Home > Uncategorized > Breaking the Human Chains

Breaking the Human Chains

-first posted at RTDNA.org on December 8, 2009

I just spent the past weekend in Los Angeles helping judge the southern California RTNA’s Golden Mike awards.  The folks from RTNA were great hosts and I really enjoyed watching the work from all the talented folks in Los Angeles and the surrounding markets.  But what I didn’t enjoy was getting there.  Thanks to my RTDNA chairmanship, 2009 has been a very busy travel year for me.  And that has meant a lot more time in airports and on interstate highways.  And that’s where I’m running into my problems.

What I’ve noticed, whether flying or driving, is the growing occurrence of what I like the call “human chains.”  The phrase began back in college, coined to acknowledge a phenomenon my brother and I were noticing on campus.  It seemed that, especially when we were in Middlebush Hall (where most of the business classes met at the time), that we would run into groups of students strung out across hallways and other access areas.  They were talking or smoking (remember, people could smoke basically anywhere in the 70s) or whatever, but they were also completely blocking passage to anyone trying to get through.  The phenomenon was confined mostly to Middlebush and business students, so I attributed it at the time to the rudeness or stupidity of students in that particular major.  I used to assume the former, but the events on Wall Street and in major companies over the past 18 months or so now have me preferring the latter—the people running things now are all from my time in college.  But I digress.

Getting back to the travel problems, I’m seeing the human chains manifest themselves more and more.  You’ve seen them by now—that long string of people looking confused and blocking the entire airport hallway.  Or that series of cars driving slowly in what I was raised to call the “passing” lane on the interstate.  With both of these groups, there’s no passing possible.  You end up trying to thread the needle with your suitcase or your car, hoping to slip through the tightest of spots and get back to a normal speed.  These folks are REALLY frustrating.  And the more of them you run into the more you want to just barrel through them.  But I was raised to be a polite guy, so I try to pardon my way through—with my voice or my turn signal—hoping they’ll get the sometimes too-subtle clue and move out of everyone’s way.

The end result of the human chains is that they hold everyone back and keep things from flowing forward smoothly.  Airport gates back up, keeping arriving passengers from getting out of the airport and to their ultimate destinations.  On the highway, traffic backs up and everyone gets where they’re going later than they should.

I bring up this problem with two goals in mind.  First, while I doubt any of the astute readers of RTDNA.org are particular problems in airports or on the highway, perhaps you can help me spread the word to educate these dullards to get out of the way.  But more than that, I couldn’t help but see the similarities these blockades have to the problems some of us have in our newsrooms right now.  You see, the changes newsroom are experiencing now are like the flow of traffic through an airport or along a highway.  I don’t mean the literal flow of people in the newsroom.  I mean the changes we’re making to improve and modernize the way we do things are a fast-paced trip forward in the evolution of news.  And as the smart news managers work to navigate their teams on this trip into the future, they’re running into human chains along the way.  The chains are made up of those people who don’t want to break news on the web, those people who think social media are a fad, and those people who won’t adapt to new delivery technology like Skype or Slingbox.  The human chains exist among reporters, photographers, engineers, or any other group of people unwilling to make a change.

The key to breaking the chains has to be education—forcefully so in the case of the most pigheaded links in the chains.  But how to send those messages?  In the airport, it’s a loud “pardon me.”  On the highway, it’s the flash of your headlights or a blast on the horn.  But the newsroom doesn’t have simple answers like those for its lingering link problem.  Each chain has to be addressed differently, with the right approach for the kind of chain it is.  The rusty old reporter chain needs its own sort of attention.  Managers can spend time with that group trying to build back in the old feeling of victory for breaking a story on air, transferring that same thrill to breaking it first on the web.  Photographers annoyed by ever-smaller cameras (and their unquestionable drop in picture quality) can be won over by the convenience factor of always having an HD camera in their pocket, eady to catch news 24/7.  And engineers—always suckers for new technology—just need a Slingbox to take apart and put together to see how it works.  They’ll come on board.

I’m hopping on a plane again today.  And I’m hoping my trip won’t be delayed by any annoying human chains along the way.  But I’m ready.  I’m hitting the road prepared to deal with them when I encounter them.  And when I return to my newsroom next week, I’m ready to face the chains here, too.

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