I’m a big believer in an aphorism known as “The Iron Law of Institutions.” It was coined by blogger Jonanthan Schwartz, who stated it like this:
The Iron Law of Institutions is: the people who control institutions care first and foremost about their power within the institution rather than the power of the institution itself. Thus, they would rather the institution “fail” while they remain in power within the institution than for the institution to “succeed” if that requires them to lose power within the institution. This is true for all human institutions, from elementary schools up to the United States of America. If history shows anything, it’s that this cannot be changed. What can be done, sometimes, is to force the people running institutions to align their own interests with those of the institution itself and its members.
This is the libertarian’s best argument against government structures if he or she is smart enough to realize it. (Most are not.) But it applies equally to all institutions equally, public and private, as the great 2010 Ledger purge of producers and protection of highly paid senior managers shows clearly.
It is precisely the opposite of the two greatest lies told in popular culture today:
1) With great power comes great responsibility. (Curse you, Tobey Maguire.)
2) Failure is not an option.
It’s not a coincidence that both lines of drivel emerged from movies because we seem rather incapable of telling movies and television from real life these days. Memo to eager corporate tools: Watching Spiderman or Apollo 13 does not make you a leader. In any event, I think it’s become clear that great power actually comes with great capability to avoid responsibility for the failure that supposedly isn’t an option.
Let’s consider The Ledger. A few months back, I wrote a post mocking The Ledger’s knighting of a parcel of youngish muckety mucksas Polk County’s “emerging leaders.”
It was particularly funny that the prior aristocracy got to pick the new aristocracy. Leadership isn’t terribly democratic or egalitarian in this county. The new list included Ledger publisher Jerome Ferson.
At the time, I wrote this about Ferson:
Ferson, whom I’ve only met once, I think, presides over a business in decline within an industry in decline. The influence and success of his organization within Polk County is waning, not emerging. He’s spent most of his tenure laying people off. The product today is much worse than the product a decade ago. It’s not Ferson’s fault, of course. I certainly couldn’t have done better. God Himself couldn’t run a traditional, institutionally-owned newspaper successfully in these cultural, technological, and economic conditions. And believe me, Ferson has virtually no real freedom to experiment radically with The Ledger. He’s a cog in a big hidebound organization that’s focused on saving the New York Times, an organization that considers The Ledger a revenue source. Period. Again, none of this is his fault, nor does it mean he’s a bad guy. But a leader? Really? Competent navigation of bureaucracy does not leadership make. If “publisher of The Ledger” is considered a position of community leadership, then the position itself ought to be named the leader, not the guy carrying out the orders.
And what has changed? We’ve seen another example of Jerome’s leadership in action. He allowed radical cuts of content producers and front line workers within the Ledger newsroom, while leaving the entire highly paid senior management structure in place. What are they going to manage, for God’s sake? Trust me, we didn’t need them five years ago when I worked there. Some of our best papers came out when Skip and Lenore were on vacation and unable to meddle.
Look, it’s entirely likely that cuts were unavoidable. Nobody is sacred. But that should extend beyond the workers to the leadership class as well. What follows is a little summary of the nine people in the newsroom let go in lieu of Skip and Lenore and Lynne. I’ve excluded Michael Freeman, who worked for the Northeast Polk paper known as The Reporter, because I didn’t know him very well.
Trent Rowe: The Ledger’s food critic. You can find framed copies of his reviews on the walls of half the restaurants in Polk County. The other half hate him, for obvious reasons. All things considered, he is probably the single most influential Ledger employee — or was.
Bill Blocher: A meticulous editor, to the point of occasional annoyance. He honed in quickly and relentlessly on logical or writing flaws in a story and was almost always right. That didn’t stop reporters, including me, from grumbling as they made his changes. But they were glad when they saw the final product the next morning, or whenever it went up. On a personal note, Bill Blocher is the man who left a night out with his wife on a Saturday night in 2003 to cover for me as night editor when my wife went into labor with my third child. She gave birth about two hours after I called him. Had Bill been less prompt, I might have missed it. Let’s just say I never saw Skip or Lenore offer to cover someone’s shift. They’re leaders, after all.
Steve Antley: Perhaps the single nicest person I know. Certainly the nicest man. I never remember seeing him angry, a statement no co-worker could ever make about me. A dedicated Christian, Steve embodies everything that word should mean. More important to The Ledger and the New York Times, Steve had repsonsibility for the paper’s appearance, winning any number of awards over the years. Steve often oversaw redesigns of other New York Times-owned properties. In the days before his firing, I’m told he worked 12-plus hours a day to help bring a new newsroom computer system on line.
Nancy Graham Jump: She essentially handled computer issues for the newsroom and joined Steve in the endless system installation, sources say. They also say both Nancy and Steve are required to keep working for some period of time to make sure the system functions in order to get their severence packages. Nancy and I sat almost next to each other for many years, and I spent many a procrastinating minute chatting her up. Like Steve, she’s a deeply kind person.
Cindy Skop: The only woman among The Ledger’s photographers. When you consider her talent, work ethic, and dedication to craft as a package, I would say she’s probably The Ledger’s best all-around photographer. She was unfailingly conscientious when she accompanied me on assignments. Earlier this year, she traveled to Haiti with reporter Cary McMullen to document the aftermath of the earthquake there. The Ledger was happy to showcase her work before cutting her loose.
Rachel Pleasant: A longtime business writer and editor who quietly went about her work producing and honing copy. She started as a college student writing obits on the weekend back in 1999 or 2000 and worked her way up. Her husband John and brothers still work at The Ledger as reporters.
Lonnie Brown: Well, Lonnie is Lonnie. An institution of sorts. An old-fashioned lover of political gossip with great capacity to irritate people with his Raven-squawking on the Ledger editorial page. I can’t tell you how many times he sidled over to the news side of the operation to pass on a tip or goad us into covering something.
Paul Johnson: Known as “Doc,” for years Johnson worked as the photographer assigned to the East Polk section. I didn’t know him very well, but his fate was probably sealed when The Ledger killed the East Polk section.
Mark Williams: The Ledger’s graphic artist. If a local story you read has an infographic attached to it, most likely Mark built it. He and I have spent hours working through proofs of graphics for everything from the Judges Poll to FCAT results. Not really sure how The Ledger will produce local graphics now. Maybe they’ll outsource.
It’s telling that every single one of these people worked longer at The Ledger than I did. Most of them were there when I arrived in 1999 and stayed after I left in 2006. Collectively, the gave 150 years or more of their lives to The Ledger. They are pillars of the newsgathering and production process. And they are gone, just like that.
Meanwhile, Jerome Ferson is still an emerging leader, whom the NYT likely pays $200K or so to carry out its edicts. Skip will stay as long as he wants, pretending it’s still 1982. Explain to me how either helps stregthen the product they are charged with producing. You’ve heard the old saying about the captain going down with the ship? That only happens on ships — and then not always.
In no way is this “leadership” class question unique to The Ledger. Look at the McKeel empire’s fear of taking responsibility for the kids it teaches while it trumpets it success and then whines about its lack of resources.
In fact, you can look around in this town and county and country, and you’ll find everywhere self-dealing “leaders” of institutions – from churches to businesses to governments — looking out for each other, acting out the iron law of institutions. I don’t know how to fight it except by calling it out. And please call me out when I succumb to it, which I almost certainly will. This has always been with us. But the gooey self-congratulation among people who hold high bureaucratic positions — public and private — at a time of putrid performance seems newer.
We need institutions. The alternative is anarchy. But we also need to understand that class warfare is real. It’s not a battle between rich and poor. It’s between “leaders” and the producers they claim to lead.
Update: Small edit needed due to Editor’s error.