What is newsroom culture? And why should anyone care?

During the 20 or so years I spent working as an editor and reporter at two small daily papers in Texas, there was one ritual that seldom varied. One or more reporters and/or editors would gather around the newsroom television to watch the local evening news. The purpose was to make sure the TV stations hadn’t scooped us, that tomorrow’s paper would have all the important news that readers had seen on local TV the night before.

WNBC-TV news anchor Chuck Scarborough, right, with co-anchor Lynda Baquero at NBC Studios in Manhattan.

Well, that was the stated reason we watched the newscasts. However, it was also an opportunity for us to smugly note how many of the stories on those newscasts had been published in that day’s paper. What would the TV reporters do if they didn’t have us to get their stories for them, we’d ask. They just rip their stories from our headlines, we’d say. The irony that we were doing exactly the same thing – watching their news broadcast for any stories we might have missed – escaped us. It was (and probably is) part of the newsroom culture in newspapers to disparage TV reporters and their stations. We were just expressing our cultural solidarity by reaffirming our superiority as print journalists.

This week’s readings focus on newsroom culture and how it can advance or hinder journalists’ innovative use of the Internet and their willingness to work with journalists from other media in a convergent environment.

The Jetsons

Steensen (2009) examines the cultural forces that prevent new Web-based technology from being fully exploited in newsrooms, as well as the factors that influence the development of innovation in online newsrooms. He is concerned with “the firm grounding of theoretical abstractions in empirically based newsroom production studies, rather than the technological determinism and utopian prophesies that marked earlier new media research” (p.821). In other words, despite the amazingly rapid creation and transformation of the Internet – which was almost unknown to the general public until the 1990s – we’re not living in the media equivalent of the world of “The Jetsons.”

How innovations develop

In his review of literature on innovation, Steensen (2009) argues that the way to investigate innovation is by examining “the interaction of structural influences” and the actions of individuals (Slappendale, 1996, p. 109)” (p. 823). He cites work by Boczkowski published in 2004:

(Bockzkowski) identified three factors as important in how such innovations develop – all focusing on the structural characteristics of the organizations: the closeness of the relationship between the print and online newsrooms; whether the online newsroom reproduces editorial gatekeeping or finds alternative work cultures; and whether the intended audience is represented as consumers or producers, as technically savvy or unsavvy (Boczkowski, 2004, pp. 171-172). (p. 824)

Steensen conducted an ethnographic study of dagbladet.no, a Swedish online newspaper that launched an online feature section in 2002. He conducted four months of ethnographic observation of the newsroom – as well as extensive interviews – over a three year period. I was fascinated by his study and his insights about issues of autonomy and democratic leadership. He contends that a theory of innovation in online newspapers has to include “newsroom autonomy, work culture, the role of management, the relevance of new technology and innovative individuals” (2009, p. 821). Steensen says the factors that influence innovation are both integrated and complex, and they often depend on the actions of individuals. Each newsroom work culture is unique, and an approach to innovation that works in one newsroom may not work in another one.

Newspaper newsroom

Filak (2009) discusses newsroom culture and how it has been and continues to be an impediment to change. Eighty percent of newsrooms have a defensive culture, Filak says, citing a 2001 study by the Media Management Center at Northwestern University. “Defensive cultures resist change and eschew collaboration outside of their cultural group” (p. 118). As a thoroughly indoctrinated former member of newsroom culture, I think Filak is mostly correct: journalists tend to be defensive and so they create a defensive culture.

However, there are concrete reasons for this. Many citizens have an “us versus them” attitude about the media and its representatives. They belittle journalists – sometimes to their faces – and disparage the job that they do, while at the same time consuming articles written by the people they profess to despise. Journalists are like cops: many of them grow defensive and cynical because they deal with people every day who they know are lying to them about something. Journalists also tend to be outsiders; they see themselves as observers, not necessarily as active participants in the world around them. And then there are the people who let you know that your story has ruined their lives. Few journalists have been spared this condemnation.

Journalist as ‘confidence man’

Finally, for many journalists, there’s that uncomfortable feeling of guilt that maybe you have ruined someone’s life. In The Journalist and the Murderer (1990), Janet Malcolm strips away the platitudes that journalists hide behind, such as their stated dedication to ferreting out the truth and the public’s right to know. She bares the journalist’s soul.

Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. (Malcolm, 1990, p. 3)

When the article is published or the story airs, the subject of the story realizes that his story has not been told; the journalist has instead told her interpretation of the subject’s story. Malcolm contends that what really upsets the subject is the deception the journalist uses. The journalist who seemed so sympathetic and supportive while interviewing or shadowing the subject as he went about his daily life was just feigning compassion to get the story.

Filak (2009) discusses several theories that have been used to study newsroom convergence, where print and broadcast reporters and editors are trying to work together to survive and thrive in today’s complex and confusing media world. He describes social identity theory, which argues that each individual is defined by the groups that he or she belongs to or identifies with. Then he outlines three different models that can be applied to newsroom culture:

  • decategorized contact model – individuals’ awareness of their group identity fosters group-based biases;
  • common in-group identity model – previously competing factions are encouraged to create a common in-group; it’s no longer “us” versus “them”; it’s now “we.”
  • mutual intergroup differentiation model – rather than breaking down boundaries between groups, you emphasize the positive aspects of each group and promote interaction to reach a common goal.

Filak favors the mutual intergroup differentiation model because it lets individuals play “to their strengths while advancing a common goal of information gathering and storytelling” (p. 129).

Today journalists in all media are having difficulty finding their footing in the shifting sands of news delivery and consumption. How will news and information be delivered? Who will decide what is news and what information is needed? Who, if anyone, will pay for this information or for the analysis of this information? Answers to these questions remain elusive, and it’s hard to see what the “new normal” will be in this field in five or 10 years. But Steensen and Filak offer insight into how we might be able to figure it out.


Filak, V.F. (2009). Culture, conflict, convergence: A theoretical discussion of group-based identity and bias reduction in a converged newsroom. In A.E. Grant & J.S. Wilkinson (Eds.), Understanding media convergence: The state of the field, pp. 117-134. New York: Oxford University Press.

Malcolm, J. (1990). The journalist and the murderer. New York: Vintage Books, a Division of Random House, Inc.

Steensen, S. (2009). What’s stopping them? [Article]. Journalism Studies, 10(6), 821-836. doi: 10.1080/14616700902975087


7 responses to “What is newsroom culture? And why should anyone care?

  1. I laughed heartedly at some of your comments and the cartoon you included. I can’t tell you how many interviews I did or still photographs I took and people would then ask me “What channel will this be on?” Yes we journalists all have our egos, me included. I cannot image working with a broadcast journalists on the same story (I even have a degree in broadcasting). The problem is we all lament about why the public doesn’t respects us anymore, well, we don’t respect each other. I not only watched television every night in the newsroom to see, by chance, they might have something on my beat that they didn’t, but also to gloat that they didn’t get what I did. Can’t we just all get along? Maybe the next generation. But I only work with other journalists I respect.
    P.S. (Glad we are in the same group in class).

  2. I’m glad you laughed at my comments. I try not to be deadly dull with these essays. I liked your comment about journalists wanting respect, but not being willing to give it to each other. I hadn’t thought about it that way. I think we are — print, radio, TV, Web, and whatever else develops — going to have to learn to work together, at least part of the time.
    Oh, and when are we going to meet with Dr. Matthews? I played today, I admit it. But I worked really hard yesterday. My will is flagging.

  3. I think your cartoon depicting the journalist with more tools than appendages speaks volumes about journalists today. It must be truly a let down to know that you have armed yourself with every type of technology only to still be mistrusted by society. Not having the experience myself, I can’t really speak from a reporters standpoint, but you mention feigning compassion and citizens having an “us v. them” attitude. Do you think it would ever be possible for citizens to become more trusting of journalists? Do you think technology can help that?

  4. Now i haven’t worked in a news room and i don’t think i ever will but i don’t not understand this mindset of ownership over news stories. To me news stories are just public property. You inform people about what is happening in the world and that same story is most likely told 100 times over that evening or morning from hundreds of different news agencies.I can understand if maybe they are posting exactly what you wrote word for word in another paper without giving you credit but a news event doesn’t belong to anyone. Maybe i am just confused on the issues and the reason why there is tension but i don’t see the need for this competitive nature.

  5. I agree with Jordan about news stories being public property. If you are reporting on something that is “public” then why would the journalist think they own it. Yes, you should be cited, but why would you think that no one else would report on what you did? And what Curry said about journalists not getting along…maybe this is what is causing the printed newspaper to suffer. I personally do not know because I have never worked for a newspaper and I do not read them. I know that I am an example of the “younger-technology-driven world” and part of the reason why newspapers are suffering in terms of circulation, but is the Internet the only thing to blame for the decline?

  6. I do think it is funny that your group would sit by and watch other newscasts in order to find out if you got the news story in first or not. It’s amazing that with newspapers and TV news are on two different playing grounds, you “spy” on each other in order to see where you might get a head’s up on the competition. Will there ever be a time where all facets can come together and provide the best news coverage possible for the viewing public which should be the main goal of any reporting entity?

  7. Well, this is the THIRD time I’ve tried to respond to comments on my reading reaction. Twice now I’ve hit some random key on my laptop that has called up a new tab on Chrome and dispatched my comments to oblivion. Maybe the new media are trying to tell me something. Now I’m writing this in Notepad so that I won’t lose it. Sigh … foiled again by new technology. If I only could go back to the good old days of stylus and clay tablet!

    Being “cited” is not the point here. Yes, in a way news is “out there” in the public, but rarely does a news story — or a feature story for that matter — just drop into your lap. You have to show some initiative and interview someone or look up public documents or attend a governmental meeting; frequently you have to do all three. I’m not talking about news conferences or events that all media are invited to.

    In all this focus on the wonders of new media and new technology, the hard work behind real journalism — however it’s delivered — seems to have gotten lost. Sure, a bright, talented, and inquisitive person armed with digital video and audio equipment can report on things, but it takes more than that to be a journalist. You have to strive for some kind of objectivity and you can’t take everything at face value.

    A good beat reporter, regardless of what media she operates in, gets good stories because of her relationships with the people she covers. That takes work. And then someone has to edit and fact check her stories, whether print, radio, Internet, or video. That also takes work. Then the stories have to be posted/published/viewed somewhere. More work.

    And media have always been competitive, because they rely on advertising, which pays according to the size of the audience reading, listening, or viewing the product. The bigger the audience, the more money the newspaper or TV station can charge. The assumption is that you draw an audience because of your content: the interesting stories draw a bigger audience.

    Journalism takes a lot of work, even in the digital age. I suggest you check out this online job posting for GlobalVoices, which is looking for a deputy editor: http://bit.ly/bYL6vS. The job description has enough work to keep at least two people busy. To do a good job in this position will take 10 to 12 hours a day. Global Voices has bloggers from around the world who write for free, but the site sounds like it’s serious about editing and presentation.

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