By John Ensslin, 2011-12 SPJ President | April 9th, 2012
A lot of ink and pixels have been spilled on the “future of journalism” — on what business models will best lead us through the leap from “legacy media” to digital.
Not as much attention has been paid to the shape and architecture of the newsroom.
I think the current configuration of most newsrooms – both in print and broadcast – is outdated. The days of reporters and editors hunkered down in front of a desktop computer seems archaic in a time when technology has made our jobs increasingly mobile.
So, here is a brief description of what my dream newsroom would look like. I offer it knowing full well it runs contrary to the conventional newsroom we’ve all come to know and love for its quirks and eccentricities. And I know it would be outside of most people’s comfort zones.
My dream newsroom actually has an address: 1628 – 16th Street in Denver, in the heart of what is known as LoDo or Lower Downtown Denver.
It is the address of my favorite independent bookstore, The Tattered Cover, which occupies several floors of a classic red brick warehouse built in 1896.
If I were designing a newsroom from scratch, I would embed it inside a bookstore like the Tattered. I’d put it in one of the upper floors, spread across the large open hardwood floor with large windows that overlook the neighborhood.
But instead of the usual set up of desk/phone/reporter, I would have an array of long library tables with the classic green lampshade lights in the center.
Every reporter would be equipped with a computer tablet, a wireless keyboard and a smartphone. There would be plenty of file cabinets along the walls, but data would also be backed up on a cloud system that would allow everyone to retrieve documents.
You take a seat anywhere, file your story, talk to your sources, your colleagues, check your file cabinet, grab some coffee, and you’re on your way.
Part of this has to do with my long-held belief that there’s no news in the newsroom. There are gossip, witty remarks and companionship, but the news for the most part is out there beyond the brick walls.
I’m reminded of something Jimmy Breslin once said about how reporters of my generation grew up watching television and later transferred that skill to staring all day at a computer terminal.
People who do this spend their days talking with other reporters. They don’t tend to do much talking with longshoremen, cab drivers, grave diggers and people in unemployment lines or cops smoking cigarettes outside the station house.
Instead we follow a very human impulse to band together and hang out to the detriment of chasing the news.
The advantage to this hive-like newsroom would become apparent in times of crisis and breaking news. It would be possible to empty out a newsroom and have people set up somewhere closer to where the action was happening.
There are a few other advantages to the newsroom-embedded-in-a-bookstore. The Tattered had a great coffee shop. I could see the staff taking refuge there throughout the day, right next to the out-of-town newspaper rack.
And did I mention the free coffee and tea? Yes the stuff that fuels most newsrooms would be a perk of this newsroom.
It also wouldn’t be bad for reporters to have some casual secondary exposure to new books. I’m convinced one of the keys to good journalism writing is to read widely, especially other good writers.
The Tattered also had a large room for book signings and author talks. Imagine if the same space could be used on a regular basis by reporters interviewing newsmakers.
One other important feature of this model: it puts us where the audience is. People who buy books tend to read papers. Why not create a place where people could leave news tips?
Now, I know some distance from the public can be a good thing. There are a lot of obsessive people out there who tend to cling to a newsroom like barnacles. I remember one woman who kept telling reporters in one newsroom that she was a Russian spy.
But I also know that many newsrooms have created an almost impenetrable barrier between readers in the form of voicemail and phones that never get answered. A more permeable newsroom could lead to more stories.
I know my dream newsroom would be hell for a lot of reporters who like to claim their own space with their favorite coffee, pictures of family, knick knacks, gadgets, toys and all the stuff that makes the newsroom our second home.
But the news really is out there, and technology enables us to spend a lot more time hanging out in the places where news happens is something we should be taking advantage of as much as possible.