Controlling creativity and creating professionals?: Mind ‘the line’ at a newspaper editorial office

Anselma Gallinat

Anselma Gallinat

Lecturer in Sociology, School of Geography, Politics and Sociology, Newcastle University, UK
Email: anselma.gallinat@ncl.ac.uk

This article explores structures of creative practice and control at a small editorial office of a regional daily in eastern Germany. It seeks to illuminate ethnographically interplays of managerial control and journalistic creativity. Both of these are necessary aspects of newspaper production yet they seem to continuously pull in opposing directions. As one of the editors told me during fieldwork: ‘On a Friday you can get away with any rubbish because the guys up front [editors-in-chief] just want to get home early.’ Markus’ throw-away comment highlights some of the dynamics essential to the production of print journalism at this editorial office. It depicts journalists and management as engaged in a continuous struggle over the content of the paper, as journalists strive to maintain the agency which fuels their creative practice whilst management needs to appropriate this creativity to safeguard the coherence and intelligibility of the paper. However, in its casual manner the comment recognises also that these two forces are interdependent and that journalistic work arises in their interplay.

Journalism

Papers and other media are under pressure from a number of different groups (see Boyer 2006; Boyer and Hannerz 2006). They are accountable to the owning publishing house, must ensure market competitiveness, cater for their audiences, position themselves within the wider media landscape, and ensure good relations with their contacts. Some also have their own guidelines or mission statements. To achieve these various goals media institutions need to first of all be able to produce a recognisable and reasonably stable identity. For print media this begins with the overall visual design, the typeface, grammar, and proceeds into content and argument. Maintaining not only standards of reporting but also certain lines and emphasises in the reporting hence requires a degree of control over journalistic outputs (Dickinson 2007).

Such control contrasts however markedly with Western Europe’s highly valued notions of freedom of press and speech, which pervade journalists’ professional ethos, that is the prevalent sentiments of professional self-understanding. Journalists of course see the output of their work, the article, as their piece. Their individual creativity and expertise created the written piece and this ownership is marked by their name or initial beneath the headline. Simultaneously, this authorship brings with it accountability to colleagues and managers but also contacts, friends and family who may read it. Moreover, as Linde shows, life-stories are also shaped by institutions, so that after a few years employees identify with the organisation, portray their lives in line with institutional ethos, which contributes to internal coherence (2000; cf. 1994). In journalism, this shaping of the professional self produces character traits which support creativity, agency and inquisitiveness. When sighing exasperatedly at yet another quizzing about the research, my education or my life from one of my informants I was told more than once that: ‘That’s me. I am like that [inquisitive, curious, strong-minded, assertive], I am a journalist!’ Character traits of criticism and strong-mindedness when combined with feelings of ownership however are prone to working against the control inherent to corporate environments and required to produce a coherent, lasting, and marketable good, a newspaper. The task of ensuring this production lies with management who need to govern creative practices.

Whilst at times these dynamics are experienced as tensions, most often they subside into the everyday of journalistic work. Models of control versus resistance, such as Scott’s (1985; 1990) have therefore little currency here. Scott’s work in particular is characterised by a rather dichotomous view of power-relations (Gallinat 2005; Gal 1995: 407-424). More applicable to the newspaper context might be the notion of ‘Eigensinn’, which Luedke (1993) uses to describe the realities of shop floor workers in Germany. It depicts workers’ insistence and resilience against top-down structures through their ‘having a mind of their own’. Eigensinn however also works largely, though not exclusively, as a way of self-assertion against the organisational powerholders, intimating a sense of division within the organisation. Doubtlessly, a managerial structure, which aims to exert a level of control, exists in media institutions. Management however also recognises that for ‘good journalism’ to arise in their paper a degree of journalistic Eigensinn is necessary. The challenge management face is hence to appropriate journalistic creativity. According to Aldridge and Evetts a discourse of journalistic professionalism allows for ‘control at a distance’ (2003: 549) through the sharing of values of what ‘good journalism’ might be between management and staff. However, striving for ‘good journalism’ may at times also divide. As individual editors have incorporated the character traits of inquisitiveness and critical thinking into their ‘professional project of the self’ (Casey & Allan 2004), they hold dearly their own beliefs of how good journalism should be done whilst they also recognise that working in a corporate environment requires teamwork and sometimes subjugation. This tension between individual agency and managerial control is negotiated over notions of professionalism which includes both journalistic freedom and an awareness of the institutional framework within which its creativity is being put to work.

The observations in this article hence reveal intricate and malleable dynamics of tension, mutuality, cooperation, and refusal. These dynamics became apparent in negotiations over ‘the line’, that is a basic understanding of ‘what we do at this paper’: what kinds of stories we report, how we relate to our readers, what kind of language we use and what quality we expect to see on our pages. Where the line ran changed depending on what was concerned. It hence needed to be negotiated anew each time. Institutional lines were first of all set by management. Sentences such as the above usually described more or less shared understandings of the kind of ‘good journalism’ this paper produced, which were however shaped and overseen by editors-in-chief, who had the final authority. However, lines were both rarely strict and rarely voiced explicitly. Rather, they were drawn, revealed and enforced, overstepped and at times avoided or sought out and followed by different actors at different points. Most staff were mindful of management lines and sought to avoid them. In some cases breaching the line was more serious than in others and if it could not be avoided it would be circumvented or even co-opted. Situations became difficult when journalists’ personal understandings of professionalism clashed with the line set by management, and these were also the moments were such lines became visible. In this short piece I will focus on two particular incidences, one concerning political opinions wherein the lines were very much concealed, and the other concerning grammar, where lines were clearer but conflicting.

The Daily Paper

The circulation of the regional daily where research was conducted, dubbed here the Daily Paper, covers the northern part of one of the eastern German federal states with a readership of approximately 565,000. Ethnographic fieldwork took place over a period of six months in 2007-2008 at the regional headquarters, which produce the paper’s main sections. These include the first three pages with regional news, then the politics and opinion page, business, arts and media, a section called ‘around the world’, and letters to the editor, the readers’ page. The headquarters were staffed by editors who do journalistic work and editing, editors-in-chief, and secretaries. They were dominated by one large open plan office, a second smaller office for the sports section, with adjacent kitchen and smaller quiet rooms with spare desks. This back space opened up into the front space with a reception area and offices of the editors-in-chief. A conference room was accessible from both these regions. Production at the office was coordinated by the editor-in-chief, Paul Krueger, who was assisted by two vice-editors-in-chief. In his position Krueger was ultimately responsible for content and appearance of the paper and he often edited the paper’s front page. Krueger also liaised with the publishing house.

The ‘core’ activities of news production are the daily conferences (Keeble 2005: 8) during which content is coordinated, individual issues are discussed, possible lines of inquiry established, etc. The Daily Paper held three such conferences throughout the day. The first was for heads of sections to establish the main topics of the day. The second, at 1:00 p.m., was attended by all available staff and set the tone for the rest of the day. Frantic busyness followed it into the early afternoon. The third conference took place in the evening when all pages were printed and collectively checked for errors in headlines. In between these meetings editors worked away on their desks, with conversations being held over the shoulder high screens between desks or across the room. Sometimes they would retire to the kitchen for a cigarette or to fetch coffee, or go to see the editor-in-chief. The editor-in-chief in charge would occasionally float through the room to check on progress with particular members of staff, give them further material or information and/or glance over individuals’ shoulders to see what they are working on.

The second conference was hence the only occasion where nearly all editors came together to consider the paper as a whole. This ‘one o’clock’ conference’ followed the lunch break and usually took up to an hour. All available staff would gather around the oval table in the meeting room, many had grabbed a copy of today’s edition on the way in, others brought their notes. The top of the table, marked by a telephone and its closeness to the doors, was where Krueger and the attending vice-editor-in-chief sat. All remaining staff took a seat around the table, and whilst I was told that there was no seating order, so ‘just sit anywhere’, it was apparent that staff sat in the same place each day. The meeting would begin with a review of the current issue of the paper, which Krueger usually opened by asking: ‘How did we do yesterday’, ‘What do we think’, using the first person plural to include everybody. In the ensuing discussion all could chime in to raise criticism, praise or questions. Apart from being a journalist each attendee was also treated as an expert reader of the paper. This discussion allowed staff to collectively (re)establish a sense of what the Daily Paper was and how it should look. Moreover, it was an opportunity for editors-in-chief to give their direction to the ‘professional discourse’ about good journalism at this paper through iterating grammatical conventions, praising the distribution of pictures and texts on one page, criticising it on another, etc in an attempt to control from a distance (Aldridge & Evetts 2003: 549). This part of the meeting would be followed by each section introducing its page plan for the issue currently in progress. If discussions arose all staff were free to contribute. The meeting was usually concluded with the allocation of editorials. Again, this was introduced by Krueger as an open question: ‘We need three editorials…?’ If a certain issue seemed prominent he often approached a particular member of staff, phrasing the request again as a question: ‘How about…?’

The way the conference was run gave the impression that the production of the paper was a collective endeavour underpinned only by a limited hierarchy of editors-in-chief and editorial staff. In this context criticalness and strong opinions seemed to be encouraged as positive character traits. And as journalists, authors and critical readers, all editors appeared to be on an even footing. However, this seeming egalitarianism masked another truth. The ‘hidden’ seating order saw most senior editors, and those responsible for the crucial first pages take their place close to the front of the table. Younger staff, those responsible for less prominent sections (readers’ page, ‘around the world’), interns and researchers sat towards the back. Part of this order was a gender division. The majority of senior staff towards the front was men. Women, of which there were overall fewer, sat further back. And not everyone always spoke up. At the back-end staff often talked to one another in hushed voices (‘did you understand this?’, ‘that picture looks odd’) simply commenting or to solicit moral support before raising an issue.

The reason for this seemed to lie in the perception that in fact not all contributions to discussions would be welcome. If staff made unwelcome comments, there was a possibility that they might be reprimanded at a later point in time. The egalitarian set-up of the conference, reinforced by the open questions, meant that discussions could easily move into directions not necessarily intended by editors-in-chief who would then find it difficult to assert their line against an arising collective consensus. This was partly due to Krueger’s indirect managerial style but it also evidences the tensions between journalistic freedom which is required for productive creativity and the need to maintain certain standards and ways of reporting. However, instead of telling the individual in question there and then, the editor-in-chief would make individual staff feel later that their comments hadn’t been welcome: a few days later your ‘article is suddenly rubbish’. Harsh criticism of an article in front of colleagues during this conference or even the pulling of their article from a page seemed to be something that was hard to bear. Editors appeared to experience this as an attack on their professionalism which they worked hard to maintain each day. Most staff hence aimed to avoid such situations. Rather they tried to second-guess Krueger’s intention, work out where in this case the line might be to safe-guard their standing in the office, their personal sense of professionalism and space for the creativity which gave substance to their professional selves.

Politics

Most crucial, yet also the most veiled, appeared to be political lines. Along with the collective spirit created through the conference and in vein with a professional ethos of independent thinking, a sense of freedom of political opinion was also upheld at the office. Being able to exercise such freedom was important to staff whose political opinion was often a matter of real conviction. Most clearly so for editors working at the politics desk whose interest in politics had taken them to their professional specialisation. At the same time however editors’ political leanings had discernible impacts on their writing, most clearly so on the ‘Opinion and Debate’ page. Whilst opinion pieces concerned the author’s personal opinions, clearly marked by their name and sometimes picture, they became an integral part of the paper’s identity once in print. This was most clearly the case with editorials, which were hence carefully guarded by editors-in-chief who had to ‘okay’ each piece before it went onto the page. Political disagreements were therefore more emotionally fuelled, bore greater dangers and happened more frequently than disagreement about content, grammar or page design.

Within the local media landscape the Daily Paper was considered to be left leaning. Much of its staff had trained during GDR times and had, per requirement, been members of the ruling Socialist Unity party SED, or of a block party.1 A number of the more senior editors were still considered to be left, although this did not necessarily mean socialist. Krueger in contrast was originally from West Germany, although he had moved into the region soon after unification. He was also catholic and conservative. Politically he marked the end of the conservative spectrum within the office. According to some editors Krueger sought to maintain a degree of balance of political opinion within the paper, which he needed to do through setting lines and reigning in some editors or supporting others. This however meant that on a daily basis editors needed to juggle their own convictions and alliances with the danger of overstepping management’s line, and stepping onto ‘the boss’ toes’ as it were.

Through experience of having worked with this editor-in-chief, reading his editorials, having their editorials commented on by him, through conversations with and about him, etc, most editors had developed a fairly good sense of what might be desired and what might be contentious. During a period of the editor-in-chief’s absence, with a vice-editor-in-chief in charge, staff often commented that poor Krueger was probably cringing when reading the paper at home as standards fell and arguments departed further and further from his opinions. A younger editor, Michael, found the situation particularly difficult. Also from western Germany, yet more importantly, also sporting a conservative streak, his opinion often contrasted with those of his immediate superiors at the politics desk. Previously Michael had often been backed by Krueger during the one o’clock conferences. He now found the paper tipping considerably to the left not only leaving little space for his work but also creating a situation where he increasingly struggled to identify with the paper.

Whilst management used the line in order to maintain its vision of the paper, individual editors had their own lines beyond which they would struggle to or simply would not compromise. One day at the office I observed Markus, the head of the politics desk writing a piece on debates around minimal pay, highlighting which political parties had proposals such as the Socialist Democracy Party (SPD), and which hadn’t such as the conservative Christian Union Party (CDU). He commented ominously: ‘Well, we’ll see what Paul [Krueger] says about this. I might end up being called to his office too’. But he didn’t care, he added, suggesting that if they sent him to a local office, he’d go; he wouldn’t mind.2 Markus was hence aware of Krueger’s political line but persisted by writing an opinion piece that would favourably portray the SPD party. As head of section he might have been able to get the article onto the page before Krueger realised. The piece would however contrast with Krueger’s political opinions and may also clash with his notion of balance of political opinion in the paper. It would certainly cause the editor-in-chief upset if it made it into print without him realising. Not only would he feel that Markus went over his head but moreover a paper would be printed with content Krueger disagreed with but signed responsible for. In persisting Markus clearly asserted Eigensinn, but he did not do so simply for the sake of asserting it. Rather, it stemmed from Markus’ sense of ‘good journalism’. The narrative of journalistic freedom appeared to have ‘acquired’ (Linde 2000) his sense of self.3 Markus was convinced that his creativity should only be used to express his opinions -albeit well considered and argued ones- not anybody else’s. This was evident in another discussion with Markus where he asserted that he would say ‘no’ to Krueger in response to some requests. If the boss tried telling him how to write an editorial, what to argue, Markus liked to suggest that ‘if that’s what you want, why don’t you write it’. Markus hence set his own lines with regard to good journalism which he was willing to defend. This was however something some editors, usually senior staff and men, are more comfortable with than others. As head of section Markus had a position of seniority, he had gained work experience during years in the profession and under various editors-in-chief. Moreover, he knew Krueger personally –as the use of the first name above indicates - and felt very much on an equal footing with the editor-in-chief.

Side-stepping the line

If staff were not comfortable with drawing their own line, they could use means of co-opting or side-stepping requirements in attempts to protect their creative work and sense of professionalism. This could take a variety of forms; a very direct one became obvious another day.

At a previous one o’clock conference a discussion had unfolded regarding a heading on the ‘around the world’ page. The article concerned the shooting of a boy in Liverpool by another youngster riding a BMX bike. Some editors had criticised the grammatical construction used in the heading because they felt it was incorrect: ‘Any primary school teacher would have red-marked this’. Staff who had been present at the evening conference the previous day explained that they had collectively –(‘we were all standing in front of the print off’)- pondered the heading and approved it.

A week later there was a brief follow-up during the one o’clock conference. Krueger attempted to establish shared grammatical standards by explaining possible constructions of past tense in print journalism. Most editors followed his explanations with rather blank expressions, there were a lot of Latin termini technici. Later on in the afternoon and back in the editorial office Markus was reading out a news piece on the lack of freedom of press in China. Chinese regulations stipulated that: ‘the office for propaganda will give directives’. ‘That sounds familiar’, he grinned and looked into the room. Renate, opposite him, grinned back. Applying the reference to their situation at the office, she explained that: ‘If the boss tells you something and you know that it is wrong, then it is still wrong’. She would do it how she thought it was right and if Krueger had a problem with that the following day, she would say: ‘I thought this is what you actually meant; I thought you had had a slip of tongue there, my apologies’. Renate referred here to the disagreements about grammar in the article on the Liverpool shooting. She used this as an example to show how she would deal with a situation where management directions went against her sense of orthographic correctness. Rather than content or argument/opinion this case concerned language, another crucial aspect of journalistic work. Being able to write good articles, readable pieces that convey important information to readers in an engaging manner so that they read beyond the opening paragraph is considered part of the craft and has a firm place in professional ethos. This is very clearly the case for eastern German journalists whose GDR-time training included the writing. During fieldwork older editors bemoaned more than once the fact that incoming generations no longer get trained in this ‘craft’.

Conclusion

Drawing on examples from an editorial office of a regional daily in eastern Germany, this article explored the interplay of managerial control and creative practice in journalism. For both staff and management journalistic work is acted out over understandings of what good journalism is. Management knew that for good journalistic work to arise there needed to be a degree of freedom to allow creativity to strive and it attempted to create such an atmosphere. However, simultaneously, with a view on the paper as a marketable good, it was also clear that degrees of control were required which management aimed to maintaining through setting certain lines.

Most of the time work proceeded nevertheless devoid of great contention or disagreement, although there is always a fair amount of talking behind the boss’ back, joking, gossiping and similar going on in the open plan office. An eigensinnig sense of self appeared to be bound up with a perception of journalism as based in criticism, strong opinions and inquisitiveness. These character traits were encouraged in the daily conference. They however are also traits which easily jar with a corporate environment. Editors were aware of their working within such an environment and most of the time this created no particular problems. However, when it did, struggles occurred over the question of what constituted good journalism. Whilst editors-in-chief needed to keep first of all the paper as a whole in mind and were hence concerned with balance in opinion, political outlook, grammar and standards of journalistic writing more generally, individual editors were more concerned with their individual creative practice.

For individual editors such struggles became strongly bound up with a sense of their professional self and they would hence negotiate ‘the line’ over a sense of professionalism. This professionalism comprised notions of working for a paper and needing to pay heed to this, but also personal standards of writing, personal opinions and interests. As authors of their articles editors saw themselves as accountable for the product not only to their superiors but also to colleagues, contacts and friends. The product of their creativity needed to be align-able with their understanding of their work in order to maintain professional integrity. What aspect of professionalism would be foregrounded in each case differed individually as some of the examples above showed. For younger and less well established editors responding to management demands, showing team work skills was at times more important than following their interests, whilst some more established and more strong-minded editors were more concerned with expressing their opinions.

The line of what good journalism is, of what is allowable, negotiable or contentious to write, is hence both the place where management and staff worked together and the issue they sometimes divided about. It is always bound up with the ‘professional project of the self’ which becomes most visible in moments of contention. This professional project is comprised of a number of aspects and is sustained by certain character traits. It is at its very basis however about creative practice, which produces a strong bond between the journalist, the producing agent and the article, her product. And it is this which is negotiated and at times defended in the to and fro of everyday working practices.

Notes:


1. ‘Block parties’ in socialist East Germany were other political parties such as the CDU or LDPD which could however not be considered real political opposition since they were all combined in the National Front which was overseen by the ruling party SED.

2. Rumour at the office had it that some years ago an editor was sent from the headquarters to a local editorial office as punishment for having overstepped the line. With such a move would come a lowering of status from editor to journalist. The story seemed to provide a deterrent among staff. However, this had happened under a different editor-in-chief and it was unclear whether Krueger would resort to such means.

3. It would be prudent to open another eastern German caveat here, for which this article doesn’t provide enough space however. After decades of strong state control over journalistic work, described by journalists as the ‘scissors in your mind’ where reality departed from propaganda, eastern German journalists celebrated the freedom the fall of socialism in 1989 brought for them. Today however they greatly struggle with situations where this freedom becomes again limited, now due to market-economical factors.

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