Bloomberg News staffers no longer have the market on fear and loathing cornered: Informants tell us that high-stakes monitoring of reporters' performance has poisoned the atmosphere at Reuters and the Associated Press business desk, too.
On Wednesday we reported on how Bloomberg's neo-Soviet method of tracking scoop production, "Breaking News Points," led to perverse outcomes like the obvious misrepresentation of some stories as exclusives and waning enthusiasm for enterprise journalism. On top of all that, we were told the system exacerbated a newsroom culture of paranoia and fear.
Almost immediately, we began hearing from business journalists about similar problems at Reuters and AP Business.
Our AP source says a majority of the staff — 90 percent, this person claims — are about to send a jointly-signed letter to Business Editor Hal Ritter accusing him of "installing a culture of fear." Chief among their complaints: An annual review process "in which the entire staff is slammed." Why would the news cooperative's management want to demoralize staff like that? One theory is that the negative reviews would allow the newswire to cut more staff loose without having to pay severance.
Then there's Reuters, and its "Beats and Exclusives" scoop-tracking system — "the bastard twin to the one at Bloomberg," as one source described it, in which the act of breaking news first is recorded via written "notes."
The "Beats and Exclusives" system wasn't a very big deal until this year, when for the first time it will be used as the basis for pay, says our source, following an impasse in negotiations between Reuters and a union to which its journalists belong. Now "reporters who don't file the requisite number of beats and exclusives will take it in the paycheck, so to speak."
It's not clear how widely within the global Reuters newsgathering organization this change will spread, but our source indicated the new connection between pay and "Beats and Exclusives" notes is the reason New York Equities Editor Martin Howell this week implored staff to file fewer such records of scoops. You can read his internal memo here; it was first printed by Talking Business News. Dig the part where he says Reuters reporters should write more about Reuters clients.
The abuse we're told is rampant under the Reuters "Beats and Exclusives" system should only get worse now that money is involved. Our source:
The people who actually file ["Beats and Exclusives" notes] tend to shamelessly game the system by trying to get credit for non-news that no other outlet had or cared about or for "exclusive" executive interviews that broke zero ground. I can't imagine what's going to happen now, when jobs and pay are on the line.
Of course, the fact that so much is on the line is, from a management standpoint, the precise reason for the system, as well as for the fearsome annual review at AP Business and for the Breaking News Points system at Bloomberg. The financial wires are being battered by several disasters at once: The implosion of financial services; the meltdown in the traditional news media; and a broad economic recession.
This is the maelstrom that has AP lashing out at Google, that has seen Reuters spike a perfectly good investigation into one its investors and that led Bloomberg to kill a coverage expansion that was the pet project of its editor-in-chief. Executives are scared, and when executives get scared editors get scared. Said editors are now so frightened that they are positively racing, it would seem, to ape Bloomberg's longstanding culture of near-psychotic paranoia — racing everywhere but at at Bloomberg, where they are scrambling to become even more Stalinist than they already were.
The trouble with panic is that it actually makes a person (or, ahem, organization) less able to tackle challenging situations. Which helps explain why these scoop-measuring systems are now significantly inhibiting the very thing they're supposed to be monitoring, by sapping time and energy from working journalists. Hence Howell's memo to chill out with the scoop "notes," and hence the plan we've been told Bloomberg has to tweak its Breaking News Points system again in 2010.
Here's a better idea for finance wire managers: Take the money earmarked for performance monitoring overhauls and rewarding Breaking Exclusive Scoop Beat Things and plow it into several dozen rounds of beers, and maybe some hot cocoa and rice krispy treats or whatever, spread out over the course of the year. Then when the time comes to let people go, as it probably will, do the sort of agonizing you knew deep down you'd have to do at layoff time even after you started pretending you could judge everyone using statistics. You'll probably still feel terrible, but your (more) relaxed and brave reporters will have created an atmosphere where it's much easier to hire people back when the rebound comes, and where it's more likely you'll still have lots of readers — err, clients — still paying for your content.
Or just keep doing what you're doing and hope (in vain) your staff doesn't blow off steam by sending their horror stories and rants to firstname.lastname@example.org . It's cool either way, as far as we're concerned.