Last week Reach plc announced plans to close all bar 15 of its newsrooms – signalling a confirmation of the “temporary” situation where journalists have been working from home.
The decision to keep open only its biggest newsrooms has sparked a lively debate – from those who have left the industry and hark back to days that are part of our history and from those still active today and battling with the everyday challenges of media publishing.
Reach has merely made a public statement about the reality most publishers are grappling with – and, indeed, most businesses. I was told only last week that very few banks will return to their offices in London – having learned how to operate remotely – and therefore make savings to their bottom line.
There is a real debate to be had about the demise of the newsroom and the impact that will have on the way we work, set against the benefits.
For the past year we have learned how to publish from our bedrooms, spare rooms and kitchen tables – in a way one of my former editors described as having no crease between working from offices and suddenly decamping to home.
As with almost everything in our lives, we will never return to the normal we were used to – and nor should we.
There are many benefits to home working. It will force managers to consider more flexible working requests – something many had previously resisted or begrudgingly accepted on the advice from HR.
Accommodating the realities of working parents, child care, more flexible working arrangements, brings with it many benefits. A better work-life balance, less commuting, the ability to attract a more varied and diverse workforce who couldn’t otherwise work for us – will all help to improve diversity in our newsrooms.
Reach is not the only publisher to have conducted surveys of staff asking them their preferred mode of working for the future and will have found many will have reported a preference for working from home.
A Reach spokeswoman said: “We carried out a survey of all colleagues that showed a majority found home working suited their needs.” The question being for how long.
And publishers have to take some tough decisions about keeping offices open – with all the expense that comes with it – balanced against the need to maintain a presence in our localities.
So what are the downsides to closing offices?
Uppermost in my mind is how we can continue to mentor and develop our staff remotely. Working remotely is one thing – managing remotely is a completely different ball game. Spotting signs that people are struggling is hard enough in a newsroom, let alone via a video call.
Providing an office working environment to people entering work for the first time is essential to help them to acclimatise to a new chapter in their lives. Giving quality training and support to new entrants, learning the ropes of the job, is so much easier under the watchful eye of a departmental manager – and when they are not on hand, the colleague sat in the nextdoor seat.
Then, let us consider the loss of spontaneity that a newsroom offers. The spark of an idea, the callout for help for a headline or an intro, the casual conversations from which great story lines emerge.
These, of course, can be replicated to some extent – but not totally. We have to be honest about this and face up to the fact that the traditional newsroom was a hothouse for great ideas, camaraderie, support and teamworking that will be diminished – despite any use of technology, such as Slack, Teams, Google or whatever you choose to use.
No publisher that I am aware of is advocating closing all offices. But focusing on a hub and spoke newsroom structure will disadvantage some people from progressing if they are not part of an office environment.
And while I am at it, most of the debate has focused on the loss to trainees of not working in newsrooms. However, the old hands I find, learn just as much from the new entrants about how to learn the new tricks our industry demands of them – something that will also be lost.
On the plus side, we will see reporters more visible on their patches, working in their communities, out and about – or at least I hope so. The risk of reporters becoming invisible by working from home is a challenge we are going to have to tackle head-on as we break the habit of lockdown reporting.
To successfully transition to more remote working, we need to build a flexible model. We need to classify those people who we want to be office-based, those who can easily operate remotely from home, and then build in an agile working arrangement for those falling in the middle.
While offices may close, publishers need to recognise a need to bring teams together from time to time and to budget for temporary office space. Hot desking will be the new norm, and this needs to be encouraged. And, as I said, we need to work really hard to ensure those journalists who should be out and about, are actually out and about and being visible in their communities.
The debate will continue for some time to come and especially as the lockdown restrictions are eased. We need to consult with staff, ask them about how they would like to work and for those of us running our businesses, have clarity about the benefits and disbenefits of remote working.
One thing is certain, traditional newsrooms are a thing of the past. This change is nothing new – from the days of typewriters, smoking in offices and decamping to the pub, which was when I started, to nowadays when the phone hardly rings, computers silence the atmosphere where typewriters provided the soundtrack to newsrooms, and shouting and hollering at reporters for making simple errors were de rigeur.
Change is ever present. It is how we adapt to it and how we introduce it into our businesses that will determine how successful we will be.
This blog is my personal opinion: If you have an opinion about this, please feel free to email me email@example.com