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At The Miami Herald, maybe newsroom place still matters

Does the rise of mobile devices mean journalists no longer need a newsroom in the middle of where news happens? The Herald’s move out of downtown suggests physical proximity still means something in the digital world.

When The Miami Herald left its home on Biscayne Bay, many in the newsroom were wistful. The newsroom had been right in the heart of downtown and home to memories and legends. Two movies had been shot in the building: Absence of Malice, with a young Sally Field and a hunky Paul Newman, featuring real scenes of the newsroom, and The Mean Season, with Kurt Russell and the tale of a reporter who became the story while covering a serial killer.

And in an odd but appropriate juxtaposition to these bustling portraits of the busy newsroom, a recent episode of Burn Notice featured the old building burning down.

Downtown, sometimes the news even came to the Herald building. In 2005, Miami-Dade County Commissioner Arthur Teele, shot himself in the Herald lobby. And perhaps you’ll remember the face-eating zombie case last year, captured on video by the Herald’s own surveillance cameras.

But today, the newsroom sits all the way out in Doral, a city 12 miles from downtown Miami — about an hour away in traffic. That distance has led some to wonder how much, beyond nostalgia, if the newspaper was missing out on the advantages of being at the center of news.

The jury is out. But my conversations about the new workflows there have belied easy assumptions about the presumed mobility of digital journalists on the go enabled with new technology. I visited the newsroom two weeks ago and talked about these issues with journalists for my research as a Tow Fellow at Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism.

On one hand, head photo editor Roman Lyskowski says the move “does not affect what I do or what other journalists do.” But other reporters noted a distinct difference on their daily workflow. Being out in the burbs makes them feel far away from where the news is happening.

One metro reporter told me: “Going anywhere during the day is completely out of the way — it will take hours to go to a meeting, and you can’t just drop in on a meeting.” He continued: “You are just stuck downtown and you can’t come back if you want to. You can’t get that more casual interaction or run in to someone or have coffee.”

Several county government offices are in Doral, including the county police and election board. But as another metro reporter complained, “There’s nothing that I cover that’s out here. I cover the city of Miami.”

One reporter who was covering an election recount noted that she couldn’t get from the recount to a press conference with one of the candidates because it was simply too far, and that she had to be prepared to have someone else on standby should anything happen — a difficulty when resources are slim.

Journalists consistently told me that they didn’t particularly love the idea of being mobile. Writing in a Starbucks day after day wasn’t fun, and writing from home meant missing out on casual interaction with sources and fellow journalists.

For all we’ve heard about the promise of mobile journalism, it hasn’t proved as freeing as one might think, at least not at The Miami Herald. Journalists really like being in a newsroom — and that’s a problem when your location is physically distant from most from the places you might be reporting from.

Courts reporter Jay Weaver acknowledged that in a digital world, buildings didn’t mean much from a technical standpoint. “In this day and age, though, it is all digitally-driven. You don’t need a building…The newsroom can be anywhere.” At the same time, he placed a significant importance on being in the newsroom:

I like coming to the newsroom. You can exchange ideas more freely; there’s a value to that. You can’t just work from your house…If you aren’t coming to the newsroom, if you just work from your house, that’s like being a foreign correspondent, or equivalent to being in New York or something.

A fair number of reporters I spoke with shared his view. Other journalists talked about the difficulty of being on the road. Reporter Chuck Rabin said “I could be mobile…It sounds easy: You can just jump in your car and file from the front seat. But it’s not as easy as you think. I can file from my phone, but it’s just not as convenient as actually being in the newsroom.”

And neighbors reporter Christina Veiga, who has always filed her work as a mobile journalist, says it’s still “a pain working out of a coffee shop. You can do a lot working from the office…and downtown, you could just run to stuff.”

Why does this matter? In the age when technology has supposedly reduced the importance of place and where reporters can be working anywhere at any time, reporters at The Miami Herald argue that the location of the newsroom still matters. Geographical proximity to what they cover matters. And this is because they actually use the newsroom — it’s not just some building now rendered unimportant by the rise of mobile devices.

Rather, the ease of production for journalists may still be improved by having a set place to work. There is some intangible quality about being able to talk to the person across your cube or nag your editor or ask a colleague a question by the coffee pot. Working from your phone may facilitate live reporting of breaking news, but one wonders whether that outweighs the drawbacks of a decentralized newsroom.

In some of the newsrooms I have visited, like the Star-Telegram in Fort Worth, mobile reporting was more developed. Reporters liked it — the transportation reporter defined his identity as a backpack journalist. Yet in Miami, the physical dislocation of space from the center of the city has meant a rethinking of what it means to be inside a newsroom. And as newsrooms think about relocation and digital-first initiatives, it’s worth considering whether mobile is for everyone and what gets lost in the digital diaspora of the journalist away from the newsroom.

Photo of the former Miami Herald building by Phillip Pessar used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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  • Jesse Holcomb

    Really interesting piece. I see the value in an institutional news org having a physical presence near the other institutions it routinely covers. And as someone who’s worked off-site/mobile AND in the office, I resonate w/ the serendipity afforded by being around colleagues. But it raises a question for me that might not be very easy to answer. To what extent do those chance encounters/conversations–in and out of the newsroom–influence a news org’s agenda? To what extent should they? There is that adage that news is what happens to and near an editor. And maybe such is the case whether there is a newsroom or not, or whether it is downtown or not. I also think that as certain kinds of news coverage become more data-driven, the value of face-to-face, personal relationships, and the serendipity of proximity may become called into question by some.

  • Nikki Usher

    I don’t know. I think that so many of these redesigns had physical communication at the center. But why would data-driven work be any different than talking about ideas for pieces and new angles?

  • dbevarly

    Jesse hit on the theme I was thinking about while reading this insightful post: the institution of journalism (notably the culture that’s a part of it). Increased mobility that comes from new technology adds a new cultural layer that impacts other historical characteristics as revealed by the reporters. The long term impact is still unknown.

    Two institutions that have been dramatically changed by new communication and information technology are journalism and government, though the impact has come much quicker to the news media since there is a revenue component that compels it to respond. The other, much more bureaucratic institution is also changing, but unfortunately at an incremental speed where we can see the long range potential but have no idea when we will realize it.

  • Jesse Holcomb

    As I read it, you seem to be describing two main consequences of what’s going on in Miami. A) Reporters feeling disconnected from the heart of the action because their newsroom is far away, which leads to B) reporters spending less time in the same space, which diminishes the intangible but valuable face time and spontaneous exchange of ideas.

    I totally get “B.” But when it comes to “A” I do wonder whether over time–as journalism and civic knowledge in general becomes more data driven and quantified–if face to face interactions with sources and personal relationships with institutions one covers, in general, become devalued. And, is the unmooring of the big city newsroom a part of that. Not making a normative statement, but just musing.

  • Lou Alexander

    This story (and a similar column that appeared in the San
    Jose Mercury News some months ago) take a somewhat myopic view of the definition of “news.” Almost all the dysfunctional examples deal with
    government/politics as news. But these things are generally a small part of the content of most newspapers on any given day. Sports, business, lifestyles, international, national come immediately to mind as newspaper
    content that has little relation to being “downtown.” Class A, centrally located commercial real estate in a city like Miami is much more expensive than the same square footage in the ‘burbs. The money saved may keep a few more reporters on their beats.