cost much to host. The costs of keeping writers connected and coordinated is also low. And, none of the writers is working for pay. All of this reduces (temporarily) the IWantMyRocky ‘s need to generate profits to fund its operation.

When Scripps stripped away the for-profit element of the Rocky Mountain News , what remained?

What remains, and what we can see in IWantMyRocky , is the members’ coordinated pursuit of their individual and collective purpose. All of these professionals, as individuals, are continuing to create, to practice their profession and ‘be’ who they are. Collectively, they putting together a product that is more than the sum of their individual columns, and they are creating and sustaining a reader community. No one involved is doing this for profit. They are all doing it for purpose .

What do we know now, about the Rocky Mountain News and about IWantMyRocky that has kept them alive as an organization?

The Scripps Corporation tossed an acid bath on the Rocky Mountain News . But rather than killing the Rocky , this just stripped the organization down to its bones. Now, in IWantMyRocky , we see the real structure that held the Rocky Mountain Times together, and that is still holding IWantMyRocky together. What remains is the collective purpose — telling their stories to community of readers — and the interpersonal working relationships and shared vision that let them achieve that purpose.

Based on what remains, we can conclude that the Rocky Mountain News, at least for its members if not for its corporate management, was driven more by purpose than by profit.

How long with IWantMyRocky live? Hard to tell. When I emailed the folks at IWantMyRocky to ask them about their plans, member Steve Foster replied:

It’s hard to say at the moment. We have put some advertising on the site, but just to cover the costs of maintaining it while we sort through our options. The intention is not to make I Want my Rocky itself a for-profit Web site. It was created on behalf and in support of the employees of the Rocky Mountain News. At the moment, it is being used as a temporary base of sorts, a place where readers can find their favorite writers, where writers can continue to do what they love doing while we all regroup from the devastating news of last week.

While its for-profit structure was critical to the endurance (or lack thereof) of the Rocky Mountain News, its for-profit component was not what made it an organization. The withdrawal of its for-profit structure critically damaged that organization, but it didn’t kill the organization. Instead, it stripped the organization down to its fundamental component, its purpose . For these writers, editors, cartoonists, critics, professionals, and organization members, what made the Rocky Mountain News an organization is the same thing that brought IWantMyRocky to life.

At the end, and at the beginning, it was the members’ collective purpose that made them an organization.

So can we conclude:

Organizations that exist for profit alone die the quickest deaths. Organizations that exist for purpose live as long as members find meaning and value in working together.

Organizations that are kept alive by their purpose may not look the same from one manifestation to the next, and they may not stay alive forever. But they create and recreate a shared structure where a group of individuals can achieve a purpose that is collectively meaningful.

The stuff that makes individuals into an organization, the stuff that brings an organization to life, is (still) here. And here. And here .

Call it magic, call it mission, call it soul. See it in action at IWantMyRocky.


Joseph Logan March 6, 2009 at 7:26 pm

Not sure what this means, but I never liked the Rocky–and yet, I read it every day. That must mean something. This organization doesn’t seem dead to me at all. I fully expect that its members will figure out a way to keep it going, and it might very well rise from the ashes. I would love to see a day when I again shake my head at what I read there and yet still feel good that it’s there. I’d like to see the Rocky rise again.

Lisa Bornstein March 7, 2009 at 1:42 am

Thanks for the thoughtful consideration. But for the record, it’s the Rocky Mountain News.

Mary Jo Hatch March 7, 2009 at 7:29 am

On the basis of IWantMyRocky case alone we cannot conclude that for-profit organizations die the quickest deaths, but it would make a good study for someone quantitatively inclined. I also hope that it is true.

Other explanations for the carryover effects at the Rocky Mtn News include that this is just a mourning period for the disenfranchised employees whose identities, both personal and social, are still bound to that of a company that no longer exists. This could also be a death and birth story, where those engaged in mutual sense of loss find their voices in a new/news medium and enjoy on-line success that lets a different organization emerge (it is already happening, what is needed is a long enough time frame to declare this a viable organization). Interesting to see in this latter case how the origin story evolves, who the group decides is/was its founder(s), whether any key symbols carry over from the past (brand name, what else?), etc.. It would make a great organizational identity/culture study. And it might be fun for someone to conduct this study right on the website and so a collaborative realtime action research study of the evolution or final gasps, whichever way this thing goes. Sorry to have my academic hat on today, but there you go. Anyway, thanks for the mental exercise!

I rather like the idea of a collective soul, mainly because I do not believe that we are nearly as contained by our physical bodies as we sometimes assume we are. But whether or not the notion of soul can be usefully contained at all (e.g., by the concept of organization) is not immediately clear to me.

A good thought provoking piece here and a reason to keep watching this bereaved group to see if they continue past the mourning stage. A lot may depend there on whether or not they find other gainful employment before this effort takes a new interactive news type form that morphs into whatever shape the industry is heading towards.

CV Harquail March 7, 2009 at 3:24 pm

Joseph, Lisa and Mary Jon, thank you for adding your comments….

Joseph, it’s interesting how long some organizations and entities live in our minds even as they pass out of concrete existence…

Mary Jo, both you and Joseph bring up the issue of mourning, and I’m not sure whether mourning and coping with loss is what explains the emergence of IWMR, or whether there is something beyond mourning that is fueling it right now. It will be interesting to see, and I wish we could station a graduate student there… we’ll just have to keep track of IWMR through it’s online product.

What’s crazy and interesting about the idea of tracking the organization’s evoluiton is that IWMR has (at least) three online manifestations– the website, a Facebook page and a Twitter account… These are tracking and research tools that I’m sure Bob Sutton would love to have had when he wrote his ASQ article on Organizational Death back in ’87. Maybe I should pull out that study and have a look?

Also, we may hear directly from the members, when journalists like Lisa & Steve tell their RMN-IWMR stories.

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