Earlier this month, I had the honor of conducting a writing workshop in Washington, D.C., for the writers and editors of National Geographic.  It was a kick for me to work with a publication that I had read as a boy, one that, in 1963, had published a photo of my father, a U.S. Customs officer, pasting a sticker on the wooden crate that contained the Mona Lisa as she made her way on a tour of America.

The folks at NatGeo asked some great questions, and I want to answer one of them in this essay.

“You keep talking and asking questions about the ‘culture’ of this place,” asked one young man.   “What do you mean by ‘culture’?”

As is my habit, I was going to begin my answer with a dictionary definition of culture, but even the shortest one I could find was so complicated and multi-faceted that it would not provide much direction.

So I have decided to try a definition of my own in the context of a newsroom:

“The norms, practices, habits and routines of a workplace that create the conditions for excellent or sub-standard work.”

It is often easier to recognize fault lines in a culture from the outside although this must be done with caution.  In the television series “Mad Men,” for example, the Madison Avenue advertising company of the early 1960s is portrayed as a male dominated, hierarchical, harshly sexist, overly competitive culture, fueled by nicotine, hard liquor, and casual sex. That such a culture might also be creative is a tension played out in episode after episode.

Is there such a thing as an “ideal” culture for a magazine or newsroom?  I cannot answer. The only questions I am qualified to answer are these:  “What is the best culture for me?  What kind of place keeps me happy and productive?”

  • Where craft is tied to mission and purpose.  I am much more likely to perfect my craft in a place with a clear and high-minded sense of mission.  Maximizing profit is not enough.  Helping democracy is too broad.  People in a news organization must be able to point to specific work that contributes to the public interest.
  • Where workers are learning all the time.  When people call to tell me they are looking for a new job, it is almost never money that is the key issue.  “I’ve stopped learning here,” is the most common complaint. A learning culture is one where reflective practitioners solve problems and then share with each other how those problems were solved.
  • Where doors are opened rather than closed.  I thrive in a culture where there is status, of course, but where it is never an impediment.  An open concept means there is an escape from silos, that folks can work across disciplines, that anyone might be called upon at any time to help someone else.
  • Where risk is rewarded.  The great writing teacher Donald Murray used to say that he wanted to work in a place with a tolerance for interesting failures.  I’m not as brave.  I want to walk the tightrope, but with a safety net.  I do hope that failure, when it occurs, is not incentive for retreat, but for a new determination to make it work next time.
  • Where coaching people is more important than fixing stories. I need a place where bosses and workers share control, where editors assume responsibility for the development of the writer over time.  A culture that depends upon the constant fixing of broken work breeds negativity and resentment.
  • Where there is talk, talk, talk.  When I enter a newsroom, I judge the culture by the dialect of the tribe.  Are people talking at all, and, if so, what are they talking about?  If the talk is just complaints about other workers, if it is unrelated to the work, or unrelentingly cynical, I get suspicious. I want to talk about the best work being accomplished, how it gets accomplished, and how I can accomplish it.
  • Where informal authority complements formal authority.    At what is now the Tampa Bay Times a group of young journalists, with the leadership of Ben Montgomery, created a website known as gangrey.com.  These writers were commitment to excellence in reporting and the power of telling stories.  Their website is committed to the promotion of such excellent work.  No one gave them permission to do this.  The newspaper benefited, not just from their regular work, but from the informal leadership they exerted, not just in their own shop, but in newsrooms across the country.

Think of your company or newsroom and answer these questions as True or False:

  1. I know what the mission of my workplace is, and I can recite it to others.
  2. I can tell you something specific I learned about my craft during the last week
  3. I feel I can talk to any person in any department about our mission and work.
  4. I can try something unconventional and even if it is not completely successful, I will get support for trying again.
  5. There is some person assigned to helping me grow as a journalist over the long haul.
  6. Almost every day I am engaged in conversation designed to improve the quality of the work.
  7. I am not afraid of trying to contribute to the culture of my workplace, even if I lack the authority to do so.

If you answered “True” to all seven questions, you are lucky to be working in a productive and supportive culture.  If you said “False” to more than three, it may be time to roll up your sleeves and exercise your informal influence for the good.