On a freezing Thursday in March, Liz Bowie, an education reporter for the Baltimore Sun, was at her desk in the newsroom when an email started circulating that employees should take their laptops home for the weekend. “We’re going to go all Slack,” an editor said; the staff was offered a one-hour refresher course on how to use the software. The coronavirus was grinding much of the United States to a halt, and the Sun, which is owned by Tribune Publishing, announced that it would close its headquarters until the end of the year, possibly longer. The Sun had recently completed a move from downtown Baltimore to Port Covington, a development project in the south of the city—a transition the staff had dreaded. The downtown office had been symbolic: the professional home of H.L. Mencken, it was just minutes away from Baltimore’s bustling business district and courthouses; even from the newsroom’s perch, on the fifth floor, the presses downstairs could be felt churning. Now, thanks to covid-19, Sun journalists had been forced out and left entirely on their own.
Employees earning less than $67,000 were furloughed for three to six weeks; those earning more had to take permanent pay cuts of between 2 and 3 percent. (Executives’ base salaries were cut by 10 percent.) This was the latest in a series of cost-cutting measures; last year, a hedge fund called Alden Global Capital (known as the “grim reaper of American newspapers”) had become Tribune’s largest shareholder and embarked on a particularly ruthless form of corporate belt-tightening. Just before the pandemic, eleven employees of the Baltimore Sun Media Group had accepted buyouts. They were not alone: all across the country, the coronavirus was exacerbating a hollowing-out that had been underway in journalism for the past decade—layoffs and bureau closures, amid shrinking sales and ad revenues. The latest manifestation, catalyzed by stay-at-home orders, was the elimination of newsrooms.
At Reuters, more than twenty-five hundred people tasked with breaking news were given only a few hours’ notice that they had to switch to remote work; by the end of March, 93 percent of the organization’s staff, spread across two hundred locations, was operating away from company offices. “It was astonishing how many things we thought we needed to do in the office we just didn’t,” Stephen Adler, the editor in chief of Reuters, said. In July, after McClatchy—a bankrupt media conglomerate with thirty newspapers in fourteen states—was sold to Chatham Asset Management, a hedge fund, it terminated the leases on seven of its headquarters. Long-standing publications like the Miami Herald and the Charlotte Observer would be newspapers without newsrooms for the foreseeable future. “Revenue has fallen, and a timeline of recovery is uncertain,” Sherry Chisenhall, the executive editor of the Observer, said in a note to readers. “The move from uptown offices helps ensure that we can keep local journalists on the job.” On an August earnings call with investors, Mike Reed, the CEO of Gannett, said that the company planned to sell more than $100 million of its real estate by the end of next year. The same month, it was announced that, in addition to the Baltimore Sun, Tribune would permanently shutter five other newsrooms: the New York Daily News, the Orlando Sentinel, the Morning Call (Allentown, Pennsylvania), the Carroll County Times (Maryland), and the Annapolis Capital Gazette.
At the Capital Gazette, the sense of loss was compounded by recent tragedy. In 2018, a gunman had burst into the office and fatally shot five employees, injuring others who cowered under their desks. “I remember a vibrant newsroom that took your breath away,” William Wagner, who has been with the Capital Gazette for thirty-one years, said. After the shooting, the newspaper moved to a new office with bulletproof walls and increased security measures. Staff members hung photographs of their slain colleagues in the conference room. On Labor Day, Capital Gazette employees planned to gather in the newsroom for a final time and coordinate a walkout to protest its closure. But when they arrived, they found that their key-card access had been revoked. (Tribune cited health warnings against large congregations.) So the staff arranged an impromptu rally at the Annapolis City Dock, where a banner fluttered in the breeze: save maryland newspapers. keep it local. Among those in attendance was Andrea Chamblee, the widow of John McNamara, one of the shooting victims. Chamblee praised the Capital Gazette’s staff for its undaunted coverage in the wake of calamity, and said that such work would be unthinkable now, given recent layoffs and the closure of the newsroom. “They can’t just drive around with a laptop in their car, and go to McDonald’s for the Wi-Fi to upload their story, and take the picture from their iPhone, and be everywhere they want to be and talk to everybody they want to talk to,” she said.
Olivia Sanchez, a government reporter, started working for the Capital Gazette a year ago. She recalled how much she had learned in the newsroom from overhearing experienced reporters interview public officials. “What happens if we’re all just straight out of school and then sitting alone in our bedrooms, at our little desks?” she wondered. “I don’t know what happens to the paper if we stop being able to hold officials accountable in the same way. I don’t know what happens to the community.”
Bowie, of the Baltimore Sun, began adjusting to working from home. It was feasible only because of the strong relationships she’d developed with editors over three decades in the newsroom. “You can sort of read them through Slack channels and email in a way that if I was a new reporter entering the newsroom it would be very, very difficult,” she told me. Early in the year, the Sun’s staff had shared a Pulitzer Prize for a series of investigations into allegations of corruption and fraud committed by Catherine Pugh, the former mayor. Bowie believes that work would have been impossible as a remote project. “There were so many moments during those months where the discussions in the newsroom resulted in better stories coming out, because we were all asking each other questions all the time,” she said. “I know for a fact that our reporting would not have been as good if we couldn’t have been together in that room.”
The scrappy yet glamorous newsroom of All the President’s Men, which conjured rows upon rows of desks awash in fluorescent lights, buzzing with ringing phones, foot traffic, and furious typing, was a faithful representation of the Washington Post circa 1976; when Ben Bradlee, the executive editor at the time, visited the set, he reportedly gasped and said, “My God, I’m in my own office!” But that is far from what a present-day newsroom looks or sounds like. Email and Slack have replaced the phone and the clamor; newsrooms “got quiet like insurance offices,” an editor told the American Press Institute. Journalism transformed from an “industrial” to a “postindustrial” profession, Nikki Usher, a professor of media at the University of Illinois, said. Offices relocated and rearranged. Many featured a “hub”—a central area, typically reserved for breaking-news teams, around which ran concentric circles, to “facilitate the spread of information from the center to the periphery.”
Newsrooms are now on the cusp of redesign yet again; those that go back into operation once the pandemic subsides can expect a drastically reduced physical presence. Some media companies are converting small “huddle rooms,” where reporters and editors meet, into permanent offices. It may be the beginning of the end of open plan. We’ll also see newsrooms making use of automation, according to the National Press Club Journalism Institute: “Think voice activation, hands-free tools, automatic doors, and touchless soap dispensers.”
Some employees will keep staggered schedules to avoid peak congestion time; others will choose to come in only one or two days a week or continue to work from home entirely. Michele Matassa Flores, the executive editor of the Seattle Times, told me that she expects “a lot of the above.” Condé Nast is planning for an exodus, expecting that as much as 70 percent of its workforce will opt for some form of remote work. An office-less labor force is shaping up to be a defining feature of post-pandemic life—in 2018, roughly 3 percent of US employees teleworked full-time; today, 42 percent do—and it looks like journalism will be utterly transformed. A profession once rooted in place can now seemingly be done anywhere with decent Wi-Fi and the ability to improvise.
For Doug Dunbar, a news anchor for KTVT, the CBS affiliate in Dallas, broadcasting now means that thrice a day he powders his face, mounts a Sony camcorder on a tripod, sets up a feedback and teleprompter unit on a “nice cocktail table,” projects graphics that are emailed to him onto a television screen, turns on three LED lights and a ring light “that was my daughter’s Christmas present last year for her TikTok videos,” and goes live. Dunbar, who is fifty-six, came of age in a “union town newsroom,” he said, in which “reporters weren’t allowed to touch the camera, and if you did you could get in trouble.” Since March, he has been airing his news show from his home office, where a laptop set to Zoom serves as his studio monitor. If the Zoom link crashes in the middle of the show, as has happened several times, all connection to the studio is gone, and it’s “like field anchoring on the heel of a tornado.” He’s doing okay, he told me, but he misses the studio. “I think a lot of people find comfort in that—those of us who make the news and the people who watch us. What the rest of the news will look like in the future, that remains a wide-open question, because we’ve all proven we can do whatever it takes.”
Broadcasting from home lends reporters a certain authenticity—a we’re-all-in-this-together vibe—Usher said, though she warns that it could ultimately lead viewers to distrust their news source. “Physical presence matters,” she told me. “Zooming in from your home—there’s a potential for delegitimization.” She fears that viewers might be watching and thinking, “You’re reporting from home. How does that make you different from me?” Which, of course, they’re not, really. Remember that BBC interview with a South Korea expert that went viral when his children barged into the room? Or how about the Spanish reporter who was interrupted in the middle of a news segment when a half-naked woman casually walked behind him? (Not his wife, incidentally, as viewers were quick to note.) As a psychologist put it, “We’re all BBC dad now.”
“Inevitably, in the middle of updates for our big 7am interview, my six-year-old son would come down and need a snack or a snuggle,” Rachel Martin, the host of NPR’s Up First and Morning Edition, told me. “And that’s in the best-case scenario.” Worst-case is “when the kids are fighting in the kitchen,” which lies directly above the guestroom-basement that Martin has converted into a home studio, and “the vents come crystal clear through.” The fact that listeners haven’t complained about the quality of the audio is “pretty miraculous,” Martin said, given that her soundproofing has been limited to “a bunch of pillows stuffed into the windowpanes” and “a bunch of blankets around my body.” Martin, like Usher, is concerned about reporters’ inability to cover stories on the ground and, particularly for radio people, about a certain lack of on-air spontaneity. “There used to be a freedom: ‘I want to go one more minute with this guest,’ or ‘We’re going to end it here,’ ” Martin explained. “We just can’t create those moments anymore.”
Pamela Paul, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, has had to adapt, too. Unlike the rest of the Times newsroom, with its digital focus, the books department is “so far from paperless” that the Times once spent $20,000 to reinforce its floors so that they could carry the weight of all the roll-away shelves used for book storage. “There’s a visual element to the job that’s not about judging a book by its cover but it’s about seeing books in accumulation and in groupings that allows you to make associations and create assignments,” Paul said. Working from home “inhibits to a certain extent the serendipity and creativity.” A week after the Times shut down its office, in March, she got a notice that there was mail waiting for her. “Just put it in one of the locked galley rooms,” she replied. Then she was told there were 167 boxes. Now, occasionally, she pops by, to filter the deliveries to empty desks. She can’t take everything home.
The sudden shift in perspective brought on by remote work has made clear how the newsroom itself, for all its social and collaborative aspects, can be a place of exclusion.
Late last year Anup Kaphle, the editor in chief of the Kathmandu Post, in Nepal, received an unexpected phone call. On the line was Sophie Schmidt, the daughter of Google’s former chief executive Eric Schmidt, asking if Kaphle would like to be the executive editor of a new venture she was investing in, an online magazine that would publish narrative-driven tech stories from underrepresented countries. It would be called Rest of World. “As someone who comes from the region, this was very appealing to me,” Kaphle said. “Being able to do these kinds of stories without imposing a Western gaze, and allowing these local views and perspectives to play out.” In mid-February, just as the world was about to change, Kaphle, who is thirty-six, arrived in New York. His wife was heavily pregnant; they were expecting their first child in March, which was also the month that Rest of World was scheduled to launch. “But only one of those things happened on time,” Kaphle said. A week after his move, New York imposed quarantine orders. Kaphle found himself holding conference calls from the dining room table of a rented apartment in Long Island City, staring “at the skyline and the river and what felt like a very peaceful New York—with sounds of ambulance and chaos.”
Rest of World went live in May, an inauspicious time for any newsroom, save for the fact that Rest of World was never intended to function as one. There was a New York office serving editorial managers, like Kaphle, alongside design and product people. But most of the site’s reporters and editors fanned out internationally—in Berlin, Hong Kong, Bangalore, and elsewhere. Editorial meetings commenced, three times a week on Zoom. Writers and editors shared drafts on Google Docs; stories and editorial assignments were managed with the software Trello. The process was streamlined and efficient, Kaphle said, and will likely remain the same post-pandemic. In June, the site started a fellowship program for six international journalists to receive nine months of intensive mentorship and report from their home countries. Offering the program remotely, Kaphle explained, “gave us an opportunity to open that fellowship to the wide world and not just to look for students who were graduating from universities in the US.”
As the virus has confined journalists to their homes, it has forced outlets to think past the limits of geography. For Kaphle, the idea of a decentralized office goes beyond matters of convenience or financial savings to his magazine’s core mission: “The reason it’s important to have a global newsroom is making sure we get our stories right,” he said. “That means not only what kind of countries we are covering, but who is covering these countries.… Who gets to connect the dots and spot all these patterns and tell you why the story is important, not just for US readers but also why it’s so important to the people who live there.” Questions of representation—which stories are told, how, and for whom—have always been crucial in journalism, if under-thought; the sudden shift in perspective brought on by remote work has made clear how the newsroom itself, for all its social and collaborative aspects, can be a place of exclusion. “One of the first things we discovered was that our basic daily news meeting ended up being dramatically better with all of us at home than in the office,” Adler, of Reuters, told me. Although the Reuters leadership team is spread across several continents, it’s concentrated primarily in New York and London. “So without us really understanding it, we had a two-tier process where the people in the room were gossiping with each other, sharing asides, laughing, eating lunch, and everyone else—especially if you’re in Asia or any of the bureaus—really felt left out.”
Within the United States, racial and ethnic minorities compose less than 17 percent of staff at print and online outlets, even though, according to the Census Bureau, they make up about 40 percent of the population. The Pew Research Center has shown that 22 percent of American newsroom employees live in New York, Los Angeles, or Washington, DC—urban centers that happen to be three of the most expensive cities in the country. These figures reflect a media workforce unrepresentative of how most Americans live. The placement of newsrooms also results in “location bias” among employers: a tendency to hire people in the vicinity of an office, often at the expense of diversifying the staff. Doris Truong, the director of training and diversity at the Poynter Institute, believes that journalism’s fast and sweeping shift to remote work will make it easier for employers to enlist people from different backgrounds. “Since we’ve seen that people are able to work effectively from many different locations during the pandemic, this would be a perfect opportunity to hire someone who maybe is unable or unwilling to leave a particular location but who could still get to know your community,” Truong said. If workers no longer have to clock in to an office at a certain time, and can instead have more flexible schedules—to allow for such things as providing care for young children or elderly parents—then the newsroom of the future has the potential to be a more inclusive place. “There’s a lot of ways in which it sort of evens out things,” Truong added. Of course, news organizations still need to provide their employees with the resources required. Fifty-five million Americans do not have access to broadband, according to the Brookings Institution; Native Americans are particularly disenfranchised when it comes to technology. Recently, when Truong held a virtual leadership academy for journalists, a participant from rural Mississippi had to travel to South Carolina for the week because she didn’t have a good internet connection.
Newsrooms must also compensate for what else is lost out-of-office—the off-the-cuff praise, the little pep talk, the transparency that comes from being able to walk by the conference room “and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I should be in that meeting! Why am I not in there?’ ” Truong said. Just as newspapers once erred in thinking that online journalism meant simply transferring print articles to the Web, a report by the International News Media Association finds that mastheads are in danger of assuming that “remote news operations can thrive with a simple shift of where desks are located.” Mental health, after all, is as essential as Wi-Fi.
Matassa Flores, of the Seattle Times, tries to check in with her staff regularly and congratulate them on big stories. “But it’s more time-consuming and less satisfying and just harder to do that from home,” she said. “Every day I feel the weight of not doing that very well.” Her newsroom, like most, is closed at least until January—and even once it reopens something will have changed: gone are the open-face “pods,” where teams of four reporters used to work; in are cubicles heightened with Plexiglas barriers to maintain social distancing. Given the traffic in Seattle and its high cost of living, which has pushed many employees out of the city, Matassa Flores anticipates that a large number of her colleagues will choose to stay remote. “There’s a whole subterranean part of this, which is about collaboration and mentoring and the psychological impact of working in isolation,” she said. “Those things we’re just beginning to see.”
If the Zoom link crashes in the middle of the show, all connection to the studio is gone, and it’s like “field anchoring on the heel of a tornado,” a broadcaster said.
One of the greatest challenges posed by remote work is how a young journalist coming of age in the time of coronavirus will experience what’s left of a newsroom. First, she has the towering hurdle of finding work in an industry battered by financial loss. But say she manages to cross it: she is now largely on her own. For Alex Andrejev, a twenty-four-year-old sports reporter at the Charlotte Observer, the move out of the newsroom meant that she had no veteran coworkers around to learn from. She’d taken the position in January; the Observer was her first full-time workplace in journalism, and she was new in town. “You have to go out of your way a little more to get that sense of mentorship,” she said. When she started her job, she was excited to discover a whole group of new recruits, all of them young and most of them female. “It was very promising,” she thought. Now their camaraderie is confined largely to Zoom and Facebook. “I think we can all be better at trying to separate work from life and trying to actually talk to each other off the clock,” she said.
Andrejev’s beat meant a local emphasis on nascar—which, unlike most sports, never really went away, by the strange virtue of its relative lack of contact. First came virtual races, in which drivers competed (sometimes barefoot) on simulators from their homes. Then actual races resumed, in a siloed way. Some were streamed online; others were closed to fans but open to reporters. By now, Andrejev has gotten in the habit of having her temperature checked upon entering a track, then being ushered up to the press box, which she doesn’t leave for the duration of the race. Rather than having to elbow one another for drivers’ time once a race is over, Andrejev and the rest of the press pool have their interviews coordinated on Zoom by nascar media representatives. All of this is convenient (and necessary), if a little self-defeating. Part of the thrill of being a sports reporter is jostling for scoops, Andrejev said. “It takes the competitiveness out.”
The inability to meet athletes in person has proved especially onerous for a new reporter like Andrejev, who finds it almost impossible to cultivate sources. “No one really wants to do more Zoom calls,” she said. (In a rant that went viral, a nascar driver named Clint Bowyer told reporters, “Zoom meetings suck!… I think everybody ought to have a free pass at Zoom when we’re all done with this crap.”) But the relative lack of access to athletes has also allowed Andrejev to reflect more broadly about her profession. “There’s been a lot of stories this year that aren’t just about the sports story lines,” she said. Game analysis has given way to articles about athletes protesting police brutality and more expansive examinations of what sports will look like in the future. These subjects, she’s found, are the ones most worth her time.
When we spoke, Andrejev sounded resigned to the reality of remote work, which has effectively meant “a lot of typing from random parts of my house.” She understands it as a cost-saving way to keep local journalists on the job. Still, it’s hard. “It’s sort of like you’re doing it by yourself,” she said. “It definitely takes more discipline, and it’s easy to feel lonely.” She added, “A lot of people have asked how I like Charlotte since transitioning here.” Often, she’s not sure how to respond. “I like my house,” she’ll reply, wryly. She bought herself a desk.Ruth Margalit is an Israeli writer. Her writing has appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, and the New York Review of Books. Follow her on Twitter @ruthmargalit.