Like it or not, the ‘distributed’ or ‘virtual’ newsroom is the new normal, and according to consultant Dietmar Schantin, this may not be a bad thing.
In an INMA blog, he says staffing, communication are bound to change in the post-COVID newsroom, pointing to the many which have closed temporarily during the epidemic, “with no plans to return soon”.
In the US, the Tribune Company has extended its COVID response, shutting five newsrooms entirely.
Schantin – who is principal of the Institute for Media Strategies based in the UK and Austria – says the logic of such a move is obvious, from a financial point of view: “People are already working from home, so what’s the point of maintaining a costly space that nobody uses,” he asks. “The difficulties inherent with bringing everyone back during a pandemic seems hardly worth the effort – the cost savings alone would seem to be reason enough.”
But Schantin says there are arguments against abandoning newsrooms as well, namely the impact on quality coverage, “not to mention the impact on collaboration and camaraderie.
“There are fears about the end of an era and the appeal of nostalgia.”
He says it is too soon to say how the newsroom closures will play out, but believes the empty newsrooms of the pandemic can come back better organised for the digital transformations that are taking place across the industry.
As countries prepare for a ‘COVID exit’ by easing the lockdown and reopening businesses, exit plans have similar characteristics including social distancing, limits on the number of people who can be present in a confined space, and personal protection with masks and/or gloves in public places or offices.
Additional considerations for newsrooms include the organisation of individual desks and shared ones. Dietmar Schantin says some organisations are removing shared desktop computers and replacing them with docking stations for individual laptops brought in by staff.
“With the exception of tasks that require powerful computers – such as for infographics, picture editing, or design – most of these machines aren’t needed,” he says. “If there is no real need, get rid of it.”
He says under current conditions in many countries, only about half of staff will be allowed in the office at the same time, so desks can be moved further apart, with individual desks in a ‘checkerboard’ design popular with many.
“Some have also removed the once-ubiquitous central news desks and other furniture where staff gathered in groups for daily meetings,” he says.
“These have been replaced with more appropriate desk spaces that provide social-distancing room. Without the central news desk, office design changes profoundly, and the limits will likely change working habits and communication practices.”
He says the issue of which functions must be present in the newsroom, and which can come back later (or never) is “perhaps the most critical element with the biggest implications for the future newsroom.
“It is also an area that provides great opportunities for reorganisation.”
Some things “simply cannot be replaced by remote work, particularly in a news culture that must respond to multiple challenges with constant innovation”. Among them, Zoom is unsuitable for major changes and bringing together a new team with fresh people who come together for the first time. “Those proverbial discussions around the water cooler are very human and necessary, though the number of people in any gathering would have to be limited.
“Trying to create a new project or team via Zoom won’t work – the lack of social interaction can reduce creativity and the capability to solve complex problems.”
Of those roles which “must be present in person”, he lists decision makers – “the editor-in-chief, and the section heads, maybe their deputies, plus (some of) those with responsibilities for breaking news. Also, those responsible for the digital outlets – the website chief, the social media person, and the analytics chief.
“A team dedicated to print might also be valuable together in one place. Maybe infographics as well.” Schantin says it is up to newsroom leaders to determine who must be in the newsroom to ensure optimal workflows and practices.
As for issues such as who signs up to attend which meetings, who sends alerts and group messages, and who ensures nobody is left out of essential discussions, he says these interrelated aspects may depend on the depth of digital culture.
“A company where staff rarely works with a shared calendar for appointments, or does not use a messenger platform for internal communications, will have a more difficult time with these changes.”