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The future of the newsroom post-pandemic

September 17, 2020 | By Greg Dool – Independent Media Reporter @GregDool

After nearly six months away, staffers at the Annapolis, Md.-based Capital Gazette came back to the office on Labor Day. However, they weren’t there to return to their desks. Instead, they came to reclaim their belongings, bidding farewell to their newsroom and vowing to continue covering the local community despite the loss of a local office space.

The Capital is one of five Tribune Publishing-owned papers whose newsrooms will soon be permanently closed. The company is evaluating its real estate needs “in light of health and economic conditions brought about by the pandemic,” a Tribune spokesperson told the paper last month, noting the high levels of audience engagement the Capital has achieved since March.

In lieu of a replacement office, Tribune will provide Capital employees with workspace at sister title The Baltimore Sun, about 30 miles north of Annapolis, when that paper’s offices reopen next year.

Lost without newsrooms

While news typically doesn’t happen in newsrooms, offices still play a vital role in news organizations. This lesson has only been underscored in recent months, said Pamela Wood, a Maryland state politics reporter at The Baltimore Sun who previously spent 13 years at the Capital Gazette.

“I find that the biggest problem is coordination among reporters and editors,” she said. “You can’t just shout across the newsroom.”

In a constant stream of phone calls, Slacks and emails, communication is slower and prone to challenges. Further, Wood says the loss of the newsroom has a particularly adverse impact on young reporters, who benefit from simply sharing workspaces with veteran colleagues.

“I’m worried for our young journalists,” Wood continued. “There’s a lot of learning that goes on just by observation. It’s so much easier just to ask a question of somebody. When you’re alone in your kitchen you lose a lot of that. And I think that’s to the detriment of the news organization.”

Adapting to the times

Media companies across the board have been forced to adapt to remote operations. At the same time, they are faced with a historic economic crisis that’s gutted advertising revenues. So it’s not a surprise that Tribine is not the only one to consider reducing its real estate costs.

Just last month, Condé Nast CEO Roger Lynch informed staffers that “remote work will be a larger part of our future workforce strategy,” as the company seeks to renegotiate its lease at One World Trade Center. Skift, a B2B media company covering the travel and hospitality space, opted not to renew its lease on its Manhattan headquarters in July.  CEO Rafat Ali estimated that the move would save the company $600,000 annually.

The Charlotte Observer, a McClatchy-owned newspaper, fully vacated its headquarters over the summer and won’t be finding a new office until at least 2021. President and executive editor Sherry Chisenhall said that while there will never be a replacement for a physical newsroom, the pandemic will likely prompt the organization to take a more flexible approach to workspace moving forward.

Permanent displacement

“I know that there are some companies or newsrooms that are rethinking whether they ever need an office again,” Chisenhall said. “I don’t think Zoom calls can fully replace what it means to work together. But I think the time where the office is the home base is probably over. We know that our job is to publish stories that are relevant to the community and to grow an audience that sees enough value in our journalism to pay for it. I think we can actually do that really well without saying that people have to work 40 hours a week in an office.”

Like Wood, Chisenhall said communication has proved a challenge. In particular, newsroom leaders need to be more conscious than ever of their employees’ wellbeing.

“We have to look out for each other in ways that we never had to consciously do before,” Chisenhall added. “It’s not as easy to know who needs to take a break. It just always feels like we need to do more to make sure we’re staying in touch with people.”

The future of the workplace

The non-profit ProPublica, a national outlet by nature, has long operated a network of reporters based around the country in addition to more formal offices in New York and Chicago. That setup, coupled with the occasional need to publish stories on weekends, meant the editorial side of the company was already well suited for remote work, according to president Richard Tofel. For him, it remains unclear what a large-scale return to in-person work might look like.

“My personal hunch is that we’ll end up with a smaller office with many more conference rooms, a lot of hot desking and a configuration that permits that. But that’s just a guess,” Tofel said. “Our business depends on attracting talent, and part of attracting talent is giving people an environment that maximizes their chances of doing good work. I think we’re going to have to learn about what that means as we go.”

The ease of the transition from an office to remote work varies from person to person, Tofel said, acknowledging that work-life balance is a concern. But Tofel added that feelings of being overburdened are more likely the result of covering multiple relentless news cycles than an inherent symptom of operating remotely.

“The result is that people are working unbelievably hard, and harder in many cases than is sustainable,” he said. “We try to emphasize to people the importance of taking time. Where we can slow things down, we do.”

Flexing flexibility

Despite the challenges, rethinking the function of the office and perhaps adopting a more relaxed approach to attendance could benefit employees in the long run, Chisenhall said.

“It would be great to be back in a situation where we could have space for a weekly staff meeting and to do the things that are easier and better to do in person, but not have this expectation that this is where you are by 8:30 every morning,” she said. “If untethering from an office helps people in this business improve their work-life balance, that could be a big plus that we come out the other side with.”

Publishers, especially those with a national focus, could also stand to benefit from a more distributed workforce that isn’t as dependent on physical offices clustered in large cities, Tofel said. A group comprised of journalists based all over the country, with a variety of perspectives and experiences, can help news organizations see stories and understand problems that they otherwise might miss.

Newsrooms are newsworthy

Wood has other concerns about the loss of the Capital Gazette newsroom. She worries that the lack of a dedicated office in Annapolis could place journalists in dangerous situations as the resumption of in-person activities necessitates more reporting from the field, often late into the evening.

“Now you have a reporter sitting in a car in a parking garage alone with their computer lit up,” Wood said. “Our main newsroom in Baltimore does have space. But it is absolutely not workable for a reporter who is covering stories in Annapolis. It slows us down and just makes it impossible to cover the news in a timely fashion. It’s unacceptable to say these far-flung suburban reporters can just work out of our city newsroom. That’s not a realistic solution.”

Despite his recognition of the advantages of distributed remote teams, Tofel isn’t ready to abolish newsrooms. “We have no intention of doing that. I do think that you need to gather some people very regularly. Top editors and people who run groups are often more efficient and spur more creativity if they are co-located. I’m not prepared to defend the idea that nothing is lost if you don’t have a newsroom.”

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