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Nov. 16, 2021, 12:49 p.m.
Business Models

About a third of news organizations have already adopted a remote or hybrid working model

Just 9% of newsrooms plan to reject remote work and return to their pre-pandemic setup.

Hybrid working will be the norm for many journalists, according to a new report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. Just 9% of news organizations plan to reject remote work entirely and return to their pre-pandemic model.

The report’s authors — Federica Cherubini, Nic Newman, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen — surveyed 132 news industry leaders from 42 countries and conducted in-depth interviews with 13 of them. (Think titles like editor-in-chief, executive editor, publisher, and digital director.) The vast majority (89%) of these newsroom leaders said they were fully on board with flexible and hybrid working. Now the question seems to be: what’s the best way to make it work?

Even after 18 months of a pandemic, the journalism industry is still trying to figure that out. Newsrooms have issued “back to office” dates only to push them back. (And back again.) Some journalists are resisting returning to the newsroom and new hires are pressing for a commitment to flexible and hybrid work. And, lest we forget, the pandemic is still very much with us in many parts of the world.

Roughly a third (34%) of news organizations have already adopted a remote or hybrid working model, according to the report. Another 57% said they were still in the process of figuring out the best way to implement hybrid working. Just under one in ten (9%) said their organizations planned to adopt a working model as similar as possible to the one in place pre-pandemic. (Many of this last group work in radio and TV, which can have expensively equipped studios and workflows that put a premium on face-to-face teamwork, the authors note.)

A few caveats before we go on: The survey draws on a strategic (i.e. not representative) sample. Although 42 countries were represented in the survey, the majority of respondents work in large or mid-sized newsrooms in Europe or the United States and — reflecting broader gender inequality among senior-level positions — 68% of those surveyed were men. (The word “childcare” does not appear in this report.) Also worth mentioning? The opportunity to work remotely in the first place is uncommon. Roughly 35% of Americans worked remotely at the height of the pandemic and by August 2021, that number had dropped to just 13%.

O.K., back to the survey. The news leaders reported feeling like they had a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to reshape the newsroom. They want to get it right.

As many of our interviewees have noted, the hybrid future is about much more than just enabling greater employee rights to remote working. In an ideal world, it describes a new operating model where work is done without reference to location, where talent is used more effectively, where hierarchies are less formal, and where diverse groups are included in conversations. It’s also likely to involve a greater amount of face-to-face contact with colleagues, whether that is just to socialize, reinforce company culture, or collaborate on creative projects.

But, as authors make clear, how close newsrooms can get to this ideal is very much up for debate. Some of the respondents brought up “proximity bias” — which favors employees who show up to the office physically — and how a lack of visibility could affect those who opt to work from home. Many of the interviewed managers are concerned that hybrid working could affect communication and collaboration, especially between departments. The global news director of AFP, Phil Chetwynd, for example, lamented the loss of real-time debate about news wire decisions and worried that remote work could make it harder to incorporate more visual journalism, which the news agency sees as a key to its future. (“Being virtual does tend to push you back into silos,” he said.)

Others, like Natalia Piza of El Espectador in Colombia, want to ensure that hybrid working doesn’t interfere with the “learn-by-osmosis” approach that helps train a new generation of reporters. “The most important challenge for El Espectador is continuing being a school of journalists in our newsroom,” Piza said. “For this, it is necessary to inhabit the physical space to boost the meetings between senior editors with the youngest reporters.”

One trend that could make creating these opportunities for informal training even more difficult? Managers reported that experienced and “comfortable” employees are resisting coming back to the office. These experienced employees “tend to be older, sometimes living in bigger houses in the suburbs or with comfortable second homes in the country,” the report notes. They are reluctant to restart commutes and — unlike, say, their younger colleagues sharing a New York- or London-sized apartment — have ideal work-from-home setups.

Still, the industry moves toward hybrid working. About 40% of news organizations have already downsized their newsroom’s physical footprint or are planning on it. Nearly three-quarters have or plan to redesign their office space as part of the move to flexible and hybrid working. (Of course, reducing office space tends to mean reducing costs — an appealing option for news organizations feeling pinched.)

So what will the newsroom look like now? Publishers are experimenting. After the German broadcaster RTL surveyed its staff and found they appreciated the additional flexibility but missed “the buzz of the office,” their news department replaced desks with shared “hubs” that anyone can use and created coffee bar-inspired areas and other spaces dedicated to brainstorming and creative conversations. In Canada, The Globe and Mail reduced its office space from three floors to two and plans to have an app that’ll put teams into “neighborhoods” and allow staff to book different areas.

Publishers are reporting some unexpected benefits from hybrid working. Reuters reported higher attendance and more “meritocratic” discussions when meetings were held on Microsoft Teams rather than behind glass walls in the physical newsroom. (“When participants are all the same squares on a digital video platform, those old hierarchies — who sits at the top of the table or next to whom — are suddenly less visible and less imposing,” said Jane Barrett, the global editor for media news strategy at Reuters.) Quartz CEO Zach Seward credited the decision to become a “fully distributed” company — opening job positions to people living “anywhere Quartz can legally employ people” — with the ability to attract a more diverse workforce. In a year, Quartz went from a newsroom where 31% to 42% of employees were people of color to having 50% of employees be people of color, according to Seward.

Although the Reuters Institute report found that the pandemic has ushered in big changes in newsrooms, its authors note that addressing the lack of diversity in journalism is not one of them.

While the last year has seen much discussion, and some individual organizations have taken substantial action, our findings suggest there has been no overall progress in addressing lack of diversity in the news industry as whole, and more than a quarter of our respondents work in news organizations that are currently not taking any concrete steps to address these issues.

You can read the full report here.

Photo by Dillon Shook on Unsplash.

POSTED     Nov. 16, 2021, 12:49 p.m.
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