Credit: Left to right: Jane Barret (Reuters), Nic Newman (RISJ), Angela Pacienza (The Globe and Mail), Maike Jungjohann (RTLNEWS) via International Journalism Festival

When the coronavirus pandemic forced reporters to swap their newsrooms for their bedrooms, it raised an important question: are physical newsrooms necessary for journalists to do their jobs well?

At the International Journalism Festival in Perugia today (7 April 2022), media experts discussed the future of the newsroom, and whether it is really possible to have the best of both worlds.

The rough and smooth of WFH

In November last year, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) put out a study that looked at how the newsroom was changing due to the pandemic, carrying out surveys and in-depth interviews.

The majority were still unsure how to make it work best (57 per cent), and very few intended to return to how things were before the pandemic (9 per cent). Nearly a third (34 per cent) were already planning how to move to a hybrid workforce.

The question marks around hybrid work are understandable given that it has presented both gains and losses for individuals and teams.

In that same study, 70 per cent thought work had become more efficient, citing morning meetings that were less hierarchical because being present was no longer perceived as a way to impress bosses. Employee wellbeing also was thought to have been on the rise (61 per cent), given the luxuries of working from home and no longer having to commute to work.

But is that really the case? Jane Barrett, global editor of media news strategy at Reuters, said that that was certainly true for wealthier, senior journalists who have the space at home to work. Many younger journalists, however, have struggled within smaller accommodation, citing one reporter who had used their ironing board as a desk at one stage.

The RISJ study considers the downsides of remote work too; it has negatively affected collaboration amongst teammates (45 per cent), stifled creativity (48 per cent) and hampered communication (43 per cent).

Barrett adds two more factors to the list of negatives: the culture of a newsroom and the career of young journalists. It plays out into one point: young journalists have missed out on acquiring crucial skills "via osmosis" of being in a physical setting, getting tips from veteran journalists and assimilating to how the newsroom operates.

"It's hard to be a sponge if there’s no water around," says Barrett.

Reimaging newsrooms

At German broadcaster RTLNews, recent employee surveys at the start of the pandemic and during the middle of it reflected many of these mixed feelings. The perks of work-life balance was offset by the lack of collaboration. The consensus was that people wanted roughly a 50:50 split of physical office to home-based work.

As a result, it has set out a fresh newsroom concept, which tries to bring the perks of home into the office. The overhauls include workspaces for specific jobs and roles, getting rid of individual offices, "homebases" for every team in which they have a deskshare, a variety of "retreat rooms" for private calls, coffee bars and silent rooms, and a mobile office kit for everyone so that nobody feels disadvantaged if they work at home.

"People are so used to the peace and quiet of their homes, so when they come back to the newsroom, and it's very noisy, that's a bit of an issue," says Maike Jungjohann, head of business transformation at RTLNews.

The Globe and Mail in Canada downsized their newsroom space working on the assumption that staff will only choose to work 2twodays per week from the office. People can come in for more, but there is not enough capacity to have everyone in 100 per cent of the time.

"Our philosophy behind it was making the office a destination, and giving the destination a purpose," says Angela Pacienza, executive editor at The Globe and Mail.

"The purpose of the office is for collaboration and social connection with your colleagues, enhanced tools and equipment that you can’t get at home. So, for example, our podcast studios are better than the closets we’ve been using for two years."

In The Globle and Mail's 'new' newsroom, there is also a focus on mentorship and learning. There is more conferencing equipment, a "Hive" app that allows staff to pre-book hot desks and see who they can sit next to in what they have dubbed "neighbourhoods".

It has scrapped individual and corner offices which did not go down well with everyone but incentivised newsroom presence by allocating individuals' their own desk, if they come in 5-days-a-week. But again, that is not deliverable for everyone. Vaccines are also mandatory.

The case for diversity

Why hang on to remote work then, if you can offer fancy new and improved newsrooms? Talent.

In the case of The Globle and Mail, its base in Toronto can be a barrier to recruiting some great journalists, as the city is one of the most expensive places to live in Canada. Pacienza says that remote working means remote hiring and this allows the organisation to expand its search of potential recruits thus improving the potential for diversity among new hires.

RTLNews, with mergers on the horizon, said remote work also means the ability to collaborate with colleagues based in other cities will be greater, and not just limited to when headquarters are closeby.

Pacienza has also made a point during the pandemic to pair up young journalists with veterans and switching these pairings twice a year - it is an idea she wants to hold onto going forward. This allows young journalists can eavesdrop on senior journalists' Zoom calls, (with their consent, of course) so they pick up interviewing tricks and other tidbits of advice even if they are not in the office.

That said, she is sending the message that another value of coming into the newsroom is that it will make your reporting better.

The ongoing challenges of remote work

So, with all that on offer for remote workers, there has to be a good reason to make the effort to come into the office it seems. Nic Newman, senior research associate at RISJ made the point that people have gotten comfortable, in large part, to working from home, not entirely to the pleasure of bosses. In his studies, he has found that many news organisations have simply mandated a return to the office for their employees.

Others are trying more persuasive tactics to lure workers back in, like hosting quizzes and booking inspirational speaker sessions. Being on site creates opportunities for staff "to reconnect with the culture" or the organisation, he says. RTLNews has taken this approach, even sweetening the deal with massage chairs, and will look to book more parties and drinks events going forward.

"We want to make newsrooms attractive so people want to come back in, we don’t want to force them in," says Jungjohann.

Further challenges are introduced when you add rota work into the mix. There is no point coming into a physical workspace if you are going to spend all your time on calls, adds Pacienza. Conference call technology, however, means that interviews that may have previously been a solo activity down the phone can now involve more team members it necessary.

Again, it comes down to being purposeful with time. She makes a point of scheduling her days so that people can expect face time with her if they come in on certain days. It is essential to be visible and approachable if people do make the effort to come in.

Mental health and management

Being isolated at home is a big issue that many managers have faced and will continue to wrestle with, as journalists might feel unable to raise the flag from afar.

While RTLNews has created mental health sessions and points of contact for struggling staff, Pacienza argued that those who need it the most are unlikely to turn up for sessions. Leaders now need to be on the case and looking out for those who are showing signs of burnout or mental distress.

"You need to intentionally go and speak to everybody in one way or another and in their preferred method, and so to me, if we can get our managers more personality-based training in DiSC [for example], that is key to running a well-functioning newsroom however many times a week you’re going in," Pacienza said.

She concluded that managers also must model behaviour from the top down when it came to defining and maintaining boundaries. She signals that outside of working hours she can be contacted in the event of an emergencies, but otherwise she is not responsive for any other queries. The ‘send later’ feature on Slack has become a go-to option to make sure staff feel their time and boundaries are respected.

"Depending on where you are on the scale of the organisation, people feel like they have to answer you because you’re the boss or executive or editor-in-chief or whatever your title is.

"It's important to model that behaviour for it to cascade down. If you try to do it from the bottom up, it's never going to work."

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