Scarcity and the trap of the daily deadline

For the past four years I have been working in an editorial environment Metro, the third largest daily UK newspaper. Over this time I have been amazed at the number of times that serious change has been attempted and failed. This seems to be a common problem with newspapers. Initially it confused me as there are a lot of very clever, passionate and motivated individuals involved. Over time however I have come to believe that there are three main components behind this.

Having to fill a set number of pages by a daily deadline creates scarcity of time. The focus required to achieve this creates tunnel vision that both helps and hinders. It helps editorial climb their daily mountain but the bandwidth tax of doing this reduces their cognitive capacity for change. This theory formed after reading Scarcity by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir. The Guardian review sums up the main premise of the book well:

“Scarcity captures the mind,” explain Mullainathan and Shafir. It promotes tunnel vision, helping us focus on the crisis at hand but making us “less insightful, less forward-thinking, less controlled”. Wise long-term decisions and willpower require cognitive resources. Poverty (the book’s core example) leaves far less of those resources at our disposal.

The editorial process is driven by risk aversion, due to a lack of ability to change a printed product after the deadline. Banks of subs check and recheck work and a single person runs each section as well as an overall editor. These create multiple bottlenecks which adds significant overhead, coupled with low levels of autonomy which increases the queuing further. Most of the paper remains a work in progress until the last possible minute.

Many of the systems that enable editorial processes are very old and not built for the current world we live in. Complex to change and expensive to run, this is the final piece holding back progress. Change requires running multiple concurrent systems. Each of these is tightly coupled with other complex systems and risk aversion is high. Cost to achieve this change is very high in monetary terms, training and complexity.

Complex process coupled with complex systems and a reduced cognitive capacity for anything outside of their deadline has been holding back editorial progress for years. I believe this is one of the reasons why newer entrants without this legacy have fared so well. They don’t have any of these previous constraints. Change is possible but usually underestimated due to the multiple layers of complexity and need to continue the existing process whilst building the new one.

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