Has the pandemic exodus put newsrooms on the at-risk list?

They’re often viewed through nostalgic lens, but newsrooms will still be missed if they go

An empty Washington Post newsroom pictured in April 2020. Photograph: Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via Getty Images

An empty Washington Post newsroom pictured in April 2020. Photograph: Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post via Getty Images

 

As “get back in here, or else” warnings go, Catherine Merrill’s message to the editorial staff of the Washingtonian was blunt and public.

The chief executive of the magazine company wrote in a Washington Post column that employers like her had a “strong incentive” to demote or reclassify as contractors those employees who are recalcitrant about returning to the office, as they don’t contribute to things that “drive office culture”, like “helping a colleague, mentoring more junior people, celebrating someone’s birthday”.

The headline, “As a CEO, I worry about the erosion of office culture with more remote work,” was softened from the original, “As a CEO, I want my employees to understand the risks of not returning to work in the office”.

The result, on Friday, was an immediate one-day work stoppage by her staff and a counter-warning about “the risks of not valuing our labour”, followed by hasty backtracking and a “sorry if...” apology from Merrill.

For me, the interesting part of this unsubtle drama is how easy it is to envisage clashes arising from the reverse scenario – one in which employees desperate to use their security passes again are told by management, “sorry, there is no office now, please keep working from your bedroom”.

No, the birthday cake is not in the post.

A real-estate retreat is already underway in the subdued local newspaper industry, with UK news publisher Reach making the running with a plan to close most of the newsrooms that serve its 100-plus regional titles and keep just 15 offices (including its Dublin one) open as “hubs”. Only about a quarter of Reach staff are expected to be permanently in the office when the pandemic dust settles. That’s an extraordinary three-quarters who won’t be.

Over the past year, any buzz heard in newsrooms really has been just the air conditioning

The company’s announcement in March elicited a wave of laments from journalists and ex-journalists who were not directly affected by the decision, but were nevertheless keen to reminisce about their formative newsroom days and regret that others might not have the privilege of experiencing them.

It was important, they stressed with no small degree of survivor bias, to work within deodorant-smelling distance of editors and more senior reporters in order to learn the tricks of the trade from them – if only by osmosis. Also, the fun. What about all the fun?

Romantic views

Newsroom discourse can be borderline romantic, almost always nostalgic, and laced with exceptionalism. Are newsrooms really so different from other offices? Certainly, if you walk into one, they don’t look as if they are, with little of true excitement or uniqueness on hand to show lanyard-wearing visitors since the days when printing presses rolled on site.

Rest in peace the smoke-filled newsroom of All the President’s Men and its ilk – as parodied in Seth Meyers’ comedy sketch Newspaper Movie – where window-deprived reporters dressed exclusively in shades of brown and grey wait in suspense as the distinguished veteran editor paces about before giving the go-ahead to run a story that goes “straight to the top”.

Nice chair: Alison Pill as Maggie in Aaron Sorkin’s short-lived broadcasting drama The Newsroom. Photograph: HBO
Nice chair: Alison Pill as Maggie in Aaron Sorkin’s short-lived TV drama The Newsroom. Photograph: HBO

In the digital-first era, the peaks and troughs of the news day have flattened out. No longer is everybody on a newsroom floor working up to the late-evening crescendo as print deadlines come and go and collective pressure is released via a mass descent upon the nearest accommodating pub. Instead, the infinite demands of the web have led to a crazed pace of work throughout the entire day, and a mood of sober realisation that this is “office culture” now, because nobody is ever going to turn off the internet.

Or, at least, that’s how it was before the pandemic. Over the past year, any buzz heard in newsrooms really has been just the air conditioning. Now media employers are preparing to either insist on a return to the office, allow or encourage remote working indefinitely, or a combination of the two. Blended, hybrid, remote, hybrid-remote: the pandemic has expanded our vocabulary of working.

Among media employees, attitudes to going back – if they are indeed given the option – will vary according to age, location, housing status, need for social contact and need to be in close proximity to particular institutions. They will also depend on the extent to which they believe career opportunities will be conferred on them just for showing up and claiming that flexible workstation – and the extent to which they believe career opportunities exist at all.

A pandemic-inspired reorganisation of the furniture would scarcely be a surprise

Very few will regard full-time remote working as a pure positive or, as Netflix chief executive Reed Hastings put it, a “pure negative”, which is why the preference for hybrid working tops so many surveys on the issue.

The pros and cons, it seems to me, are almost exactly the same in the media as they are in other sectors. Still, news publishers’ reopening sagas might yet play out in their own special way. Amid what are euphemistically referred to as the “challenges” of transitioning to digital, media outlets are intent on eliminating costs, and a pandemic-inspired reorganisation of the furniture would scarcely be a surprise.

As the US Poynter Institute for Media Studies asked last month, “do newsrooms have to be in... newsrooms?”

Empty desks

In last week’s column, noting how RTÉ director-general Dee Forbes said “going back to a full Donnybrook” will “probably not happen for some time”, I speculated that the empty desks could add weight to the semi-regular suggestions that RTÉ should one day cash in completely on its Montrose land.

In its case, the question of relocation is tied up in the expense of replicating broadcast infrastructure elsewhere. For many other media organisations, those considerations are much less complex. And they’re used to upping sticks: RTÉ is in situ at its current premises longer than most of the rest of the Irish national media are in theirs.

My guess is we’ll end up with many more Reach-like case studies than Washingtonian ones. Journalists should perhaps worry less about Merrill-esque threats and more about whether the use-it-or-lose-it principle applies and their choice disappears – with the place they once spent countless hours sold, subleased or reconfigured beyond recognition into “hubs”.

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