STATE OF THE UNION - Modern communications - the growth of e-mail, weblogs and web bulletin boards - have given destructive power to bitter employees.

by Nick Denton, publisher of Gawker -
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Modern communications - the growth of e-mail, weblogs and web bulletin boards - have given destructive power to bitter employees.

From the turmoil at the New York Times, The US's most prestigious newspaper, everyone has taken the lesson that suits them.

For conservatives, Jayson Blair - the African-American reporter who fabricated stories and precipitated the crisis - is a symptom of a politically correct culture, which prized diversity in hiring staff over accuracy in reporting news.

Newspaper traditionalists blame Howell Raines, the executive editor, who promoted younger journalists, prized soaring writing, and sought to 'raise the metabolism' of the newspaper - and, say his critics, jeopardised the New York Times' position as a sober paper of record.

When Raines resigned, web commentators, for their part, chalked up a victory for new media over old. The insurgent 'bloggers' had sniped for months at the Times editor's liberal bias, and disseminated every titbit of gossip once the scandal broke, feeding the story for long enough to undermine Raines' rule.

Fascinating to America's commentariat, to be sure, but why should anyone else care? After all, who, outside America's media and political elite, even recognises the name Howell Raines?

This is why Raines matters: his failure to maintain authority over the New York Times newsroom signals an unexpected challenge to all modern managers. The internet empowers, and not in a good way. It is now the favourite tool of corporate infighters and disaffected employees.

Raines was recognised, even by his crit'ics, as a highly talented editor. He was already delivering results. He boosted the soft sections of the newspaper, popular with both readers and advertisers. The Times was the most coherent voice of criticism of the Bush administration's foreign and economic policies. And last year it took a record haul of Pulitzer prizes.

Inevitably, Raines made enemies. His ascent to the position of executive editor left disappointed rivals. Older staffers were passed over as Raines gave responsibility to reporters in their twenties. He was determined to change the newspaper and bulldoze opposition. Inevitably, his management style came across as authoritarian.

In short, Raines was a typical hard-riding manager. At a typical American company in a previous era, he could have purged his rivals, retired the disgruntled old-timers, and ridden out the discontent. Had he succeeded in energising the organisation, which was quite possible, he would have won the laurels that America usually bestows on successful leaders.

Raines didn't have the time. Disgruntled employees had a ready outlet for leaked memos in weblogs such as Jim Romenesko's MediaNews. Columnists for rival papers such as Howard Kurtz picked up on the dissatisfaction of the Times newsroom, from both the web and directly e-mailed correspondence.

Raines had to resign not so much because he had lost the confidence of staff, but because it was so obvious that he had lost that confidence.

The New York Times is a union shop, and it is notoriously difficult to fire disaffected employees, and therefore hard to maintain authority through fear. Raines was up against a potent combination of old labour unionism and the new industrial action: a leak to a weblog, tittle-tattle over instant messenger systems, whispered conversations on the phone to Howard Kurtz.

The lesson: it is becoming harder to manage change, particularly at an organisation as leaky and closely watched as the Times. Let's face it: most people are disaffected. They're paid too little, promoted too slowly, passed over, humiliated. They haven't realised their dreams, and they blame everyone around them, and everyone above them in particular. And change is almost always bad for incumbents.

The phone and e-mail have given managers the illusion that they can control far-flung empires. However, modern communications - the growth of e-mail, weblogs and web bulletin boards in particular - have also given destructive power to bitter employees. Think of it as the proliferation of weapons to organisational terrorists. Asymmetric warfare has come to the workplace: managers may sometimes have the ability to hire and fire, but the peasants have the internet.

The Times is obviously of particular interest to the media, and to the libertarians who dominate web political commentary. But other companies are also discovering that an internet-enabled workforce, under the media spotlight, is an ugly sight. High-tech companies, for instance, lose any remaining glamour when exposed, in warts-and-all detail, on the bulletin boards of Fucked Company.

Shareholders and analysts will eventually become inured to open employee discontent, as the public airing of staff grumbles becomes the norm. But in the meantime, pity the manager who puts change ahead of employee comfort.

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