Sunday, April 28, 2013

Prophets, by definition, are ahead of their time

Recently I had reason to think about Phil McLeod. He was one of the editor-in-chiefs at The London Free Press while I worked there. McLeod is famous, or infamous depending upon whom you talk to, for the cluster system that was put in place in the newsroom about two decades ago.

On a personal level, I liked Phil and so did my wife. She met Phil at a Free Press event and found him to be a pleasant fellow, very congenial. A man who knew how to put one at ease in a social setting. He seemed to be a "nice guy" with a "nice smile," my wife said. She found him warm.

Her observations fly in the face of some of the stuff that one can find on the Net. The quotes on the Net are from staff who worked with Phil during the redesign period and these remarks are often harsh.

It is interesting to look back on the cluster experiment and the extreme reaction it elicited in the newsroom. As I recall, I could check as I still have a lot of my cluster instructions in a box in my basement, Phil wanted us all to tackle more stuff. To expand our interests and break out of the traditional mold that we each found ourselves in. He wanted us to get creative.

The following is from a journalism article in a 1994 Ryerson publication:

The bold experiment that the article described was the cluster system, a radically different approach to the way stories are developed, reported, and presented. In the conventional newsroom one assignment editor directs 40 or so reporters. By contrast, under the cluster system, editorial employees belong to one of a half-dozen or so small groups, each of which generates stories under broad themes: "work/wealth," for example, or "applause." The theory is that working collaboratively leads to better story ideas and better stories. In the case of the Free Press, there were other goals too: according to Mcleod, these were a happier, more flexible staff and a "more responsive, attractive, and useful paper."

It should have been a huge break with the traditional newsroom of the past. It wasn't. Almost everyone dug in their heels: reporters, editors and photographers. The cluster system limped along at first, then slowly ground to a halt — stymied by the resistance of the newsroom staff and others. In the end, the cluster system only existed on paper. The truth is the cluster system was never given a fair trial.

At least, it failed to get a fair trial then. Now, it may be different. You see, after two decades of cutbacks, layoffs and buyouts, the newspaper newsroom is running awfully thin. I have heard from reporters who tell me that they come into work and are asked to write an editorial as the editorial department of old is gone. Then they are asked to cover a story and file both written copy for tomorrow's paper and a short stand-up report for an online video. The reporter may also be asked to supply the photo that accompanies their story in the paper and online. Oh for the days of the cluster and not today's almost one-man-band.

The Ryerson article mentioned earlier also quoted Phil McLeod as saying that the new system was providing "flashes of what tomorrow might look like." You know, he was right. And in retrospect the cluster system looks awfully good.

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