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The keepers of institutional knowledge

This week I was reminded, again, of one thing a great j-school education and a solid internship can’t give you: institutional knowledge, about the paper and more importantly about the community.

It was the thing my editor cited in my 90-day review as being something I need to work on. He’s right, I need to know the back story. The reasons the things I’m covering now are happening.

At first, I thought well it’s easy for someone who has been here the majority of my life to say that. Easy, for someone who doesn’t remember what it’s like to pack up and move 400 miles away from anything they’ve ever known, because it’s been an awful long time since their last similar move. Easy, for someone who has that knowledge to get frustrated that I don’t.

But he’s right. And I’m reminded of that constantly when someone mentions a name and I have to ask, who? When I have to admit my ignorance and say, no I really don’t “remember when;” I wasn’t around. Or when someone who’s been a prominent figure in the community but is gone for a bit pops up in the news somewhere else, as happened this week.

I wish I could snap my fingers and have a database in my brain of how everything intersects in space, time and personal relationships. The reporter who covered my beat was gone before I even interviewed. Every contact I’ve made has been my own. I spend a great deal of time scanning our archives looking for these bits before heading to meetings or off to interviews. I don’t think anyone realizes how badly I want to have that knowledge. I just don’t — yet.

I really want to know. And I need someone to teach me, or more specificly, to be patient when I ask what comes across as a dumb question but that I legitimately need to know.

It’s hard to realize, or I guess the better word is remember, that I am not just new to this community. I’m new to this beat, and I’m new to doing this on a daily basis. I’ve been here three and a half months, which seems both like a long time and also like just a blip in the scheme of things. Though there are days and weeks where I surprise myself by how well I handle things, there are also times where I doubt my abilities. Sometimes, I wish there was an allowance for a learning curve, there was time to sit down and just shoot the breeze with someone who’s been around long enough to fill me in.

Thing is, the industry is being flooded with “kids” like me. Bright-eyed and ready for anything, willing to take everything on and to become an expert on whatever you put on the budget with our name beside it. Willing to learn. If there’s someone there to teach us.

The problem is, the industry is also letting those keepers of institutional knowledge, who’ve been at it as long as I’ve been alive, go in record numbers. The LA Times and the Chicago Tribune are laying off or letting go (or whatever their PR-speak is) hundreds of people, to add to the thousands who’ve already left nearly every other paper. Those are the people who know how events tie together, how year flows into year. They know to perk their ears up when they hear a certain name. They can brief a new comer like me on why something matters without having to search the (hard to navigate) archive for every trivial matter.

Last week when I was home, I stopped by Kent to talk to a few professors. One of them asked me about the newsroom staff and whether there were any editors or reporters in particular that I’m learning from. I kind of shrugged and said there is one guy who’s extremely helpful and who has been here forever… but he’s leaving soon to start a new career. I wonder how much institutional knowledge he’ll take with him, and whether “kids” like me will ever be able to amass and recover that much in our high-speed, hit-and-run, master-of-everything world. In the meantime, I’m peeling bits of it away every day while I still can.

6 Responses to “The keepers of institutional knowledge”

  1. Innovation in College Media » Blog Archive » Conley: Failing to learn, failing to teach Says:

    […] Our focus here is helping the next generation of journalists train for the future. But part of that means understanding what’s going on with the current generation of journalists. Paul Conley sums up the major tragedy that’s taking place: failing to adapt. Go read what he wrote. If you’re like me, you’ll cringe at some of the quotes, and weep at the results (read more via Meranda Watling). […]

  2. Get online and adopt and oldie : Andy Dickinson.net Says:

    […] But the impact isn’t just on those leaving. Those new to the game suffer too. Paul picks up on a post by ‘new’ journalist Meranda Watling Thing is, the industry is being flooded with “kids” like me. Bright-eyed and ready for anything, willing to take everything on and to become an expert on whatever you put on the budget with our name beside it. Willing to learn. If there’s someone there to teach us. […]

  3. Katherine Says:

    Your story reminded me of myself in 1979 when I got my first job 400 miles away from home at a small, daily newspaper. I knew nothing and no one, but I was eager. The beat reporter whose job I took left before I was hired and everyone at my paper seemed too busy to help me. So I sought the institutional knowledge elsewhere; I went to the people in my beat.
    Of course, they all gave me their perspective, but it helped me figure out who the players were and how things connected. I spent a lot of time taking sources to coffee picking their brains. They seemed thrilled to give me their version of the “truth” and they seemed thrilled to think that they were the ones swaying and shaping my opinions of their school board.
    Having talked to so many of them from so many different sides of the story (union members, teachers, board members, secretaries, etc.), I believe I got a really great view of this beat. In my case, this institutional knowledge came literally from the institution itself. It may not be as objective as the information you’d get from your fellow reporters, but if you have the time, there are lots of people in your beat who’d love to bend your ear.
    Good luck to you.

  4. Charles on… anything that comes along » What a swell Independent leaving party that was. Sort of. Says:

    […] Meanwhile the Indie will hire in some more people (one hopes) and they’ll try to figure it all out. Accidental link: if you want to read what it feels like for a junior reporter trying to work out where the institutional memory all went, see Meranda’s blog; she’s just started working at a paper in Lafayette, Indiana (no, it’s nothing to do with the Indie). Read her post, and how it feels coming in: […]

  5. NewsCat Says:

    Coming from Jay Rosen’s Press Think your post reminded me of my (brief) days working for a small 6-days-a-week newspaper in rural Ohio. While the managing editor was someone who left a big city paper and took a paycut to move back to his original home town (he was usual) the rest of the newspaper was staff by “big city kids” from Cleveland and Columbus (I was from out-of-town as well).

    The thing about institutional knowledge is that I think it’s something you just have to absorb as it happens. I don’t know if there’s a “rushing” process. If your precessor had been there before you started that would have helped but he or she couldn’t have downloaded his or her store of knowledge directly to your brain. However there’s something to be said for having someone on staff who knows more about the town than you.

    For example, the police beat reporter (who’d been there four years) had been the government reporter before and walked me through a city council meeting. The most important thing he showed me was to show up 1/2 hour early to the city council offices before the bi-weekly council meetings. Why? Because if I didn’t the “unofficial” city council meeting would happen right then before the “official” meeting started.

    Essentially I was there to babysit the city council so they didn’t make every decision in private.

    It was a good tip to have. Not that I got any stories from it, but at least I learned something that I probably wouldn’t have picked up on for a while.

  6. Chip Oglesby Says:

    Retaining institutional knowledge

    What happens to newspapers institutional knowledge when layoffs happen? What can be done to retain that information? enter the wiki.