Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Reinventing The Newsroom: Is It Necessary?

The New Yorker's architecture critic Paul Goldberger says the New York Times' new newsroom feels enormous and corporate-cool -- with an interior that "fails to emulate either the unusual quality of the building's exterior or the amiable rambunctiousness of an old-style newsroom," adding that "if the Times newsroom is an unadventurous space hidden within an architecturally important building, Bloomberg is the opposite: a dazzling work environment tucked inside a refined but conventional skyscraper." Goldberger goes on to set these new incarnations within the frame of the traditional newsroom:

The tradition of having reporters and editors in one big space, called a newsroom or city room, arose largely because it was the easiest way to put out a newspaper on deadline. The fastest communication was face to face, and in a newsroom everybody could watch the same clocks, use the same news tickers, and keep an eye on one another. Everything depended on the flow of paper; in the old Times building, the Linotype machines were right above the newsroom, so that copyboys would only have to run up a single flight of stairs to deliver copy to the typesetters. Stories moved through the building in physical form, from paper to type to print, like an assembly line. Now, of course, stories are electronic blips, and page images are transferred in an instant to printing plants around the country. Almost none of the conditions that led to the creation of newsrooms still prevail.

"The workers are in much closer quarters than those at the Times, and you might expect the atmosphere to be one of a sweatshop, but sweatshops don’t usually have rotating displays of contemporary sculpture."

All of this, of course, begs the question -- what is the newsroom of the 21st century supposed to look like? A glam'd-out glitzfest of technological prowess or something totally different?

But allow me to ask this: Does it really need to change?

Must a new newsroom format follow new technology, in the form of computers and instant communication?

The old newsroom, documented by thousands of photographs by bored photographers in newsrooms nationwide, show reporters lined up side-by-side, in parallel rows, at typewriters and phones. As Goldberger writes above, it was all about efficiency, like an assembly line.

But has all this really changed? Does the IM or the e-mail really take a shorter time than making a phone call? Surely reporters could have used the telephone to call each other, but they don't. It's human nature -- it's just easier to give a shout when your intended target is in eyesight.

So in a world where citizens can create journalism from their basements, has the true trade and process of journalism really changed on the ground level? Does plugging in really make a difference? After thinking about it, I really don't think so.

Which leads me to ask: Must the newsroom be changed at all?

Goldberger puts it into context:

The interior was designed by the architectural firm Gensler, and it fails to emulate either the unusual quality of the building’s exterior or the amiable rambunctiousness of an old-style newsroom. With its sea of cubicles partitioned by wood-veneer cabinets, it is vastly more sophisticated than any workplace the Times has ever had, but sleekness has brought a certain chill (though the effect will be pleasanter when the birch trees go into the still unfinished courtyard). You also don’t get much sense that anyone has really rethought the idea of the newsroom in the electronic age. Ultimately, it’s hard not to sense that the Times, so determined to have a building that makes a mark on the sky line, had a failure of nerve when it came to the interior.

So is the newsroom of the 21st century a failure? If success is measured by change, probably. But if success is measured by function, I'm not so sure.

Sure, I don't like the uniform feel of each individual desk -- something my former colleagues in another new Manhattan glass tower complained about -- and I am uneasy, in principle, about executive editor Bill Keller's decision to use frosted glass inside his office. But when it comes to the newsroom, there's no measure of technology that can trump a good shout.

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