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.