4 ways news media companies should rethink in-person newsrooms post-COVID

Does a news organisation lose its soul if it closes its newsroom?

Many have closed temporarily during the coronavirus pandemic with no plans to return soon, while the Tribune Company in the United States has gone a step further. It extended its coronavirus response and is shutting five newsrooms entirely, with everyone working remotely.

From a financial point of view, the logic of such a move is obvious: People are already working from home, so what’s the point of maintaining a costly space that nobody uses? 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 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.

It is too soon to say how the newsroom closures will play out, but one thing is certain: Newsroom will change forever, and the “distributed” or “virtual” newsroom is the new normal.

This is not a bad thing. The empty newsrooms of the pandemic can come back better organised for the digital transformations that are taking place across the industry. And it doesn’t have to be expensive.

After many months in this pandemic-imposed way of living and working, most countries are preparing for, or have executed, a “corona exit” by easing the lockdown and opening shops and companies. These exit plans have very similar characteristics. Chief among them are social distancing, limitations 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.

For newsrooms, there are additional considerations for getting to a new normality. Among them:

The work desk design and IT equipment

What does the individual desk of a staff member look like? What do desks for common roles or shared desks look like?

The shared desks for different shifts in many newsrooms pose a problem in the COVID-19 era. Some organisations are responding by removing shared desktop computers and keyboards by replacing them with docking stations for individual laptop computers brought each day by staff.

With the exception of tasks that require powerful computers — infographics, picture editing, or design — most of these machines aren’t needed. If there is no real need, get rid of it. When there is a need, providing personal keyboards is one solution.

Workspace and room design

How can social distancing be implemented? How can you minimise the risk of infection away from the individual desk?

Based on current conditions in many countries, only about half of the staff will be allowed to be in the office at the same time. This means desks can be moved further apart. Many newsrooms are now in the process of returning and organising individual desks in a “checkerboard” design, with adequate space between the desks.

Some have also removed the once-ubiquitous central news desks and other furniture where staff gathered in groups for daily meetings, replacing them 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.

On-site and off-site strategies for newsroom management and staff

What are critical functions that must be present in the newsroom? Which functions can come back later (or never) in the transition period?

This is perhaps the most critical element with the biggest implications for a future newsroom and an area that provides great opportunities for reorganisation. There are some things that simply cannot be replaced by remote work, particularly in a news culture that must respond to multiple challenges with constant innovation.

Zoom or similar systems serve their purposes — but not for everything. I don’t believe you can make a major change or create a new team on Zoom with fresh people who come together for the first time. Those proverbial discussions around the watercooler 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.

With an empty newsroom, managers can also re-examine which positions need to physically return to the newsroom and which can remain remote indefinitely.

You need the decision-makers, the editor-in-chief and the section heads, maybe their deputies, plus (some of) those with responsibility for breaking news. You also need those responsible for the digital outlets — the Web site chief, the social media person, the analytics chief. A team dedicated to print might also be valuable together in one place. Maybe infographics as well.

It is up to newsroom leaders to determine who must be in the newsroom to ensure optimal workflows and practices.

Communication

How do communication processes and infrastructure ensure frictionless communication and work with the virtual teams and organisation?

With a core group in the newsroom and the rest of the people in home offices, the newsroom necessarily relies heavily on tools like Zoom and Slack. But they call for clear policies and the creation of a coherent set of channels so that everyone can use them effectively.

Who signs up to attend which meetings and when? Who is responsible for sending alerts and group messages? Who ensures nobody is left out of essential discussions? No longer can you simply walk across the newsroom to get what you need.

All of these aspects are interrelated, and there is no one-size-fits-all approach. It varies a lot based on the size of the newsroom, the existing newsroom organisational structure, the infrastructure, and the product portfolio. A news organisation with hundreds of staff can organise teams in a more “fail-safe” redundant way than a small regional newspaper with 20 staff can.

A big difference is also the depth of digital culture at the organisation. 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. But no matter the size and culture of the organisation, the virtual and distributed working world will very likely be the new normal after COVID-19.

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