John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to jemcintyre@gmail.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The patron and the protege

Three summers ago I published on the original You Don’t Say blog jocular taxonomies of copy editors and writers. This summer, after discussions with colleagues about the tendency of newspapers to retain unreliable employees, reflection led me to conclude that there are two protected classes in newsrooms: stars and incompetents.

Stars enjoys a status that lesser writers aspire to: freedom to pursue individual projects rather than carry out assignments, indulgence to prolong those projects indefinitely and to write at a length that some describe as “goat-chokers,” and — this above all — immunity from editing and the annoying questions and meddling that come with it.

Stars exist because they have patrons. Sometimes the patron is as exalted as the editor or managing editor, but often a patron is one of the lesser potentates on the assigning desks.* The patron is easy to spot, not only in close consultation with the writer on stories, but also in the casual exchanges of the day. Other employees are quick to spot which employees are invited to engage in banal chitchat with the bosses and which employees are generally ignored.

The advantage of patronage is that talent, if it is to flower, must be recognized, fostered, encouraged. When it is, everyone benefits. But love is blind, and when a patron who has fallen in love with a protege’s work is oblivious to the protege’s faults, the ugly consequences become evident: self-indulgent writing, arrogant resistance to editing, sloppiness, and, in extreme cases, disgrace for the publication.

Incompetent employees, the other protected class, lack patrons but benefit from the laziness and cowardice of managers.** Evaluating people properly requires close attention, and many managers lack the time or inclination for the task, apart from the laughably formulaic and inadequate annual performance reviews that some shops conduct.

The result, when a manager finally nerves himself or herself to proceed against a deficient employee, the legal department discovers a thin file, either with no performance reviews at all over a span of years, or performance reviews that are blandly positive and utterly innocuous. Finding no documentation of defective performance, the legal department cautions that the manager must take months to accumulate paper on the employee’s failings and must grant the employee ample opportunity to correct defects; even then, any attempt to sack the employee will be expected to lead to litigation, with hours and hours of depositions and other proceedings, until finally an agreement is hammered out that the employee will go away if presented with a large sum of cash.

No wonder managers lack the stomach for this.

But there is a larger psychological/social dynamic that also allows incompetence to persist. The most incompetent employees become mascots. Their colleagues, talking in bars at the end of the workday, trade stories of mulish passive-aggressive behavior, sleeping at work, interminable personal telephone calls on company time, refusal to perform the simplest tasks or the need to redo all the work after it has been botched, and questionable hygiene. (I know an editor who on more than one occasion was required to instruct an employee to bathe more regularly.)

The employee in the middle, neither star nor incompetent, derives a psychological security from this environment: “I could be a star, too, but I’m too proud to suck up to the bosses. And I’m a lot better than that doofus, so I must be safe.”

Of course, in today’s circumstances, anyone who imagines himself or herself to be safely employed at a newspaper is probably delusional, but in the good times now past, all was for the best in the best of all possible newsrooms: The stars got to fatten their clips with overlong, self-indulgent articles that no one outside the paper read (and precious few on the inside), the patrons enjoyed the flattery of their proteges and basked vicariously in their imagined accomplishments, the incompetents enjoyed what amounted to retirement in place at full pay, and everyone in the middle got to sneer at the parties at both extremes.

God, how I miss it.

My experience has been with daily metropolitan newspapers, but perhaps you have observed analogous phenomena in your workplaces. Feel free to describe them in the comments, taking care to prudently disguise your identity and your employer’s.




*Copy desk chiefs at most publications are, rather, impotentates, but candor commands that I admit to having hired copy editors and then positioned them so that their abilities and accomplishments might be noticed and put them in consideration for promotion.

**I permit myself a short, sardonic snort whenever I hear someone canting about how much more efficient private industry is than government.

51 comments:

  1. Many incompetents also stay employed thanks to their sex, race or religion. I understand that this sounds like the belly aching of an old white man -- and it is -- but it's just plain true.

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  2. It would not be a strain to guess at the author of the recently posted comment to the effect that I, "the patron saint of copy editing," write in prose so thick as to obscure its meaning.

    Anyone else who failed to gather the import of this post, or who has difficulty comprehending English sentences of more than ten words, should apply directly for a gloss.

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  3. In my checkered career I once worked for a large broadcast organization. One senior manager was the talk of the office, because she was clueless. Her behavior was so bizarre that it attracted the attention of the Washington Post, which sent a reporter around to interview her. "Your colleagues say you're never in your office in the afternoon, because you're upstairs watching soap operas on television," the reporter remarked.

    "That's not true," she replied. "I have a television in my office."

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  4. Sounds just like the New York Times

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  5. Well, let's also make it clear that many incompetents and stars are managers.
    And I fear that these days too many of any kind of staff are gone.

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  6. Also, a generous-spirited message from my former colleague Doug Birch, published with permission:

    Missed your taxonomy of writers the first time around. Wonderful. It did not include, however, that rare species, The Natural. These are the diligent, dogged and accurate reporters who are also terrific writers, who accept thoughtful editing with gracious good humor or even gratitude, and who could easily enjoy the perks of the Crown Prince or Princess, but prefer to practice their craft. I have known one in my 30 year career.

    No, it wasn't me. Scott Shane.


    And I had the pleasure over the years of editing Scott Shane's copy, which was unfailingly clear, accurate, and compelling -- and the cost of very little labor on the copy desk. Would that other stars glimmered so brightly.

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  7. Re: "Sounds just like the New York Times":

    I want to be clear about this. My only direct experience of The New York Times dates from a one-week copy desk tryout in 1986. The conclusions in this post have been drawn from the newspapers of which I have had more extensive direct experience.

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  8. Other protected classes in newsrooms: Bullies. Affirmative action hires. Sycophantic followers of the boss man. Anyway,gGood piece.

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  9. You forgot to mention using vague illnesses and child care issues. I pull ten extra days a year vacation with that scam.

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  10. Many good points applicabale to many office work environments -- even outside of the publishing industry.

    Point well made about sex, race and religion. Very true and I'm not an old white man, but a middle-aged Hispanic woman who "looks" and "talks" white but is disgusted by affirmative action over efficiency.

    And yet, what does this condition in the newsroom or any office say about the leadership at the top levels? That they are too inefficient, lazy or lack the vision to effect change?

    Where does this leave us?

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  11. As suggested by the author, this is a phenomenon too frequently observed in many disciplines. It is sadly very common among clergy.

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  12. That's funny about affirmative action hires being safe. I guess they would be. Walk into any newsroom at night or on the weekend and 75 percent of the people there are women or minority. I guess newsrooms have to keep us to work the shifts that white males won't.

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  13. Good column. Sounds like the midwestern mid-sized daily that laid me off 8 months ago. Had protected "stars" and incompetents. Also editors who no one knows what they do, even after layoffs. I was there over 30 years and known for being hard-working, great at hard news, having good sources, etc., but a certain AME got me and a couple of other longtimers who were more on top of news than she was. It was first ever newsroom layoff when not enough took a buyout. Incompetents generally were protected. My situation changed a couple of years ago when a deserving "star," one of my good friends, retired and I was still there.

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  14. Keeping incompetents around is a disservice to them, because they are likely competent at something else and should be given the opportunity to genuinely succeed instead of faltering in an illusion. Canning them is a kindness, and it should be done quickly. Anything else is dishonest.

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  15. In the most recent layoff at my paper, 17 reporters were - at the last minute - protected from the layoffs through a union loophole.

    Sixteen of the 17 were white men. One was a black woman.

    A majority of the reporters and copy editors who were laid off were women and minorities. There are now almost no reporters under the age of 40 at the paper, which makes for interesting coverage of an urban city.

    One reporter, nicknamed "six" because he wrote six stories during eight months (it was a daily beat) stayed.

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  16. I used to call the "Stars" in my newsroom "Journalists" and the rest of us were just "Reporters."

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  17. When I hear complaints about women and minorities being protected at the expense of white men, I think back to sitting in afternoon news meetings, at which in every one from 1980 to the current year, it was overwhelmingly a bunch of white guys gathered around the table making decisions.

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  18. The observation is painfully true. But Stars and Incompetents and Patrons are often variations of each other. Very often, in my experience, incompetents are also patrons, insofar as managers are concerned; and stars become so not based quite so much on ability, but because of loyalty.

    I think this is increasingly true now as newsrooms are under assault of layoff and budget cutting. Incompetent managers surround themselves with people who have talent, but whose greatest talent is that they will not point out the obvious flaws within their own departments. They support each other to ensure each others survival, and in the end mediocrity becomes elevated because merit is no longer the determiner in restructuring of the newsroom.

    Generally, newsroom managers aren't too terribly good at recruiting leadership from the ranks, although true talent almost always rises to the top. Particularly in this climate does it become necessary to utilize the talent that exists apart from cronyism.

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  19. At the newspaper chain where I worked (Calkins Media, Tullytown, PA), my newsroom had a slew of malcontents, incompetents and general dead weight known collectively as "Slug Row," for their positioning along a single row of workspaces. One was known individually as "The Correction Machine" or "Hold for Clarify," after the notation that would be overwritten on his byline most times that he filed a story. When that happened, the assigning/managing editor would crane his neck, sniffing around like a hyena looking for raw zebra meat, to find a competent reporter on whom to dump TCM's story, plus his or her own work. Went on for close to a decade. Everyone described herein was forcibly separated from the company, though not at the same time. It's gone from three local newspapers to just one, although nobody's found the fortitude to explain that to the readers.

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  20. OMG, the taxonomies of copy editors and writers are hilariously true! I've worked with all those writers and been (or at least been considered) all of those editors (from time to time) myself. In a private company, not at a paper.

    I was forced to be "by the book" on some things (like "since" always being "although" if time wasn't the issue) by my employers, which I'm not sure the poor writers ever understood.

    But I think the worst thing I did was use a few examples of the writers' mangled sentences in the style guide I was writing for the company (one I was attempting to make humorous, and these sentences were quite funny). Even though I changed the nouns (and even a few verbs) in an attempt to make the sentences anonymous, one writer recognized her mangled grammar and misplaced modifiers. She didn't say anything about it to me at the time. I found out how hurt she must have been about it years later when I saw she wrote about me in a book, claiming I emailed these sentences to people in the office (implying I did it just for kicks/a laugh, rather than the hopefully instructive examples that I'd tried to make anonymous in sections of a style guide that were emailed as they were completed). I was mortified (appropriately, I'm sure). I was the evil editor.

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  21. I was an assistant editor in charge of a daily section. The editor would routinely stroll in several hours late -- after the work was mostly done, kill a lot of time in the boss' office, where they would joke around, watch TV, look up clips on YouTube; take 2 or 3 hours for lunch, and badger some writers while protecting others. Naturally he got a big promotion at the same time a lot of others, including myself, were being pressured to take a buyout.

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  22. I agree that many incompetents stay employed thanks to their race or religion. In my newsroom, they are white men.

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  23. Sorry. Brown guy here. Highly qualified. Top performer. Years of loyal service. Problem: Didn't kiss butt, pointed out when emperor had no clothes, refused to drink the Kool-Aid and politely passed on the high-fives going around the room for mediocre work. Was thrown out with many other great (different colors, different genders) individuals who fit same categories. Doing your job and doing it well is not enough to secure your employment.

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  24. Those white guys sitting around the table are the problem. They hold morning meetings to decide what the news will be before it happens, afternoon meetings to discuss the stories before they are written, and night meetings instead of working on the desk to improve the stories (if they can). The rest of their days are spent failing to fill out forms to fire incompetents.

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  25. Hi John. I'd like to echo the person who commented on the NYTimes. Trust us -- this article describes it PERFECTLY. (Formerly employed there, took a big pay cut to work ... well, anywhere else.)

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  26. Many old, white, mostly male editors tend to stay forever -- as do a handful of minority employees who don't pull their weight (compared with more who do).

    That was my experience, anyway.

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  27. One advantage of lazy reporters is that they seldom force editors into difficult decisions, the way hard-driving reporters do. Thus lazy reporters are perfect for lazy editors.

    A few decades ago, the Wichita Beacon had two young reporters, one ambitious and one lazy. The publisher had their faces reversed in his mind. On the rare occasions that the publisher entered the newsroom, the ambitious reporter would holler at the lazy one, "Look busy."

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  28. Silly me, after 30 years working at a variety of newspapers, I was thinking I'll miss a lot of the truly talented, hardworking people that have come to define this business.

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  29. You forgot to mention the most recent dynamic preventing managers from terminating incompetent staffers: the knowledge that positions will not be refilled. It's hard to weed the garden when you know there is no money for more plants. My guess is many managers are forced to decide between having an incompetent staffer or no staffer at all, and both situations are liabilities.

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  30. Then there are the incompetents of other varieties.

    Part of my job as the editor was to check the numbers in reports. I noticed that one writer never seemed to have correct totals in her tables. This was especially curious because she was supposed to be getting her tables from Excel (which does the math for you). I went on with the business of simply correcting her totals for quite a long while, until one day I happened to be walking by her office while she had an Excel sheet open and I realized what she was doing. She was typing furiously into a solar-powered hand calculator on her desk and then typing the results into the cells in the spreadsheet! I was stunned, but I also knew she would not take advice from me, so I let our boss know so he could approach her. Without mentioning this odd habit I'd reported, he gently and casually offered her a tutorial in "advanced" use of Excel. She blew up, claiming she knew how to use it. At some point in the future, somehow, someone finally got her to understand what a spreadsheet was and how to use its basic functions. But she was never hired as an employee.

    Then there was the brilliant young man who blew my employers away in the interview. I wondered why it was taking him so long to complete work that others would have whipped out in less than a third the time. I walked by his office one day and realized he didn't know how to type! (two fingers, hunt and peck). This was not that many years ago. Again, I was stunned that anyone could get out of school without ever learning this. My employers did not even think to ask (who would?)

    Then there was the woman who complained her computer wouldn't start and asked me to come help. She said she'd been hitting the power key repeatedly and hard. I looked at the keyboard (which had been switched out by IT the previous night) and saw that it wasn't connecting to anything--the cords were all quite obviously hanging down the front of the desk right where her knees were. She also asked me if there were a "better" way to turn her computer off in the evenings. I asked her "Better than what? How have you been turning it off?" She said "I pull the plug out of the wall before I go home." I just about lost my lunch, thinking all of what she could have had open, unsaved, not backed up by the autobackup at night, etc.

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  31. Good comment, Mr. McIntyre! It seems to me that white men have enjoyed job protection for several millennia.

    Back to the point of the column, it struck a chord. We've all worked with those people who attained protected star status--some through talent, but many others through shameless self-promotion and sucking up to bosses. Some people are better at selling their stories than writing them.

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  32. In deciding on layoffs, supervisors usually resort to picking the people least likely to cause a confrontation. They are afraid of bullies.

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  33. This culture is true of pretty much every office I've worked in. I think it's just a human phenomenon - and unfortunately humans are incredibly flawed. At my current company (not in publishing), the most incompetent person gets the easiest, most plum assignment because he can't be trusted to do anything else.

    And when it comes times for layoffs, it's the most arbitrary things - not about productivity or who's doing the best work, it's solely determined by who's got a friend (benefactor) in the company. It's heartbreaking.

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  34. The unheralded class here seems to be "the newsroom workhorses." These are the folks in that middle ground you refer to, but they're not gaining by any of this. They are the ones who are writing 5 to 8 dailies, a Sunday feature with sidebars and art, filing a couple of features for the zoned sections on Thursdays, and pulling desk duty covering night cops one or two nights every other week. They have 300 bylines a year and uncounted shorties and briefs. They get the calls/texts/e-mails whenever something has to be done quick and well, and there is never an option of pleading busy or passing. They just add the new assignment onto their load. And get it done. These are the people who are filling the paper consistently, but they are not the ones with guest shot on local TV news, free reign to follow their passions, or free passes to screw up early and often.

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  35. In my relatively short stint as a manager here, my department was often the dumping ground for misfits, very young people and some of the "minority hires." The higher-ups actually approved the hiring of a 30-something minority male who never went to college... somehow he ended up as a reporter, with sometimes OK results and other times, well... Fortunately, I am great at rewriting things. He actually begged me to do an evaluation so he knew where he stood. I wasn't permitted to do one, as my manager advised against writing down the truth. Not sure why. Oh well, he eventually left: That's how we tried to resolve things back then. After a few years of spinning my wheels, I stupidly spitted out to my bosses that I "hated" my job, and I somehow managed to fall back into the arms of the union and some semblance of job security and sanity. My former department has been largely phased out, since we no longer hire ANYONE and because, get this, none of the middle-aged folk remaining WANT to work there. So the work, important as it was, doesn't get done, though I hear a few misfits like me might be coerced into throwing something together once again. One person doing the work formerly done by, oh, seven or eight people. SIGH.

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  36. Any manager who gets to the point of wanting to get rid of an underperforming employee and doesn't have documentation is a failure at her job. That was the FIRST major act I had to do in management, and if I could do it as a totally green supervisor, no one has an excuse.

    When I walk into the newsroom at night I see almost all white men, some white women, two or three people of color. We cover a city that is majority African-American. Layoffs definitely affected nonwhites and women more.

    I think there may also be a pity factor. Let's say I know that Jane Smith has the skills to get another job, while Joe Brown doesn't. I would rather see Jane land on her feet elsewhere than hear that Joe is still out of work a year later. It can be hard to overcome the resultant feeling of guilt when firing Joe, especially in a tough job market.

    The manager is supposed to consider what is best for his employer and his customers, not what is best for everyone. And one could argue that it is not best for Mr./Ms. Incompetent to keep a job thinking he's doing all right. Eventually the hammer may come down, and if it's when s/he's 56 years old with a feeling of entitlement based on years of bullshit positive yearly reviews, s/he's not going to do well in the job market.

    Or maybe s/he will, if s/he can find another incompetent buddy out there with jobs to give away.

    As to the incompetent women and minorities out there -- equality isn't when the women and minorities with great talent can make it. It's when the women and minorities can be as average or even incompetent as the white males without anyone attributing their incompetence to their race or sex.

    http://www.xkcd.com/385

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  37. After 15 years on the desk I got out, mainly because I couldn't take the favoritism any more. If ever there was a culture where suckup-ism is valued, it's in newspapers. Why do you think we chase awards every year? Hell, I did, and it benefitted my career for a while. But I realize now none of it meant squat to the readers, and it never will.

    The profession has become a mile wide and an inch deep. The last vestiges holler "Look at us! Look at how important we are!" And the more they do, the less important and more pompous they become. Instead of chasing Pulitzer or SND, they should be working harder than ever to make clear, concise reporting of the events in the community.

    My last boss actually wrote in one of my infrequent reviews that I should get up from my desk every now and then and walk around. I thought, jaw on floor, "Umm, are you trying to get me to be less productive?"

    Stangely, in the real world, my productivity is valued. I am SO glad I got out.

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  38. Unfortunately this situation is something too many people in the industry can relate to. In our newsroom we certainly had our share of stars and incompetents. And it doesn't just apply to reporters; designers and other production staff often experienced the same frustrating issues.
    The only consolation was that when the incompetents moved on, they later lamented leaving because they were suddenly being held accountable for their actual job performance, or lack there of. For the record: we counted a couple women among our stars and several white men among the incompetents. And I don't know when Affirmative Action actually influenced our hiring process at all. In the nine years I worked there, you could count on one hand the number of black employees that came and went in that newsroom (and sports) and of those persons, only two were women.

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  39. I would suggest that white women, in each key decision-making newsroom position, can be just as ineffective as old white men. I have seen it at two newspapers -- one midsize, one metro, one on the East Coast, one on the West Coast. Has no one else run into this? Isn't it just that such "cliques" find going outside their comfort zones, dealing with other opinions, perhaps, too much of a strain?

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  40. Curious if others have observed pretty young things falling into the protected class.

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  41. Thumb-suckers I have heard of, but goat-chokers are new to me. Are there any similar jargon terms for other kinds of less than compelling stories?

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  42. I thought, never having actually worked in journalism (all my editing and proofreading experience was "other duties as assigned" in other industries), that I would have anything to contribute to this discussion. Sadly, I am wrong. The user of Excel who didn't know it does calculations is not alone. As a temp many years ago, I reported to someone who used the same calculator technique. Maybe I could have been more tactful, but she too got pushed out of shape when I pointed out that the application does the math for you. I'm presuming, of course, that Anonymous #22 and I are not speaking of the same person.

    I won't bore the group with my "bottomless cup" of computer war stories, but rest assured that we technology trainers have a million of 'em.

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  43. I've found reading this post and comments very instructive. I've moved around quite a bit and have found myself sometimes a star, and sometimes the hard worker in the middle of the pack. My last job, and current job, have really puzzled me in that I've run into bullying bosses. Both hired me directly, and they seem to value my work, which gets noticed outside of my department. But they also work hard at keeping me under the thumb. It's a tough place to be emotionally, and I'm getting too old for this. My boss blew up at me a couple of weeks ago, actually lost her temper, over a simple misunderstanding.

    I do tend to point out what's not working in my department -- the obvious problems, as one commentator put it. That comment opened my eyes. Maybe if I stopped speaking my mind, I could dodge some of the denigration. That may sound cowardly, but I really just want a decent work environment -- even if it means the bullies win.

    I'm sure some of the tension has to do with the terrible financial position of newspapers now.

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  44. Ditto the person who mentioned the "newsroom workhorses." With all these layoffs, the people in the middle are left carrying the paper, with workloads bigger than ever, paycuts and not so much as a thank you from "management."

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  45. Listen: Start a blog where you collect awful stories from long-time (and short-time) employees of daily newspapers. Think of the traffic potential! Are you kidding me! I am serious. We all did it, many of us did great work, the working conditions just SUCKED and reading about it is somehow a fabulous joy! Just a thought.

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  46. Patricia the TerseAugust 8, 2009 at 1:54 AM

    Clearly none of you has ever worked for public broadcasting. Now there is a hotbed of incompetence, on and off air, and all at the taxpayer's expense. It's just about time for NPR to reveal another of its antics, re-organize everything, cancel some of their programs and roll a few heads down Massachusetts Avenue.

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  47. I'm struck that no one in here touched on guilds. What a monumental problem they are. You want to talk about protecting incompetents. Most managers at guild papers -- gee, I'm one -- know that it's not worth the headaches and hours of their lives they'll never recover to try to "document" a crappy copy editor's crappiness in order to fire him or her safely. And then the guild will file a grievance anyway. Guilds, and for that matter many "old guard" newsroom leaders, somehow still believe that seniority is the fair way to handle layoffs. No better way to protect incompetent dinosaurs than that.

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  48. I agree with two factors mention above: fear of not being able to replace the incompetent (something is better than nothing, right?) and pity. My boss said he didn't want to see someone kicked to the curb. Nice sentiment, but very unfair to the hard workers who actually work their 40-plus hours per day instead of this part-time employee who gets paid a full-time salary.

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  49. It's a great article... Thanks for the sharing easy to download

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  50. Speaking as someone who consistently called out a "star" who had basic incompetencies, to the star's "patron" as well as to the "patron's" boss, with ample documentation, I've come to the conclusion that love IS blind. It was far easier in their view to allow everyone else to do extra work to cover for the incompentencies than to suggest (rather simple) corrective measures that hinted at imperfections. I offered to do the pointing out and face the "star's" wrath, a wish that was (unfortunately) granted, and we had what I thought was a pleasant conversation in which I suggested some simple ways of correcting the incompetencies, without saying the "star" was incompetent:(How do you use spellcheck? Do you have the latest almanac? What Website do you use to check stuff?) I ended up in the doghouse because, of course, the star complained to the "patron," who chided me for being "too harsh". End result: No change in behavior from the star; everyone else had to scramble to continue covering the star's butt. I'd often wondered why people continued to make the same mistakes once they'd been pointed out multiple times, but now I know -- because they can, and because they don't care.
    Oh, yes. I lost my job; the star's still there.

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  51. I'm a worker bee myself refusing to suck up to the bullies and stars. I continue to assist others, although I can and have written circles around them. I am a women and a minority who couldn't even type got a reporters position even though I have 12 years of experience as a journalist. I am a columnist paid like an assistant. I have a bully for a boss, who protects him. My real boss is a worker bee and afraid to stand up for himself or anyone else.
    So guess what? I still push on. I love writing, newspapers and the whole nine. I am a yes girl. But I will tell you only recently after so many years I said no because I was too busy doing work I was asked to do to help out the gentleman who can't type or write. Evidently, I'm more accurate. Guess who got written up for the first time in her career? Not that it will count for anything considering we will no longer get raises. :0)

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