Remote Possibilities

Recently, Cathy Merrill, the chief executive of The Washingtonian, published an op-ed on “the risks of not returning to work in the office” as the pandemic abates. If employees aren’t around to participate in “extras” (birthday parties, answering questions in person), she argued, “management has a strong incentive to change their status to ‘contractor.’” Merrill’s staff rebelled by staging a publishing strike; she went into apology mode. Yet there remains widespread uncertainty about when people will be expected to return to their newsrooms, and anxiety over how much. Concepción De León, a writer at the New York Times, told me, “Expecting employees to be sitting at their desk for ten hours feels like more of a power trip than something that’s an actual necessity.”

“Definitely not five days a week—that’s over,” Pierre-Antoine Louis, who works on the Race/Related newsletter and the national desk at the Times, said. In March, Times bosses sent a memo to staff announcing plans “for more flexibility” and a process for considering full-time remote-work requests; the official return date is September 7, though staffers will begin returning as early as July. The “voluntary work from home policy” at Thomson Reuters runs through July; Vox Media and Conde Nast have said that no one will be required to return before September, and the latter company sent an email to employees promising that “remote work will be a larger part of our future workforce strategy.”

Employees aren’t eager to go back full time. In an anonymous survey, the Los Angeles Times Guild found that only 1.4 percent of respondents want to work in the office five days a week. The most popular alternative was coming in two days per week (31 percent); almost as many people (28.2 percent) said they’d prefer not to be there at all. “I do all the work that I need to do, but if I do it in six hours then I don’t feel like I need to just be like, sitting there,” De León told me. “Whereas, when you’re in the office, there’s more of that performative aspect of work where you kind of have to look busy even if there’s nothing to be busy with.” 

The biggest factor in not wanting to return to the office full time: commuting. A respondent to the LA Times survey remarked that “my therapist and I determined that my commute was a major contributor to my anxiety issues”; another described the trek as “soul-crushing.” Someone said it didn’t make sense to spend fifteen hours per week commuting when “there are no good stories to be found at my desk.” Matt Pearce, a technology reporter at the LA Times and president of the guild, called the survey “a damning indictment of what commutes do to workers; how much it hurts their physical and mental wellbeing; how much it impedes their family life; and in fact, how much it impacts their productivity.”

For parents—like Karen Brooks Harper, a health and human services reporter at the Texas Tribune—the extra time at home has enabled her to take her six-year-old son to karate practice twice a week. “It’s been nice being able to work around him,” she said. Fahima Haque, the national audience editor at the New York Times, told me that she’d always been the person on the train with several tote bags, a yoga mat, and a change of clothes. Now she can spend that time elsewhere. “I’m someone who derives a lot of mental clarity from cooking meals and having a tidy home,” she said. “My work is better because I have more time to actually do the work.” Besides, offices are full of distractions. “The days that I’m really busy, I typically would leave my desk and go hide out where no one can find me—but here at home, I’m able to focus better,” Natalie Meade, a fact-checker at The New Yorker, said. 

During a relentless year of traumatic news, working remotely has also provided journalists with a sense of relief from the grind. “If there’s any place I want to be burned out it’s at my house,” Meade said. Haque agreed: “I feel like being at home means you can step away and say I need twenty minutes just to not look at this. Whereas at work, you’re still at work.”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Being at home has particular advantages for Black and other journalists of color. “Sometimes, as a Black person working in a newsroom, you feel like you have to constantly be on,” Louis told me. “With the uprisings, and George Floyd, I didn’t have to do that last summer, thank God.” Kailyn Brown, an editorial assistant and reporter at the LA Times, felt the same way: “I report a lot on issues that affect Black and brown people—which is myself, too—and there’s days that you don’t want to talk.”

Of course, there are quotidian benefits to remote work, too. As Meade pointed out: “I really appreciate being able to have my period and just be home.”

Below, more on the transition back to the office:

  • Companies adopting remote-friendly policies are also assessing their office expenses. Last August, Variety reported that Conde Nast was trying to renegotiate its twenty-five year lease at One World Trade Center for less space and reduced rent. Building expenses weigh on smaller publications, too. “We’ve paid for an empty office for thirteen months,” Evan Smith, the CEO of The Texas Tribune, told me. “I went to our building and asked, ‘Can you give us a break on the rent since we’re not using the office?’ and they said, “We have to pay, so you have to pay.’” (The building management did, however, offer to subsidize parking costs.)
  • There can also be financial benefits to individuals—who can choose to live farther from newsrooms, often situated in costly cities. Early in her career, Shannon Lin, now an audio producer at the Los Angeles Times, remembers that “it was financially draining,” to make ends meet in Washington, DC, as an intern. Since starting at the Times, she’s been able to live at home with her parents in Cupertino, California, and save money.
  • Last year, for CJR’s “What Now?” issue, Ruth Margalit wrote about the costs and benefits of working out of the office. Newsrooms must compensate for what is lost: “the off-the-cuff praise, the little pep talk, the transparency that comes from being able to walk by the conference room.” Margalit argued, “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.”

Other notable stories:

  • The Washington Post reports that Chris Cuomo, the CNN anchor, advised his brother, Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, about how to respond to allegations of sexual assault. According to the Post, “Cuomo, one of the network’s top stars, joined a series of conference calls that included the Democratic governor, his top aide, his communications team, lawyers and a number of outside advisers.” During the conversations, the article continues, “The cable news anchor encouraged his brother to take a defiant position and not to resign from the governor’s office.” At one point, “he used the phrase ‘cancel culture’ as a reason to hold firm in the face of the allegations.” CNN has responded to the story, saying that the consultations were “inappropriate,” but that Chris Cuomo will not face disciplinary action. 
  • Emily Wilder, who started a job two weeks ago as an Associated Press news associate, was fired after conservatives organized a campaign against her college-era pro-Palestinian activism. “There’s no question I was just canceled,” Wilder told SFGATE. When one of her old Facebook posts started drawing attention online, she said, an AP editor called her and said not to worry about getting in trouble. But then outlets including The Federalist and Fox News published stories about her. She received an “onslaught of absolutely vile messages,” and then was terminated. An AP spokesperson told SFGATE that Wilder was dismissed for violating the company’s social media policy, but declined to provide specifics. (The AP offered no comment to CJR.)
  • In Bangladesh, an investigative journalist named Rozina Islam was arrested for allegedly stealing documents from the ministry of health while reporting on COVID-19. Islam, a senior correspondent for Prothom Alo, one of Bangladesh’s largest papers, faces up to fourteen years in prison and, if convicted, the death penalty. Her arrest is being described by Prothom Alo as an act of “vengeance” by the government for Islam’s reporting, which has exposed deep corruption in the ministry of health’s handling of the pandemic; journalists across Bangladesh have protested and boycotted government press conferences. Islam’s arrest is one of the latest in a long list of government attempts to repress COVID-19 reporting around the world, which CJR mapped in September. 
  • For Rest of World, Emily Schultheis reports that, in Poland and Hungary, new social media platforms dedicated to far-right ideology and transphobia are gaining in popularity. Platforms such as Albicla, which “promises to protect its users against the growing ‘censorship’ of major social media companies like Facebook and Twitter,” are receiving support from government officials: Jarosław Kaczyński, Poland’s deputy minister, is planning legislation that would fine social media companies like Facebook more than thirteen million dollars for censoring speech that isn’t illegal under Polish law. “The biggest offenders of press freedom are now posing as defenders of free speech,” Adrian Shahbaz, the director of the Technology and Democracy program at Freedom House, told Schultheis.
  • The Guardian has reported on a recent review of police killings in California, showing that “law enforcement frequently publish highly misleading information about people they’ve killed,” and citing the police press release for the murder of George Floyd as an example. For CJR, Alexandria Neason examined this problem: “In relaying information about a crime in which an officer may have been at fault, brand management becomes a priority. Victims—who more often than not are Black—have long listened to police with skepticism, expecting misinformation about themselves and their communities.”
  • For The New Yorker, David Remnick spoke with Hazem Balousha, a journalist in Gaza City whose work appears in the Washington Post and elsewhere. The past week has been horrible and heartbreaking, Balousha told Remnick. “But it’s not about my feelings,” he said. “It’s about getting the details right. Of course, I’m a Palestinian, I’m a human being. I feel their pain, I see it in their eyes, but, when it comes to work, journalism is something different.”
  • The Media Development Investment Fund (MDIF), a non-profit investment fund, has announced the launch of MDIF Ventures, an initiative to put a million dollars into independent, “young and growing media companies with a positive social impact and the potential to scale.” The project will seek to invest in companies that serve audiences in countries where press freedom is under significant threat. 
  • And the BBC is apologizing for its now infamous 1996 interview with Princess Dianna by the journalist Martin Bashir. Francesca Gillett reports that an internal probe done around the time of the interview was “woefully ineffective,” and that a recent review has found the BBC fell short of “high standards of integrity and transparency.” Among the findings: Bashir’s creation of fake bank documents to gain access to the royals and the BBC’s attempts to cover up his behavior.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Feven Merid is a CJR fellow.