Swear, memory.

The new edition of Poynter Report is online. My copy arrived a couple weeks ago, and seeing the online link reminded me how the smoke curled out my ears when I read this, by Skip Foster:

Jill Geisler, Leadership & Management group leader at Poynter, did something shocking a couple of years back.

She wrote a column for Poynter Online lamenting the amount of profanity used in newsrooms.

People lashed out at Geisler in their website feedback, filling their responses with profanity of the worst kind. Letter writers gratuitously laced their responses with profane and vulgar language, as if it were a badge of honor. Few rose in support of her position. It was frightening.

Hmm. I remember that column, and I remember a different sort of response. Yes, some of the commenters “laced their responses with profane and vulgar language” in response to Geisler’s kindergarten-teacher scolding, but the gist was more along the lines of, Newsroom budgets are being slashed, editors spend more time in meetings than at their desks, news hole is shrinking. And you think, in a climate like this, that we should worry about cussing in the newsroom? Get a fucking clue, lady.

Or words to that effect.

Foster continued: Those who responded make up a significant faction of people who work at our newspapers. They are answering the phones, dealing with the public, and serving in a variety of positions. They are a component of a newsroom culture that apparently values profanity, meanness, and hate over civility, composure, and caring.

Apparently? Or it could be that we value plain speaking, honesty and traditional newsroom values over yet another head-scratching staff meeting over what our 21st century mission statement should be; or maybe we remember when raises amounted to something and employees were not told they’re now part of a “performance-based” workplace culture (no raise for you!). Or maybe we think, crazily enough, that newspapers ought to cover their state legislatures, and when we don’t, we feel like swearing.

Just a thought.

The idea that Foster thinks the same person who uses a bad word to describe Geisler’s dumb column cannot be trusted to answer the phone without saying, “What the hell do you want?” speaks volumes about why reporters think editors are clueless and out of touch.

One view: Somehow, our crucial watchdog role has morphed from healthy skepticism of the powerful into a dark force � an ugly brew of anger, mean-spiritedness, and antagonism that alienates readers and turns newsrooms into personality war zones. We have lurched from the honorable mission of holding the powerful accountable to a wholesale mistrust of anything that moves, even our colleagues. That attitude of mistrust and a disconnect from the newsroom and community is reflected in this “defense of profanity.”

Oh, for God’s sake.

You can read the rest of it — at the bottom of it all, he’s onto something, although I don’t think he knows how to fix it, because it seems to boil down to more meetings and team-building exercises — or you can turn the page.

I know what I’d do.

Posted at 9:08 am in Uncategorized |

7 responses to “Swear, memory.”

  1. Lex said on December 4, 2003 at 2:13 pm

    Jill Geisler once gave me tons of free, helpful advice at a time when I badly needed it and couldn’t get it anywhere else, so I won’t ever speak ill of her. I went back and re-read the column in question, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to characterize it as “dumb,” or even “kindergarten-teacher scolding,” I agree with you that newsroom cussing is [ahem] perhaps not the highest managerial priority in a properly ordered agenda these days.

    Skip Foster’s column, however, really is dumb, filled with logical disconnects and the kind of skepticism about skepticism that drives some of the best journalists right the hell out of the business. After reading the first few grafs, I had to force myself to read the rest of the piece to seek whatever wisdom you had hinted might lie there. Anyone who thinks that someone who cusses in a newsroom will automatically cuss on the phone with a customer is not going to be the first, or the tenth, source to whom I turn for suggestions on improving a newspaper.

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  2. Nance said on December 4, 2003 at 4:02 pm

    You found the Geisler column. I Googled until my fingers were sore, and couldn’t turn it up.


    As I recall, when that column came out it was as though someone had complained that the waiters on the Titanic were wearing morning coats to an evening sinking. I mean, given the tradition of cursing in the newsroom, unless an employee is using it in earshot of readers, or using it to abuse a fellow employee, is it really that much of a problem? Newsrooms are salty places; one can always choose a PR agency for a workplace free of f-bombs.

    But if you say Jill Geisler is OK, then I’ll take your word for it.

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  3. KCK said on December 4, 2003 at 8:09 pm

    Is this the one you’re looking for?


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  4. Lex said on December 4, 2003 at 9:15 pm

    Actually? Before newspapers I was in PR, and it’s not much better, salt-wise. Not in New York, anyway.

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  5. basset said on December 4, 2003 at 9:41 pm

    To: Newsroom staff

    From: The corner office

    Subject: Newsroom language

    Our recent management retreat included a panel discussion and team-building exercises which will leverage our competitive position throughout the greater tri-state SMSA as we continue into the 21st-Century marketplace.

    Possibly the most relevant and powerful personal interface conducted during actual scheduled working hours was presented by this newspaper’s legal consultants. “Newsroom Spontaneity: Threat or Menace?” sensitized key leadership personnel to our publication’s potential insensitivity to the needs and specific challenges of a small but valuable community within our organization.

    As a direct result of this invaluable enlightenment, and in accordance with Section 2(a)(1) of the Mission Statement for the Print Division of the Multimedia Agglomeration of the Corporate Entity(“COMFORT THE AFFLICTED key demographics in conjunction with the Marketing, Promotion, Circulation and Research departments AND the Journalism Prize Application Committee, AFFLICT no one and particularly not THE COMFORTABLE doughnut counties and high-SES suburban circulation sectors,”) your Leadership Team has submitted the following draft policy realignment to the public-engagement subcommittee of the Board of Directors’ community-relations task force:

    “Bad language is pretty much the only vestige of real newspapering that we have left in this plastic, over-researched world. And if the suits don’t like it, fuck ’em.”

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  6. Nance said on December 4, 2003 at 10:58 pm

    Yep, KCK, that’s it. I’m a lousy searcher, I guess. I’ll add the link.

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  7. KCK said on December 5, 2003 at 6:26 pm

    copied and pasted (hope the formating isn’t too messed up) from an email I got at work a few days ago


    1. Before (or during) your next meeting, seminar, or conference call, prepare yourself by drawing a square. 5″x 5″ is a good size.

    Divide the card into columns, five across and five down. That will give you 25 one-inch blocks.

    2. Write one of the following words/phrases in each block:

    * synergy

    * strategic fit

    * core competencies

    * best practice

    * bottom line

    * revisit

    * take that off-line

    * 24/7

    * out of the loop

    * benchmark

    * value-added

    * pro-active

    * win-win

    * think outside the box

    * fast track

    * result-driven

    * empower (or empowerment)

    * knowledge base

    * at the end of the day

    * touch base

    * mind-set

    * client focus(ed)

    * paradigm

    * game plan

    * leverage

    and last but not least


    3. Check off the appropriate block when you hear one of those words/phrases.

    4. When you get five blocks horizontally, vertically, or diagonally, stand up and shout, “BULLSHIT!”

    Testimonials from satisfied “BullShit Bingo” players:

    “I had been in the meeting for only five minutes when I won.”

    “My attention span at meetings has improved dramatically.”

    “The atmosphere was tense in the last process meeting as 14 of us waited for the fifth box.”

    “The speaker was stunned as eight of us screamed ‘BULLSHIT!’ for the third time in two hours.”

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