Re Globe’s supposed “no-sacred-cows” reinvention, regretably reinvention is not disruption

sacred cow

The Globe is laying the groundwork for “a no-sacred-cows analysis” of its newsroom and print business, according to a new memo from editor Brian McGrory. The Globe’s “reinvention initiative” will explore how the Globe can rethink both its internal production processes (“Is our beat structure outdated?”) to bigger questions about its print operations (“Should we publish seven days a week? Do print and digital relate in the right ways?”).

Read the full piece at Nieman Journalism Lab

Unfortunately, the questions being asked by the Boston Globe’s editor betray that actually there are some sacred cows.

“Are we doing print right” and “Are our beats set up right” imply a goal of finding some sort of adjustment of those and other apparently still-valued aspects of the current operation. They do not imply a willingness to consider the more fundamental questions of, for instance, whether print and beats, or in fact any classic-style news products and news workers, serve to accomplish the organization’s core news purpose in the changed media ecosystem.

I’m reminded of a management approach called zero-based budgeting that reach its height of popularity back in the 1970s. It required managers to plan their new year’s budget as if starting their departments from scratch, justifying every dollar of planned expenditure starting from zero rather than just adjusting the previous year’s spending up or down some.

The advantages of zero-based budgeting were measurable and compelling in terms of efficient resource and fiscal management.

But more significantly, for those organizations and businesses that really did it right by thoroughly evaluating not only what they do and how they do it, but also why they do it, zero-based budgeting had an almost miraculously rejuvenating effect on a company. Organizational focus was razor-sharpened, innovation was kick-started, communication and coordination were increased, decision-making was streamlined and staff commitment and motivation reached new peaks.

That all derived from the fact that the process did really eschewed sacred cows rather than just giving lip service to the idea.

However, in those pre-personal-computer, pre-digital-spreadsheet, pre-Internet, pre-cloud days, zero-based budgeting quickly fell out of favor because of the tremendous amount of information it required be generated and regenerated every year. Managing all that data quickly became so expensive that the process was counterproductive as an exercise in fiscal efficiency.

At least that’s what was said when zero-based budgeting was shut down in favor of more traditional approaches that, as a byproduct, did not so thoroughly challenge the organization’s basic assumptions and sacred cows.

Interestingly, a recent article from The New York Times indicates zero-based budgeting and the mindset that goes with it might be coming back, at least in some companies.

Just not so much at traditional mainstream media companies.