Larry Rubenstein: The ’90s Called, They Want Their Inefficiency Back

Larry Rubenstein, veteran photojournalist and global operations manager, shares his experience in dealing with technological communication advances over the past couple of decades as the third interviewee in our interview series.

When Larry Rubenstein started overseeing 30 staff and 80 contractors as an assistant editor at Reuters, he did so without any of the technology we take for granted today. Before smartphones and laptops and (allegedly) ubiquitous cell service, journalists went off into the field with a film camera, a tape recorder, and a pager. This meant that Rubenstein, as a mobile manager, had very little certainty about his staff’s location and workflow:

“Out-of-office communication was a very big problem in journalism back in the day. There was no way to guarantee that you were getting through to your team – you put out a page and never really knew if you got through to them until they called you back. So there was very little control over your staff out in the field, and you had to trust them to do the right thing without guidance. You basically just had to hope they would show up at an event and cover it properly because there was no accountability in communications.”

Larry Rubenstein, operations and communications consultant (photo courtesy of Larry Rubenstein)
Larry Rubenstein, operations and communications consultant (photo courtesy of Larry Rubenstein)

In his time managing mobile communications for Reuters’ US-based journalists from the late ’80s to 2012, Rubenstein has seen work communications go through many phases. He’s worked with everything from numeric pagers, where journalists would see that they needed to get on a call and have to go find a phone, to “cell phones” only feasible as car installs, to what we use now:

“I can’t even explain to you how much has changed in my 36-year career. We’ve gone through about three revolutions in our ability to communicate, and each time people can do their jobs a little easier and faster. As we saw the progression of mobile technologies, we saw workflow change about 180 degrees. I mean, in the early days, you could have two reporters or photographers in a room and they couldn’t talk to each other because there were 100 other people there. There was no way for them to communicate on the story because there was nothing to do it with.

“There’s a legend in journalism about the sad day in 1963 when President Kennedy was killed. Back then, a specially equipped car in the motorcade, a few cars behind the Presidential limousine, transported the two wire service reporters who always accompanied the President when he left the White House. This car belonged to the local Bell telephone company and had a built-in radiophone that worked as a two-way radio that could be connected to a phone line by an operator – it was like a cell phone, as long as you were in your car. As the story is told, when the reporters heard the first rifle shots, the United Press International guy grabbed the phone to call his office and pass on the news. When he finished, he ripped the phone out of the radio so it no longer worked, forcing the Associated Press reporter to wait until he got to the hospital to find a phone and call his own office. For the next 45 years there were two 'wire cars' in the Presidential motorcade.”

Key to his success as a mobile manager over the decades, Rubenstein says, was promoting an open attitude to change. While there were some “curmudgeons” who chose retirement in the ’90s over adaptation, overall the firm has optimized around new technologies and is the better for it. This is not the case for all firms. Even today, Rubenstein sees upper-level aversion to new technologies in his current work as an operations and communications consultant. If there were one tip he could give to any managers struggling to deal with their team out in the field, it would be to overcome that reluctance:

“It’s very crucial for managers to understand the workflow of their employees and to be able to use the tools we have today to benefit their productivity. There are still a lot of people who don’t get it, who are still working the way they did 10 years ago. They don’t understand the technology and how it can help them. But if you’re not using all the technology available to support whatever business or operation you’re in, then it’s costing you money and loss of productivity. Frankly, in my opinion, any company that looks at options like Lua and says, “What do we need that for,” is a poorly run company. Today, you can have instant, guaranteed communication in your workflow that cuts through the constant onslaught of email, text messages, and phone calls. Technology has been the biggest single cost savings to most businesses in the last 20 years, and mobile technology has closed the loop on what can be done outside the office. Anyone who doesn’t adapt is going to fall behind. Don’t be stuck in the past!”

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