Kill the Media Zombies

The great media companies are laying off employees by the truckload. They ought to start with the feckless bureaucrats who are running the place.

The carnage in media jobs accelerated last week with hundreds getting whacked at Viacom, NBC, Time Inc., and my own esteemed publisher Doubleday. One of the runners-up in the Person of the Year award by the industry website was The Laid-Off Journalist. We’re in the middle of a volcanic realignment that’s overdue; but as Big Media fights for its life, are the right people leaving?

As great newspapers, magazines, TV networks, and publishing houses dismember themselves around us, it would be marginally consoling if the pink slips were going to those who contributed so vigorously to their companies’ accelerating demise—the feckless zombies at the head of corporate bureaucracies who cared only about the next quarter’s numbers, never troubled to understand the DNA of the companies they took over, and installed swarms of “Business Affairs” drones to oversee and torment the people “under” them. There are floors of these creatures in any behemoth media company, buzzing about each day thwarting new ideas or, worse, having “transformative” ideas of their own when what is usually required is to revive, with a bit of steadfast conviction, the originating creative purpose of the enterprise. It’s the same with the auto companies.

There are floors of feckless zombies in any behemoth media company, buzzing about each day thwarting new ideas or, worse, having “transformative” ideas of their own.

The public rage towards the Big Three reflects in part the rage many employees feel today about the way their own companies have been so messed up already they were in no shape to survive a market collapse. Only now are we hearing how the innovative engineers who wanted to get into hybrids and electric cars were cut off when the accountants decreed that there was more and quicker profit in churning out gas guzzlers. Same story with Moody’s rating agency dissected in Sunday’s New York Times by Gretchen Morgenson. Her interviews show how a company built on assessing risk for lenders became more concerned with serving itself. In the pursuit of ever higher profit margins (like 48 or 53 percent, for instance) it forsook its role as a watchdog to become a lapdog yapping for a bite of the master’s sirloin.

What do cars, debt risk, and collapsing television networks have in common? The suits running them all lose sight of what they condescendingly call “product”—i.e., whatever it was that motivated the company’s spirit of excellence in the first place. The trouble is, those guys and their appointees don’t seem to be the ones who are leaving, do they? Indeed, the recession is giving many of them air cover. “It’s not my fault, it’s the times we live in.”

In all these big, lumbering companies every effort at innovation or practical efficiency gets strangled by something called “the process,” that long death march from an initial promising convergence of minds, not to rejection—rejection would be easier—but to indeterminate stasis. The cast of characters needed to reach a conclusion is eternally changing. One of the ironies of instant communication it seems is that no one is ever available to talk. Joe’s at an offsite but he’s on his BlackBerry. Karen’s at a sales meeting but she’s on a conference call. What happened to Kevin? Oh, he’s no longer officially around, but yeah, he’s still “in the mix.” You bet he is.

When a meeting finally convenes, there are still more people. Tramp, tramp, tramp—in they come with their laptops and their forecasts of why it’s not going to work. There’s usually one eager newcomer at any PowerPoint presentation who has a small speaking part before the graphs and arrows appear on the screen. “Will somebody please dim the lights?” Nobody notices that in this behemoth they’d been dimmed sometime before the meltdown. Meanwhile, inside the company a “major restructuring” is announced and heads start to roll. That skill that took a lifetime to acquire—can he or she please cost it out on an hourly basis? Do we really have the time to slog through the details of a project that might, incidentally, save this company?

Slowly but surely the talent drains away. It turns out that the two major best-selling authors only stayed at the mighty imprint because of that mousy middle-aged woman who really cared about their sentences—that’s right, the one who just got laid off. The talented TV director who made the network’s last hit series got tired of talking to a voicemail and took his next successful show to the opposing network. The investigative journalist whose Pulitzers the chairman bragged about at awards ceremony dinners was told to crank out five half-cooked additional pieces a week for the website and guess what, the paper or network doesn't win prizes any more and the public finds it increasingly irrelevant. At the once-great Knight Ridder Group of newspapers—The Miami Herald, Philadelphia Inquirer—management was so harried to keep on raising already good profit margins it kept cutting the editorial operation until the papers went on the block. After the way the Tribune company’s ignorant, marauding CEO Sam Zell has vengefully gutted the content of his papers is anyone surprised that we now learn the company—whose assets include the flagship Chicago Tribune and once mighty Los Angeles Times—is filing for bankruptcy?

But perhaps in the turmoil the bones of original principles will emerge at last from under layers of dead skin and rotten management. Or perhaps the diaspora of talent will re-form and succeed while the companies who ejected them collapse and disappear.

In his fascinating piece about Dr. Samuel Johnson in last week’s New Yorker, Adam Gopnik evoked the cultural and economic forces at work in London in the 1730s as: “the old-media dispensation in crisis and the new media hardly paying.” Sound familiar? In Johnson’s day, writes Gopnik, “The practice of aristocratic patronage, in which big shots paid to be flattered by their favorite writers, was ebbing, and the new, middle-class arrangement, where plays and novels could command real money, was not yet in place.” Let the good times roll.

Tina Brown is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Daily Beast. She is the author of the 2007 New York Times best seller The Diana Chronicles. Brown is the former editor of Tatler, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Talk magazines and host of CNBC's Topic A with Tina Brown . She has written for numerous publications, including The Times of London, The Spectator, and The Washington Post.