“People Said Hello, Gossiped, Laughed”

By Jack Limpert

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The cubicle newsroom: Very quiet, not much walking around. Photograph courtesy of Flickr.com.

The biggest environmental change in journalism over the past 20 years? The noise level. The journalists I talk with seem about equally split between loving today’s peace and quiet and finding it strange and eerie.

In the pre-digital days, you walked into a newsroom and people said hello, gossiped, laughed. Now hardly anyone looks up from their screen.

Politico, headquartered in Washington, is a new breed of newsroom and an editor there describes it this way: “It’s about 200 people, all lined up in cubicles, and you can sometimes be sitting there and there’s not a single sound in the whole room.”

I started out working for UPI and its bureaus might have brought in EPA inspectors to write tickets for too much noise. In a decent-sized bureau there might be 20 Teletype machines chattering away, with bells ringing for bulletins and flashes. Lots of talking and phone calls.

Twenty years ago at the Washingtonian, telephones always were ringing. But in my last years as a full-time editor, I’d sometimes go an entire day without the phone ringing—a couple of hundred emails but no calls.

Now there’s very little walking around. Why walk over to talk with someone when you can dash off an email? It’s a very efficient way of communicating. An email doesn’t have to interrupt someone’s work, you can copy others, it puts things on the record. Who needs face-to-face talk?

I tried to learn to live with the silence but never adjusted to the lack of face-to-face contact. At the end of the day I’d often tell myself: You got a lot done but you were at your computer all day. You should have walked around more, you have to talk more to people.

Now when I’m with older journalists, we often talk about the noise and fun of the old newsrooms. There was a lot of walking around and talking that led to good story ideas. There also was a lot of cigarette smoke but that’s another story.


  1. Walter Nicklin says

    By the time I took my Army induction physical in 1967, my left ear had been just inches away from a UPI teletype machine for several weeks at my first newspaper job after college — causing perhaps just enough hearing loss to dodge the draft, I wondered and secretly hoped. But no such luck.

  2. Jim Seymore says

    Right on, Jack. In my magazine days I always made at least one complete circuit of the editorial floor daily and encouraged my writers and editors to do the same. We even had an only half-facetious name for it–Management by Wandering–but I couldn’t count the number of leads and stories generated by shooting the breeze face-to-face. And, going even further back, I loved the bang and clatter of a newspaper press room full of hot-lead Linotype machines punching out stories stick by stick, then the three shrill bells warning that the presses were about to start, their deep, accelerating rumble shaking the whole building and your very bones. God, I loved it!

  3. Meryle Secrest says

    An atmosphere of silent people communing with machines has a deleterious effect. News stories were meant to be a group project – tossed around, added to or subtracted from, by unlikely colleagues. The result gave depth to the reporting, and a kind of bonhomie that has gone from journalism. And oh, the magic deadline moment when the air vibrated, and one’s spine tingled as one raced to that final -30-. What’s left is flat, like the writing.

  4. Donald Smith says

    The Evening Star newsroom when I started there in the late ’60s was in the “new” building in Southeast DC. It was satisfyingly noisy, and I got to rub shoulders with some titans like Mary McGrory and Haynes Johnson, but otherwise it had all the charm of an unfinished basement. When I went to the Post in 1973 their newsroom looked to me like a cross between a space ship and a German beer hall, people sitting at long rows of tables ready to link arms and start singing. A couple of guys named Woodward and Bernstein conducting hushed conversations on their phones. I’m sure even that place would be unrecognizable as a newsroom now.

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