Saying Goodbye To HBO's The Newsroom

Synopsis: The Newsroom, an American television political drama series, finished its last and third run on Home Box Office (HBO) last year. Created by Aaron Sorkin, The Newsroom is a behind-the-scenes look at the people who make the nightly cable-news program, News Night, at the fictional Atlantis Cable News (ACN) channel. It focuses on the network anchor Will McAvoy, his new executive producer and former girlfriend, MacKenzie McHale, the newsroom staff – James Harper (Jim), Margaret Jordan (Maggie), Don Keefer, Sloan Sabbith, Neelamani Sampat (Neal) –, and Charlie Skinner, Atlantis Cable News (ACN) president. Will anchors News Night which is the flagship news program of ACN. It runs every night at 8 to 9 p.m. The series tracks their idealistic mission to do the news well, in the face of corporate and commercial obstacles and their own personal entanglements.

Cast's characters: Jim is a senior producer who followed Mackenzie to News Night. Maggie is an associate producer of News Night. Don is the former News Night '​s executive producer who leaves for the new program on the network, Right Now with Elliot Hirsch. Sloan, a double PhD economist, is the network's financial news reporter. Neal is the team online reporter. Neal writes Will’s blog, updates the network’s Twitter accounts and scours the internet for news leads. The demographics of the team are as follows. The team is almost evenly split gender wise. Everyone on the team is American. However, Neal is of Indian descendent. MacKenzie has British parents. She was born while her father was Margaret Thatcher’s ambassador to the United States. Will is persistent, organized, calm, self-confident, reserved, and practical. MacKenzie is secure, warm, sociable and cultured. Don is hardworking, self-confident, cold, assertive and practical. Sloan is hardworking, self-confident, warm, gregarious, curious and cultured. Jim is hardworking, anxious, self-confident, cold, assertive and practical. Maggie is hard working, emotional, depressed and cooperative. While, Neal is calm, dependable, cooperative, quiet, and creative.

Analysis: The goals of the team are to tell worthy news stories at 10 p.m., to enhance and simplify late night news for audience, to keep the audience, to be one of the top three highest rated prime-time news segments, to get sources who would reach out to the team about worthy breaking news and to have qualified guest on air. Another implicit goal is to remain on the air, survive as a news agency.

The organizational values are clear, timely and accurate communications with viewers, cooperation among the employees, accountability, continuous improvement, loyalty, respect for individuals, and service to society.

Most of the employees are confident of their ability to do their jobs. Will, MacKenzie, Jim and Don are confident in their ability to do their job. Jim and Don may even be said to be overconfident. Sloan is confident on her ability as an economist but may question her capacity in any other scenario – like hosting the morning food segment. But, she overcomes such questions quickly. So, it does not really affect her work. Neal is confident in his ability to do his job. Since he is the only web friendly journalist on the team, he often has to defend his sources and the mode of getting such source. Maggie, on the other hand, struggles with her ability to do her job, especially after her trip to Uganda and the ensuing trauma that followed. However, she has since pulled herself out of her low self-efficacy.

As with any organization, feelings and interpersonal emotions exist in the ACN’s newsroom. In the first episode, Will finds out that his ex-girlfriend who he broke up with because she cheated on him was hired to become his new executive producer. Both of them spent the whole first year tiptoeing around each other, which affected the rest of the team. Maggie dated and broke up with Don and has feelings for Jim, both of whom she still works with.

The team is always on clockwork to find news leads, report them and keep their rating. Each of them has to meet the deadline and McKenzie’s proposed three "I"s. The three I’s are “is this information we need in the voting booth,” “is this the best possible form of the argument” and “is the story in historical context?” The team members often have to make constructive suggestions, as they have to pitch news ideas in their daily team meeting where they put together what stories to do on the News Night. They use each other as sounding boards and gatekeepers. They also help each other. Like when another employee tweeted on behalf of Neal when she realized he had not been able to tweet all day. Or when Will, realizing Neal was in serious danger of being arrested by the FBI and charged under the espionage act, gave him a head start to running away so that Neal can protect his source.

All the employees at News Night have high job satisfaction. They all feel proud about the fact that they are making real news, not letting ratings but rather the audience’s need to know determine which stories they tell. They all love their job and feel motivated to do them. For example, Sloan could be making more money as an analyst at Goldman, but she would rather stay at ACN and work as an economist. Money is obviously not a motivation. Their high job satisfaction and ability contributes to their organizational commitment. ACN is obviously a strong setting environment. The employees understand what their tasks are and do them. Each employee brings something unique to the team which prevents job overlapping. Absenteeism is not an issue here. All the employees show up to work. In fact, it can be argued that they all live there as they are often working late night. The only turn over the station has had was when Don took Will’s former staff to the new segment that comes after Will’s segment. It can be argued that it is not a turn over. But rather a reassignment, since the employees do not leave the company.

There are no extrinsic rewards or incentives at ACN. There has not been any promotion in three years, except Maggie’ bump from secretary to assistant producer. But, this was not a reward for a task but rather an attribute possessed. It was just because Maggie stayed while everyone left Will’s service. MacKenzie promoted Maggie for her loyalty to Will, but more because she needed to start rebuilding the team and the position was available. There are no punishments either.

Like most American organizations, the News Night team has a culture of high power distance – power is concentrated at the top, individualism, and short term orientation. The senior executives make more money than the rest. Will makes an undisclosed amount of millions ever year. He can afford to give the station back $3 million dollars so he can fire Mackenzie every week. But, the other journalists, like Maggie and Neal, make somewhere around $49,000. The team has a strong concern for creating the absolute truth. They are normative in their thinking. They exhibit great respect for traditions, a relatively small propensity to think about how their action affects the future and a focus on achieving present results. There is also a work hard, no play culture. There is also a visible hierarchical reporting lines with the employees from the freelance journalist to the president of the station and its owners.

News Night’s culture of working hard to the detriment of personal lives obviously is not good. Since the team members spend majority of their days at work, its high number of work relationships is not surprising. Will and MacKenzie made up and are planning to get married. Maggie and Don were together. They broke up.. Jim is now dating another journalist who worked for News Night till she got fired over a tweet. He was dating her before she got fired. Don and Sloan are now dating. There is a reason why inter-department and work relationships are forbidden in most organizations. Someone is bound to get hurt and the person’s work may be affected by such loss, especially when they have to work alongside their ex as they heal. One of the reasons Maggie left for Uganda seeps from her need to get away from Jim after a series of humiliation that results from her desire to be in a relationship with him and her need to prove to him, herself, and anybody else that she is a capable journalist. Her trip to Uganda turned out to be a disaster. As a result, it turned an okay employee with issues to an insecure undependable employee with lots of issues. It took a while before Maggie could be trusted to produce a story again. It is interesting that it took the company three years before it hired a new HR head who understands that inter-work relationships could be a problem and should be discouraged.

To me, while a human resources manager’s nightmare, the feelings in the organization is not overt or detrimental. The only time emotions got in the way of job performance was with Maggie’s breakdown after her ordeal in Uganda. She cuts her hair and dyes it, resembling a gothic. Her self-efficacy also went down.

Harper and Don Keefer’s overconfidence may have to do with the fact that they are both senior producers and have been for a while. Their overconfidence often results into competition with each other and insensitivity to other people emotion and ability. They both have the tendency to be rude. But, this could also be due to performance pressure to put out the best production which leads to stress. Stress often makes people irritable and rude.

The lack of punishment system may be the reason the team keeps committing blunders after another. Only two people have been fired from the organization. Although, the first person fired, the one who caused the Genoa incident, did sue for wrongful termination. But, after Genoa, Will, Charlie and MacKenzie tried to nobly resign but the owner, Leona Lansing, refused their resignations. An organization that only has immediate firing and no employment evaluation as its only punishment would have legal issues such as wrongful termination as employees can show that there was no prior warning. Since the employees are not punished for their actions but rather expected to understand the gravity of such actions and do it no more, they are too complicit and secured about their job to actually extra verify sources, slides and stories to ensure they do not repeat their transgressions. In short, they never learn!

But, one cannot help but argue that the team’s heart is in the right place. There something welcoming idealistic about MacKenzie and later Will’s push for quality journalism. Mackenzie’s words, "there is nothing more important in a democracy than a well-informed electorate. When there is no information or, much worse, wrong information, it can lead to calamitous decisions that clobber any attempts at vigorous debate," pull at you and you cannot help but cheer for the team and want it to succeed. Which the audience also must have seen when they gave the segment a second chance and helped it reach high ratings in the first season.

But how much loyalty can one expect from viewer? The team is always battling one disaster or blunder after the other. First, it had to regroup and start over again after the backlash which occurred after Will’s epic rant about America not being the best country in world during a panel at Northwestern University, insulting the young woman who asked the question and the rest of his colleagues on the panel in the process. The team survived. Still, the team suffered repeated incidents of broadcast blunders like airing a broadcast accusing the American military of killing Pakistani civilians with sarin nerve gas which later turned out to be false, having three unqualified guests, including an Oklahoma pageant contestant, talk on live TV about the immigration bill in Arizona, adding the Sarah Palin clip to the lineup, etc. Now, it is doing a tip toe dance with the FBI in the latter’s quest to find the U.S. Department of Defense whistle-blower who sent Neal thousands of classified documents and prosecute Neal for soliciting and helping the source transfer those files on secured servers. Without a doubt, goal wise, the team struggles. When you compound that recently News Night has fallen to the fourth place on the top news segment list, it does not look good. The team is definitely not meeting its goals.

Recommendation for ACN/News Night: 
First, ACN/News Night needs to learn to vet stories more. This will help it build back its reputation, retain it and avoid stigmatization. If it has a lengthy vetting policy in place, it would have prevented or nicked early the many on-air story blunders that it has made and currently is making. The infamous Genoa story did a large number on the station’s credibility and rating. Genoa happened because an employee manipulated and edited some really high ranking military official’s audio files for personal vendetta. You would think the team would learn from the past that evidence can be manipulated. But, while it is currently embroiled in a first amendment versus espionage act battle with the FBI and embargoing the story, it still has not vetted Neal’s source’s story yet. Yes, the FBI came into the show after Neal called it in and the source walked up to Mackenzie to give an ultimatum for running the story. But the team still has not found out if the particular story they want to run is true. The team has over 27,000 documents from the source. The FBI knows it. All the FBI seeks to do is ensue that information which would get the spies unearthed and killed is not released. Nobody at ACN/News Night has questioned the veracity of the information. At this point, it seems that the team has taken for granted the story as real. The whole company, even the legal department, seems concerned with ensuring Neal and Will do not get prosecuted and break the journalistic code of protecting one’s source, instead of working to ascertain that the story does not become another Genoa.

ACN/News Night need to work on its incentives and punishments. It also needs to figure which of its employees respond to rewards and which responds to fear. While I understand that the idea of incentives for a workplace that is not sales driven might seem hard, it will go a long way in helping ACN/News Night attain its goals. First, mistakes caused by individuals need to be tallied and whoever does not make any gaffe needs to be rewarded. This will motivate other employees to reduce the number of their mistakes. Rewards can be cash rewards, paid time off, flexible scheduling, annual cruise for staffers who reached the station’s predefined goal(s), etc. And, like how rewards should not be only about monetary values, punishment should not be only about getting fired. Punishment can include suspension without pay, verbal warnings, written reprimand, reassignment, loss of privilege, performance improvement plans, probation, etc. It would not hurt ACN/News Night to have other polices such as disciplinary policies, performance management, appraisal policy, work hours and turnaround time, rewards, benefits and expenses, and whistleblowing or protected disclosures, etc. in place.

In relation to the above, ACN/News Night needs to constantly evaluates its employees. This would point out to both management and the employee the said employee’s strengths and weaknesses, especially areas that need to be approved. Written reprimands can be discussed and an action plan for improvement can be constructed. It is important that ACN/News Night gives specific feedback. It is important that ACN/News Night management communicates to employees exactly why they merit reward or punishment, as well as give specific preferred alternative behaviors in the case of punishments.

The team’s high power distance and individualistic culture does not need much changing in my opinion. It is a corporate world. It pretty much is expected, and thought to breed higher productivity due to motivation to climb. Besides, the team is quite close knit that they do not consider it nor does it bother them. However, the short term goal orientation needs to be changed. ACN/News Night needs to set goal, both short term and long term oriented, and share it with its employees. Such goals need to be engrained in its employees’ minds. When managers or leaders of organizations do not set goals, they begin to live day by day. This means they would seem unfocused and will be rattled out by every tossing wind that comes the organization’s way. It never ceases to amaze me how much organization take goal setting for granted or assume that their employees know and understand the organization’s goals.

Recommendation for Organizations in General: Every organization needs to talk into consideration the recommendations listed above, especially having a reward and punishment system. It cannot be overemphasized that money or salary should not be used as the only motivation. Studies have shown that money has little to no impact on job motivation, satisfaction and performances as it is an expected variable. Take for example unpaid internships. They are a lot of them and lot of applicants. The lack of money does not affect job performance. Only ability and resources would affect performance, even in this scenario. However should employees find out that they have been underpaid, it may result in employees feeling undervalued which will affect their self-efficacy and feelings which could affect their performance. In short, money will make employees show up for work but it would not drive how productive they are after that. Organization must also make sure that they reward employees for performance and task completion desired.

Mangers must control employees, and ensure services, products are delivered and goals met. Regular reports should be made. Also, managers should ensure they have frequent meetings with the employees. This would allow the flow of communication to be present and circulating. Paperwork helps with accountability and protects the organization in every situation, especially in legal suits. However, managers should ensure they do not hold too much control over employees and processes. It should not extend its accountability and control system into employee surveillance. Managers do not have to be overarching, peering over the employees’ shoulders. Nor should there be daily evaluation of performance. Employees should feel like management trust them and they should be able to exercise their self-efficacy. Otherwise, their self-esteem would be affected which would affect job performance, the exact opposite result managers set out to achieve. Balance is the key.

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