TCS Daily

More Horizontal Knowledge

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - June 9, 2003 12:00 AM

Well, the Editor and Managing Editor of The New York Times have resigned under fire, and a lot of people are saying that the Internet had a lot to do with it. As I wrote last week, the spread of horizontal knowledge is discomfiting big organizations that have depended on vertical organization.

In the old days, if you didn't like what you read in the newspaper, you could either complain to your neighbors, or send a letter to the editor that - maybe - would be published days or weeks later, when everyone had forgotten the story you were complaining about. And if you worked at a newspaper, you couldn't even do that. Newspapers aren't very enthusiastic about publishing letters from unhappy employees.

For the Times, though, it became painfully obvious how that old system has broken down. From the outside, bloggers like Andrew Sullivan and Mickey Kaus, along with specialty sites like TimesWatch, kept up constant pressure. Every distortion and misrepresentation (and there were plenty, of course) was picked up and noted. The result was a steady diminution of the Times' prestige among the opinion-making classes, something that opened it up for criticism in a way that it once didn't have to face because of the quasi-mystical awe in which many journalists have traditionally held it. (And no, that's not an exaggeration.)

Meanwhile, the Internet also opened things up from the inside. Unhappy Times staffers in previous years could have grumbled to their colleagues at other papers, but such grumbling would have been largely futile. Now, on the other hand, thanks to email and websites such as Jim Romenesko's (and quite a few blogs that got leaked information), they could grumble to a major audience. They could also engage in that most devastating of insider activities, the leaking of sanctimonious and dumb internal memos from the bosses. (Note to bosses: If you distribute your dumb and sanctimonious memos on paper instead of via email, you'll face less of that because people can't just hit "forward" and send them on. Of course, another approach might be to write memos that aren't dumb and sanctimonious...)

Nick Denton, however, warns that there's a downside to this, what he calls "organizational terrorism" via Internet, a sort of asymmetrical warfare that's not necessarily a good thing:

Let's face it: most people are disaffected. They're paid too little, promoted too slowly, passed over, humiliated. They haven't realized their dreams, and they blame everyone around them, and above them in particular. Apart from conservative opportunists, who wanted Raines out of the Times? Duh. The old farts who'd lost out to him in the power struggle, the pedestrian reporters who resented the paper's cult of soaring writing, and those whose metabolisms would never achieve the speed Raines wanted.

He'd lost the confidence of the newsroom? As if the happiness of the workers is far more important than the satisfaction of the readers. Give me a break. Raines, sometimes crassly, was trying to institute change; the organizational reactionaries didn't like it. In a previous era, a manager would have been able to execute the ringleaders, and ride out the discontent. But Raines was up against a powerful combination of old labor unionism, and the new industrial action: a leak to a weblog, tittle-tattle over the IM, whispered conversations to Howard Kurtz.

The Times is obviously a special case, of particular interest to the media, and to the libertarians who dominate web political commentary. But any technology company, one that has dealt with the bulletin boards of Fucked Company, knows what Raines was up against. Asymmetric warfare has come to the workplace: managers may sometimes have the power to hire and fire, but the peasants have the internet now.

Is that a good thing? I'm not sure. I can imagine large organizations - all large organizations - becoming more conservative, so concerned to maintain a happy workplace that they avoid change. For smaller organizations, in the media and other sectors, this may be an opportunity.

Nick is right to warn about this possibility. Things will be different, and already are. Even in the military, email and chatrooms are flattening hierarchies and changing power dynamics. On the other hand, what the Internet peasantry hates most is not just power, but bogosity. Raines was disliked as much because he played favorites (and it was seen as a favoritism not based on performance) as because he was dictatorial: tough, but unfair. And - just as students resent a professor who won't shut up their over-talkative peers more than they resent one who will - employees don't necessarily resent managers who run a taut ship, so long as they feel that merit is being rewarded over sucking up.

So it may be that managers who do a good job have less to fear - and that it will be in the interest of the people who ultimately run many large organizations, like Boards of Directors, to pay closer attention to the performance of managers, and to what the employee samizdat is saying about them. That's one way in which horizontal knowledge could work to improve organizations, not sabotage them as Nick Denton suggests.

On a smaller scale, the new Times editors may want to look at putting horizontal knowledge to work for them in another way. As I've suggested in more detail here, it would be child's play to take RSS feeds from a number of weblogs, filter them to extract the references to stories in the Times, and then have an ombudsman look at those references to see if correction, amplification, or investigation is called for. A newspaper that did that (and it could just as easily be done by any major paper, not just the Times) would be enlisting a huge (and unpaid!) army of fact-checkers, and could fix mistakes within hours of their appearing, thus turning inside its competition and enhancing its reputation, all at very low cost.

Will it happen? That depends on whether Big Media folks want to ride the wave of horizontal knowledge - or just try to keep their heads above water.

TCS Daily Archives