The closure of newsrooms is a symbolic end of a publishing era

digiday senior editors

As lockdown restrictions ease around the world, media companies are busy mapping out what a return to the office might look like. For some news publishers there won’t be an office to return to.

Last week, Tribune Publishing said it was permanently closing the newsrooms of The New York Daily News and four of its other newspaper offices. A spokesman for Tribune told The New York Times the company would “reconsider our need for physical offices” later as it steers its way through the pandemic and “as needs change.”

In the U.S. in particular, newsrooms aren’t just workplaces. Often the buildings themselves are landmarks that have maintained a historical relevance in their communities for years, sometimes centuries, said Fran Wills, CEO of the Local Media Consortium, whose membership comprises more than 4,000 newspaper, radio, TV and online only news outlets. “They are a big part of a lot of the downtowns in a lot of their communities,” said Wills. 

The closure of such newsrooms “represents institutional weakening. The dilution of solidarity against power, the snuffing of a beacon,” Emily Bell, professor at Columbia Journalism School tweeted last week.

In the current high-octane news environment — a pandemic, an election year, the movement against racial injustice, the frightening impact of climate change — journalism is needed more than ever to help distill the facts and hold the powerful to account. Yet — in tandem with publishers facing their biggest economic challenges to date — trust in media is on the wane. A 2019-2020 Gallup and Knight Foundation poll of more than 20,000 Americans across the political spectrum found that their views on the news media have shifted to e negative viewpoint — three or four percentage points lower than in 2017. “Americans have not only lost confidence in the ideal of an objective media, they believe news organizations actively support the partisan divide,” read a summary of the report.

The paring back of real estate is an economic reality many businesses from all sorts of sectors currently face as the coronavirus crisis grinds on. On average, the Local Media Consortium’s U.S. newspaper members expect to reduce around 17% of their costs in the second and third quarters this year, with some costs returning in the fourth quarter as revenue is projected to recover (though still anticipated to be down versus last year.) Facing a climate of deepening mistrust in the news media, news organizations reducing their office space should consider ways they can maintain their visibility in towns and cities up and down the country — not least as “news deserts” are sadly becoming a more prevalent reality.

One can imagine there will only be deepening mistrust in the media if news organizations continue to lose that visibility. Newspaper owners should at least consider this growing and dangerous wave of negative sentiment as they draw up their cost-cutting plans that involve the paring back of real estate.

When the Dallas Morning News downsized from its famous “Rock of Truth” building in 2017, it remade a smaller version of the iconic stone monument, with the “Build the news upon the rock of truth” inscription etched on glass instead. (The new owner of the “Rock of Truth” building said last year he intends to preserve its exterior.)

“It would be beneficial for companies considering moving out of their offices to continue to have some sort of presence or some sort of way their landmarks can be preserved in their communities,” said the Local Media Consortium’s Wills.

There is, of course, a countervailing view. Jeff Jarvis, journalism professor at the City University of New York, said having journalists distributed out in the community — when it’s safe and healthy to be out and about, at least — is probably a good thing. The same goes for direct sales teams, who can focus less on presenteeism in the office and instead spend more time with customers. Equally the perennial question of, “Where should the product team sit” becomes moot, which could encourage more cross-team collaboration.

“Slack is a poor substitute for the sound of ringing typewriters, but nonetheless you start to see the beginnings of that kind of office buzz being recreated,” said Jarvis. 

Beyond cross-department collaboration, stretched local outlets have also been finding more ways to work with one another. “Collaborations among formerly competing papers and other news entities have taken off like a rocket over the last few years,” said Rick Edmonds, media business analyst at the Poynter Institute. 

For example, AP in February launched Storyshare, a tool that lets more than two dozen news organizations in New York share their content plans and republish one another’s’ stories.  In Florida, 18 news organizations — including The Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times — have joined forces to cover climate change in the state. It’s a trend that seems likely to accelerate as depleted news outlets look to cover big stories more efficiently.

Still despite some recent forced innovation, journalists in particular can be a symbolic bunch, reticent to relinquish time-honored traditions, processes and language more reminiscent of the inky fingered days when the print product reigned supreme. But it’s not just the journalists themselves that stand to lose out when the newsroom lights are switched off for the final time.

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