Maybe It’s Time to Reimagine the Places Where We Gather and Produce the News

From a post on by Kristen Hare headlined “Do newsrooms have to be in…newsrooms?”:

Over the past 20 years, journalism has been through waves of transformation — through digital, engagement, social media and more. The goal of informing audiences and supporting democracy remains. But the ways we gather, produce and spread the news has changed.

Maybe it’s time to reimagine the places that work happens, too.

We built this city

Buildings are symbolic, said Nikki Usher, a professor at the University of Illinois College of Media and author of the new book, “News for the rich, white and blue.” Newspaper buildings, in particular, once located near the seats of power in downtowns, projected power themselves.

The old Chicago Tribune contains pieces of the Great Wall , a pyramid and the Berlin Wall. The New York Times hovers over one of the world’s most iconic squares, which is named after it. The old Dallas Morning News building was called the “Rock of Truth” for the quote etched into stone out front.

“The question is is that really the image that news organizations need to continue to project to maintain their authority?” she asked. “I think it’s in some ways really important to say we’re still here and we’re still powerful. On the other hand, that might not be the best for all residents.”

Knowing where news gets made is orienting, she said, even if people don’t follow the news. But one of the quickest ways to offload debt and cut costs is to sell those big buildings – a move we saw happen several times during the pandemic.

Maybe it would be better to take up storefronts around a city in different neighborhoods, Usher said. Maybe we need taco trucks on regular neighborhood rotations, but with a newsroom inside.

“We have the tech to do that,” she said.

Communities need to have access to the newsrooms that serve them, said Danielle Kilgo, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Hubbard School of Journalism & Mass Communication.

“It’s important that journalists can be seen and that people know where they come from,” she said. “There’s a lot of value in having a space where people can recognize that this is where journalists are.”

But that space could be more flexible, like Sahan Journal editor Mukhtar M. Ibrahim’s idea of holding weekly editorial meetings in the offices of organizations around Minneapolis that serve the communities they cover.

2020 showed newsrooms that they could work outside of newsrooms. But we don’t all have to work from home either.

What about…

A library

When NOWCastSA was dreamt up in San Antonio, one of the people on the advisory board was a librarian. And since 2010, that digital newsroom’s home has been San Antonio’s Central Library.

The publication has office space in exchange for livestreaming library events, “like a local C-SPAN,” the site explains on its about page.

The building the non-profit’s in is also a hub for the community, a cooling station in the summer, a daytime refuge for people without homes, and a resource.

“Being in that building is extraordinarily wonderful,” said executive director Charlotte-Anne Lucas.

NOWCastSA works with paid interns, Lucas said, which means it’s also a great place to learn how to find stories.

“In the library, you’re going to find out more about what’s going on in your community than you will in a newsroom.”

Lucas hasn’t worked in the library since the pandemic began. It hasn’t yet fully reopened. But the livestreaming work she did for the library meant people knew her newsroom and what it was capable of when everyone went home.

She was hired to produce several events, adding to NOWCast’s revenue streams.

San Antonio isn’t the only place with a newsroom in a library.

In Boston, WGBH has a studio at the Boston Public Library.

In Weare, New Hampshire, a librarian launched a publication after the local paper closed. When that librarian died, volunteers took over and are still publishing.

And in South Dakota, 13 libraries host a news site.

“The symbiosis between journalism and libraries, it’s just huge,” Lucas said.

If a library doesn’t have the space for a whole newsroom, what about …

A university

A newsroom inside a university is perhaps the oldest example of a symbiotic relationship between a newsroom and another institution.

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Reporting’s home is the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Many public radio stations are located at or affiliated with universities. The digital nonprofit 100 Days in Appalachia is housed at West Virginia State University. One of the newsrooms that lost its downtown building, the Orlando Sentinel, recently opened a smaller newsroom at the University of Central Florida. And journalism schools at universities are helping cover communities that lost news, including the Eudora Times in Kansas.

Indian Country Today has three university homes — Arizona State University, ASU’s Washington, D.C. bureau and Alaska Pacific University.

Indian Country Today found its first university home after the 2018 election when it aired an election night broadcast focused on Indigenous candidates. Those six hours of programming were so successful, editor Mark Trahant said, that they started looking for partners with studio space.

“And the dean at Arizona State said, ‘Why don’t you move here?’ and so we packed up and moved the newsroom.”

The university spaces are mostly donated, Trahant said, with five-year agreements. Being on campus means they get to work with stellar interns, two of whom they’ve hired full time.

The broadcast team is now back in the building, and Trahant thinks the digital team might keep working from home to give Indian Country Today space to expand their studios. It’s also showed him what’s possible with a more flexible workforce.

Hold on to that feeling

Most journalists aren’t yet back in their newsrooms, at least not in the numbers they were before the pandemic.

Going back, when that’s possible, offers an opportunity to do something new, something that helps with cost, which “creates these new opportunities to do better journalism,” said Usher from the University of Illinois.

We have to ask questions about safety, Usher said, and if it’s safe for journalists to even be out in a community. In each newsroom, that will look different. And each space requires editorial disclosures and independence, similar to how non-profit and grant-driven journalism works.

There’s an opportunity, too, to better that journalism by better reflecting a community from the newsroom itself. Rethinking spaces after the pandemic means considering diversity, inclusion and equity goals, too, said Kilgo from the University of Minnesota.

Remote and flexible work helps people normally shut out of traditional office spaces, including caregivers and low-income students who can’t afford low-paying internships. As we move back into physical spaces together, it’s important to remember how fast we figured out how to be apart, she said.

“I hope newsrooms will remember that they can adapt.”

We can’t just let that go and rebuild barriers that the pandemic tore down, she said.

“This changes the game.”

And it should.

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