What’s news about a room?
Monday April 2, 2007
When I was last in London, I visited the new Telegraph newsroom and shot a brief video tour of it for my blog. Other bloggers were jealous; they said with awe and irritation – as if this were the news equivalent of secret USAF test site Area 51 – that photos and video of the room had not been allowed. A US editor friend who is preparing to rebuild his newsroom begged me to bring back photos and floorplans. That’s how much people want a glimpse of the future – if, indeed, this is the future.
At the centre of the newsroom sits the conference table where meetings are held. In every other newspaper I know, this table is locked behind a wall (at the Guardian, they collapse that wall for news meetings; in other papers, openness is defined as putting the table behind soundproof glass). Attending meetings at newspapers has always been a matter of rank and privilege (though go to enough of them, and you’ll think it a punishment instead). So it’s important that at the Telegraph, meetings happen in the open, at the centre.
Radiating out from that big, round table are rows of desks: editors of various stripes in the first circle, reporters in the next. So now journalists know just how close to the centre of the action they are. Print people sit next to online people – they used to occupy different floors – and management clearly hopes that their divisions will melt away in generations of organisational crossbreeding.
Scattered around the floor are big but silent TVs. The attention-grabber in the room is a large wall that has projected upon it websites, including the Telegraph.co.uk home page, and also statistics on their usage: the most popular stories, the most emailed. I saw the editors paying considerable attention to this data wall. They’ll be quick to tell you that they haven’t handed over editing of the paper to the mob, but they do try to listen to the buzz outside the castle walls.
There has been much written in these very pages about staff changes at the Telegraph; I won’t reprise that gossip, though I also won’t discount the importance of new blood and transfusions in the cultural transformation of a newsroom. The Telegraph has been quick to boast that it has been beating its London competitors at putting the web first. But the critical transformation I saw there was in the training of the journalists, each of whom has been sent to a week’s course in making new media and, more important, in learning to judge which media are best for which stories. I am working on such professional training at the journalism school where I teach and so perhaps I’m prejudiced, but I believe this is vital. Once you learn how easy it is to make video, you can’t help picking up a camera yourself. This is about showing journalists that they need not be limited by their medium.
But the far more important lesson is that we journalists cannot do it all ourselves. The real challenge is how to get out in the community, where they know more than we do. So is the room and its layout so important? Does rearranging the deckchairs in the newsroom really matter? I’m not sure.
Next year, the Guardian, too, will be moving to its own new newsroom, so it is beginning the planning now. When that happens, you can expect the Guardian to brag that its new newsroom is newer than the Telegraph’s (I’m amused by the competitive nattering among London’s newspeople; in truth, as an American, I have to say that I’m also jealous of your competitive marketplace).
So what would I advise the Guardian about its new home or that editor friend who’s preparing to blow up his newsroom? Perhaps the key is to make the room as uncomfortable as possible to drive journalists out of the office and into the community to report. Maybe the newsroom should become distributed into front seats of cars or front tables at Starbucks across the land. Or perhaps they should make the newsroom warm and inviting to entice the community in. Maybe it should be at ground level. Maybe they should simply hold their meetings not at a new table but online, for all to see. No, I don’t think the layout of the room matters except insofar as it affects the culture of the people in it, making them connect better with the community they serve. That’s the arrangement that matters.