When government employees and others objected to President Donald Trump’s immigration ban, his chief spokesman, Sean Spicer, said opponents needed to quit whining and “get on the bus.”
Although the phrase “get on the bus” seems innocuous, it is, at best, an ineffective management tool. For many workers of my generation, it brings back unpleasant memories of inept bosses.
That particular phrase takes me back to a time 15 or more years ago when my bosses at The Des Moines Register didn’t understand what was happening to our industry.
As a result, they came up with a series of half-baked plans to boost circulation and advertising.
When their plans didn’t work — or didn’t work as quickly as they wanted — they blamed it on employees who, for various reasons, would not “get on the bus.”
They didn’t realize the late 1990s were the beginning of what proved to be a period of ongoing and very disruptive change in journalism.
The internet back then was a new and wonderful tool. Reporters could collect research in a matter of minutes and hours that would have taken days, weeks or even months before.
The World Wide Web, as it was called back then, made what we wrote smarter, more textured. It made us sound like we knew what we were doing.
Other innovations, including databases and search tools like Excel, allowed us to compile and search mounds of information without the use of mainframe computers and assistance from skilled technicians.
But there was a downside that few of us saw at the time.
The internet launched a cycle of competition that has proved disastrous for daily newspapers and other traditional print media.
The first mistake was making everything on the internet free. Of course, if it had not been free, the digital age would not have grown by leaps and bounds. Most of the innovations of the last two decades would still be lodged in the minds of geeks like Google founder Sergey Brin.
By the early 2000s, when newspapers were making efforts to publish online, readers were thinking: Why pay for a subscription when I can get information free on the internet?
One response by newspaper owners was to dumb down their front pages in the hopes that it would attract more paying subscribers.
Instead of putting significant stories on the front page explaining what city councils and school boards were doing, or writing in interesting ways about local businesses, top editors focused on features they believed would appeal to young readers.
They ordered up lifestyle stories about biking and tailgating. They wanted more restaurant reviews and articles about trendy nightspots.
Nothing seemed to work, although to be fair it should be noted that there were so many “new” ideas, and editors moved so quickly between them, that there wasn’t enough time to tell what was and wasn’t working.
Many of us in the trenches were resistant to the idea du jour, which did not set well with top executives.
One publisher decided that the way to make us more amenable to change was to hire a human resources director who had spent his career in manufacturing and was used to dealing employees who were resistant to change.
He was the guy who went around telling us to “get on the bus” or else we’d be run over by it. During the next few years, several of the Register’s most talented reporters jumped out of the way and found jobs elsewhere.
Something similar is already happening with government workers, and it will only get worse if Trump and his spokesman continue to push the bus metaphor.