Our friend Nikki Usher is out with a new report today at the Tow Center (pdf here) on the role of physical space in newspapers making the transition from print to digital. With shrinking staffs, a desire for cultural change, and a reduced role for printing plants, lots of newsrooms have moved in recent years. What difference can a change of scenery make?
As newsrooms shed their old, industrial pasts through optioning real estate, then perhaps the future for post-industrial journalism is quite bright. But if these moves are about nothing more than downsizing and loss, then we ought to be deeply concerned about the viability for quality news in the digital age, particularly from metropolitan newsrooms.
The task of this paper is to explore how physical change might make a difference to the future of journalism. The goal here is to help those inside and close to the industry understand the transition newspapers are making away from their manufacturing roots and into their post-industrial present. The relationship between physical and digital space, and what it means to journalists and their work, should help us learn more about what is happening inside journalism — and hopefully offer some insights into opportunities and blind spots.
Nikki’s paper builds on a number of pieces about newsroom space that have run here at Nieman Lab (one, two, three). Among the questions she addresses in the paper:
— Can a move to a new physical space help to update newsroom culture? Can it serve as a digital do-over?
— Does moving to a post-industrial space — abandoning the presses out in the suburbs, say — communicate something about the nature of the newspaper to readers, advertisers, and citizens?
— How can the physical organization of newsroom space be optimized for breaking news online?
— How important is physical space when everyone has a laptop and a smartphone, anyway?
From Nikki’s conclusion:
Newsroom moves matter. Journalists are storytellers and they have always crafted their own myths about the profession. If the message now for metropolitan newsrooms is digital innovation, then it may be necessary to create a very explicit break with the past. New stories need to be created to establish a new narrative about the purpose and mission of journalism. One facet of cultural change began when online journalists were integrated into the main newsroom as equal partners. This was a story of physical space just as it was one of cultural change.
It’s easy to get wistful about the decline of newspapers. And indeed, the loss of large newspaper buildings and their imprint on their respective cities is sad to those who have sentimental attachments to old journalism. The symbolism of these moves is incredibly meaningful to both reporters and the public. For this reason, newspapers need to tell their own stories of change. They must be able to create a tale that downsizing space is not downsizing the news.