Post Industrial Journalism: Introducing Newsroom Spaces and Places

November 4, 2013 by

 

Post-Industrial Journalism is a concept that signifies journalism’s detachment from the traditional modes of production. The term also signifies constitutive moment that suggests for traditional newsrooms, a movement away a close reliance on the machinery of production. For most of the entirety of journalism history, traditional journalism institutions have been bound up by their close attachment to their printing presses and the industrial, physical factory model of production.

This project on Newsroom Spaces and Places in a Post-Industrial Age is an examination of newsrooms that, in theory, have left behind this reliance on traditional means of production. The news organizations I examine: The Miami Herald, The Star-Telegram (Fort Worth), the New York Daily News, the Des Moines Register, and The Seattle Times have all dramatically reconfigured their spaces away to become digital first, and to put online production ahead of their print product.

In the case of Miami, Des Moines, Fort Worth and Seattle, each newsroom has actually left their original news building for a new newsroom – one much smaller, and significantly, theoretically rearranged to facilitate the production of digital journalism. The trend of many newsrooms across America has been the sale of their newsrooms—and the eventual move to a new newsroom—leaving tradition behind, and hopefully starting anew.

In the case of the Daily News, the newsroom has stayed put, but it is repurposing it space post-Hurricane Sandy to make way for digital journalism and to include a tech incubator to fuse two cultures—the start-up world – with the world of traditional journalism.

The looming question, one that takes its cue from the original Tow report on Post-Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present – is whether these newsrooms can, in fact, move to flexible environment that accounts for the post-industrial nature of news in a wider ecology for journalism. Other questions arise: Can these newsrooms overcome the difficulty of organizational structures and cultures that have been for so long a barrier to rethinking how journalism gets done? What processes and workflows emerge, if any, for journalists and for these newsrooms to respond to their new environment?

This project looks at the recombination of physical space and digital space as newsrooms have moved to new newsrooms as a way to think more broadly about whether newsrooms have had the chance to start over. Does the move away from these traditional newsrooms – often so tied up with the symbolic capitol of these newsrooms in the ecology and landmarks of their community – mean much to the journalists? Or is this a new opportunity to create a wider expanse of news that indeed, makes use of the reality of smaller spaces, smaller staff, and capitalizes on what these newsrooms can do best?

The old newsrooms were strongly vested in a hugely industrial past. From the giant machines of the 1920s to the 1940s (pictured below)—with now mostly forgotten uses, awkward physical instruments used for slicing and dicing paper, to more streamlined production models as industrial processes became more sophisticated following the post-war improvements to industrial processes more generally, news production had involved massive physical infrastructure.

From The Des Moines Register basement – an unknown machine (shredder?).

 

Drone1

 

In the days of hot type, which lasted until the 1920s,  newsrooms were often arranged vertically to allow for a composing room and then the presses to accommodate different layers of production. Internally, they were organized inside the newsroom to allow for the extended process of copy-editing where the words slot and rim actually were demonstrated through the shape of copy desks (seen here in a wall mural on the walls of the new Wall Street Journal building on Avenue of the Americas).

PostIndustrialJournalism2

(see http://www.pinterest.com/pin/112941903128634580/)

Many of these buildings have vestiges of these old days; even if their presses are now in the suburbs, they still have empty room in the basement filled with quite literally who knows what. The buildings are poorly heated and poorly temperature controlled. Some I’ve visited actually still have pneumatic tubes for sending messages.

And, more often than not, they are massive buildings built to last – stone and marble fortresses, giant cement blocks stretched over city blocks, architectural gems of a time frozen in the city’s past of glory days downtown. Others are built more as factories. Most of these buildings were located in a place that made getting to the places of power in the city quite simple – a close walk to the county courthouse, the mayor’s office, the police office. Many journalists described their newsroom as a “built like a bank” or “a fortress taking up a city block.”

These early buildings were statements of power, the sign of the significance of the newspaper upon the city’s psyche, a sign that these newsrooms were formidable institutions that played an important role as watchdogs of the powerful – but also as guardians and as conveyers of information that simply could not be found elsewhere to their communities. In every newsroom I’ve visited that remains in its original home—and some that have moved, the same front pages deck the hallways: Man on the Moon; Pearl Harbor; V-Day; The Kennedy Assassination; later pictures from The Challenger Disaster, and the 9/11 photos of the World Trade Center.

These newspapers were still, at this point, living in a pre-internet era. These print pages were historic moments to capture in this physical, lasting, permanent historic moment. Even though the events were across the country and the world, the local metropolitan newspaper brought home the news to a ready local audience with only TV to offer an alternative viewpoint and story.

Now, these old newsrooms have become shells of their former selves. For the most part, print production has been sent to suburban locales. Satellite transmission of images along with computer programs to easily in the stroke of buttons create pages heralded one of the first signs that the industrial reliance on proximity to machines was over.

The newsrooms built in a later era – the 1960s to the 1980s to even the 2000s—signal a belief in newspapers’ continued prosperity. These newsrooms were large often not to accommodate the machinery of production but to fit large staff, both advertising and editorial.

But more significantly, these newsrooms have become outmoded, oversized, and unsuited to the digital age. One of the consequences of the vast layoffs faced by metropolitan newsrooms has been the transformation of newsroom space: empty cubes line (or lined) this office space, creating ghost hallways that were at one point filled with people.

To most journalists I spoke with, their old newsroom environment was a stark, daily reminder that the newsroom had suffered, that jobs were now threatened and uncertain, and that the once strong newspaper no longer had the resources to do some of its favorite embellishments, from long form reporting to features.

One of the critiques leveraged by Post-Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present is that traditional newsrooms cannot transform without significant, serious organizational effort. In fact, they are hamstrung by old ways of thinking, perhaps too strongly wedded to the traditional physical product. With the cost model eroded, what lies next for journalists in these newsrooms? Newsrooms were, according to the report, set in a difficult position thanks to outmoded content management systems.

The changes I saw across all these newsrooms were oddly, all the same: centralization around a single digital hub created by an architectural reconfiguration of the physical environment. A media wall formed the center of journalists’ attention (though The Daily News is still under construction and due to finish soon). Production flows from the outsides of the newsroom to one single place—the home page producers. Is this industrial? Or is this a post-industrial response?

The work processes of journalists in each newsroom varied as to the extent of their ability to move away from the physical locus of production – with some places, like The Star-Telegram, taking advantage of distributed opportunities for reporting thanks to new technologies.

As journalists I watched attempted to bring order to an unpredictable sense of traffic patterns, new ways of trying to routinize production emerged around time of day and type of story which would be prioritized. Different newsrooms chased particular types of stories depending on their particular beliefs about traffic, but uniformly, this dictated the drumbeat of just how journalism would be produced.

CMS challenges may not have been a tie to industrial labor, but they represented a vestige of industrial production even though they were detached from material products. Their internal logics created difficulties for digital-first strategies despite all the efforts journalists had to offer. The challenges were not all CMS-driven, but this was a strong reminder of the legacy tie-in to producing a print and online product, and the fact that these newsrooms were indeed distinctly not products of the Web world.

The report looks at the cases and themes of the newsrooms and the workflow through this prism of digital and physical space through short but intense field visits to newsrooms in various states of their new configurations. I visited Seattle and Fort Worth in their new newsrooms, and I watched the transition literally from right before the move to the post-move (with more work to be done post-move) of Des Moines and Miami. More research awaits, but the story is unfolding across these major themes.

Nikki Usher is a Tow Fellow working on the Tow Center’s Newsroom Places and Spaces in a Post-Industrial Age Project at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. The Newsroom Places and Spaces in a Post-Industrial Age Project is a project made possible by generous funding from both The Tow Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The Newsroom Places and Spaces in a Post-Industrial Age Project ourneys to newsrooms that show a prominent sign of an adaptation to a post-industrial world: newsrooms that have left their buildings for smaller spaces, often entirely designed around the idea of a digital-first model, or that have repurposed their space to make way for non-journalists, hoping for synergy and a way to fill empty spaces. Follow Nikki Usher on Twitter @nikkiusher. To learn more about the Tow Center Fellowship Program, please contact the Tow Center’s Research Director Taylor Owen: taylor.owen@columbia.edu.

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