COVID variants cause news publishers to consider how newsrooms are staffed and equipped
By Rob Tornoe
Editor and Publisher
Post-pandemic newsrooms have a new look ....................................... The chances are good that you’re reading this column from the cozy confines of your home office, which you may or may not share with an endless pile of children’s toys and unwashed laundry. As crazy as it seems, we’re only a couple of months away from entering the third year of the coronavirus pandemic, and newsrooms across the country remain in flux amid the threat of variants and breakthrough cases. At the Philadelphia Inquirer, where I work, our offices and newsrooms have remained closed since March 2020. They are currently being redesigned to accommodate a POST-COVID reality of a hybrid workforce. Like everyone else, we’ve learned to work remotely, relying on Slack and a nearly endless list of Google tools to keep publishing without too many issues, though the less we speak about Zoom, the better. We still don’t know when we’ll be back in the office, which seems to be the norm among many larger newsrooms. Dow Jones & Company, owned by News Corp and publisher of the Wall Street Journal, plans to delay any return to the office until March 2022 at the earliest. Initially, The New York Times hoped to get most staffers back in the office under a hybrid plan in early September. Still, thanks to the Delta and Omicron variants, the full reopening of their Manhattan headquarters has been pushed back to the first quarter of 2022. For most newsrooms, a hybrid model involving a mix of remote and office work appears to be the new reality. According to a recent survey of news leaders by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, just 9% of news organizations plan to force all their employees to return to the office as they did pre-pandemic. In comparison, 89% are all-in on a more flexible workplace. Among them is the Seattle Times, where employees were expected to begin returning to the newspaper’s offices on a primarily voluntary basis on Jan. 10. Alan Fisco, the president of the Seattle Times, said the shift to remote working was far better than newsroom leaders had expected. Moving forward, the company plans to offer a hybrid model where employees can essentially decide where they prefer to work. Seattle Times staffers who choose to work in the office three or more days per week will be assigned a permanent desk in the newly redesigned newsroom, while those that choose to work remotely will have temporary seating at a multi-use desk. While Fisco said he hopes to allow employees to decide for themselves, he did note there are “some business reasons” why certain staffers might be required in the office more than they might want. He also has some concerns about a hybrid model moving forward for new employees. “As you see turnover and get more new employees, how do you assimilate them into a new organization and a new culture?” Fisco asked rhetorically. “What worries me more is when you get new employees who just moved to Seattle. They see their co-workers on Zoom, but it’s very different than really meeting them in person.” Fisco isn’t the only newsroom leader that has concerns about the long-term impact of a fully-remote workforce. Phil Chetwynd, the global news director for the news agency Agence France-presse (AFP), said one thing that’s lost is the real-time debate about wire decisions, which he said was more vibrant and frequent when everyone was in person. “Being virtual does tend to push you back into silos,” Chetwynd said in the Reuters survey. But the benefits of remote work — some unexpected — do appear to be outweighing the downsides in most newsrooms, especially as many areas of the country continue to experience high COVID-19 infection rates. Quartz CEO Zach Seward said having a fully remote workforce has allowed the company to draw in a more diverse pool of applicants. Jane Barrett, the global editor for media news strategy at Reuters, said staffers communicating on Microsoft Teams made conversations more “meritocratic” and increased attendance to their editor’s conversation. “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,” Barrett said. Despite the benefits, some media companies have told staffers they must return to the office. In a survey of 91 media companies conducted in September by Editor & Publisher, roughly one-third said their offices are once again fully staffed in-person. However, some are open to returning to a hybrid model if necessary. Some news organizations have attempted to require their employees to return to the office, only to be met with blowback by employees who have grown accustomed to flexibility during the pandemic. At Hearst’s magazine division, which publishes popular titles, such as Cosmopolitan and Good Housekeeping, staffers were told they’d have to return to their U.S. offices beginning mid-november. Instead, over 300 employees signed a petition objecting to the plan, and their union filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. They’re not alone. Staffers at Apple, Amazon, and Linkedin have made it clear to executives they prefer the flexibility of remote work and the ability to decide for themselves about returning to the office. “The backlash is real,” Tsedal Neeley, a Harvard Business School professor who has studied remote work for decades, told the Boston Globe. “Employees are not only requesting that there is an adjustment to the return-to-the-office policy, but they’re also resigning.” Among those choosing the hybrid path is the Mon Valley Independent, a small daily newspaper in western Pennsylvania. Stacy Wolford, the paper’s managing editor, said most non-editorial employees are back in the office. Still, most of her reporters continue to work remotely, as they have during the pandemic. “I actually think my staff is more productive now. There are definitely less callouts,” Wolford said, adding that she felt more productive working from home, where fewer distractions took her away from putting together the newspaper. The newspaper’s close-knit staff has been using Google Chat to keep in touch, and Wolford said it’s hard to envision a scenario where everyone is always back in the office again, especially with the harsh Pennsylvania winter bearing down. “Bad weather’s coming, and it’s nice to be able to do some things from home,” Wolford said.