Last week I noted that many journalists are working remotely from bookcase filled mini newsrooms as a result of COVID-19.
For some print journalists, those remote at home locations will turn into their permanent bureaus as some newspapers look to jettison their brick and mortar holdings in favor of an all remote workforce.
This week, Tribune Publishing announced that the physical offices of five newspapers it owns will be closed permanently in response to COVID-19, as well as a changing newspaper climate.
In making the announcement Tribune Publishing noted in a statement that, “Out of an abundance of caution we do not anticipate having employees that can work remotely coming back into the office for the remainder of the year and into 2021. With no clear path forward in terms of returning to work, and as the company evaluates its real estate needs in light of health and economic conditions brought about by the pandemic, we have made the difficult decision to permanently close these offices.”
The five newspapers going fully remote are the Daily News in New York City, The Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, the Orlando Sentinel in Orlando Florida, The Morning Call in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and the Carroll County Times in Maryland. The papers join a growing list of newspapers that are rethinking their business model.
At a time when solid journalism is needed more than ever to bring facts to the masses and debunk false claims from people in power, more than 50 local newsrooms in the United States have closed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the journalism think tank the Poynter Institute.
Additionally, a UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media report discovered that, “since 2004, the United States has lost one-fourth, or 2100, of its newspapers.”
The study went on to state that these resulting “news deserts” mean that “more than 200 of the nation’s 3,143 counties and equivalents now have no newspaper and no alternative source of credible and comprehensive information on critical issues.”
Consider that fact as people try to figure out whether schools are safe enough to send their kids back to, or if the COVID-19 virus is getting corralled, or is still raging out of control.
Granted, there are still television networks and online news sources to fill some of the void, but for many people the local newspaper is their lifeblood for getting the news that matters to them.
The newspaper industry is far from the only business segment that is likely to consider the cost benefits of shedding their real estate holdings in favor of a remote workforce. However, the announcement that newsrooms would be closing permanently hit me particularly hard.
I grew up reading the Orlando Sentinel, and at one point thought I might work there. Although to be fair, I totally preferred reading Florida Today and the Tampa Tribune over the Orlando Sentinel.
Still, the Sentinel building was a beacon of First Amendment freedom whenever I would drive by it. It was empowering to think of all of the journalists inside those walls working hard night in, and night out, to deliver the truth.
I even worked with, and competed against, many of the members of the Sentinel’s Sports Staff in my years covering high school and college athletics in and around Orlando.
So although I was never an employee of the Sentinel, I knew many people who were, and still are.
The mighty offset presses inside the Sentinel building went silent about three years ago. Like many papers, the Sentinel outsourced their printing to third parties as a way to cut costs. For the Sentinel, that meant a switch to a printing press about an hour away from downtown Orlando.
I know that the heart of a newsroom is made up of people, and not a building. However, it was the proximity of the people in that building that created the buzz and collaboration that makes journalism work.
When I was 16-years-old, I got my first professional newspaper job as a sports stringer for the Sanford Herald. For an aspiring journalist such as myself, the Herald newsroom was like walking into Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory without all of the chocolate and the singing.
Most of the reporters had already gone home by the time I got to the newsroom to write my stories, but the building was still alive with the sports staff, the photographer, and the team that ran the presses.
All these years later, I can still picture the cluttered desk of my first editor and the stacks of paper and other things that he had accumulated through the years surrounding it.
Looking around the cluttered desk I am sitting at while writing this, I suppose I subconsciously picked up that trait.
Aside from memories of cluttered desks stacked high with newspapers, I can still close my eyes and smell the unmistakable odor of newsprint and ink that filled the air. If the First Amendment was a cologne, to me it would smell like newsprint and ink.
The hands-on instruction I received from at the Herald proved invaluable to me in my writing career. Aside from learning the craft of writing on deadline, thanks to those Friday nights in the newsroom I also cannot listen to Edie Brickell & New Bohemians without thinking of the deep thought meditation quote taped on the wall above the editor’s computer.
Through my own years as an editor, from press box to press box, and newsroom to newsroom, I have sought to impart knowledge the same way to the reporters and other people I have managed as the way it was imparted to me all those years ago in a dusty and cramped newsroom in Sanford, Florida.
While I am all for the ability to file stories from the press box to avoid a long cross county drive back to the newsroom, there are definitely times when meeting face to face in a newsroom is critical to honing one’s craft.
It is hard to think of remote video calls having the same impact as actually seeing one’s colleagues face to face.
Of course, I realize that sounds somewhat hypocritical of me to say since I have been basically working remotely for years, and have loved every minute of it.
Still, it is different to work from home and know there is an office to go to from time to time, versus having the office sold and knowing that working from home is the only option.
When I first heard the news of the Sentinel closing their offices, I did what any good reporter would do and researched whether any of the newsrooms I had worked in were still in the same buildings that they were when I worked there.
I already knew that one of the newsrooms I worked in was gone. That newspaper merged with another paper and closed. As a result, I was laid off since the merger made me a redundant employee.
The paper I worked at before the one that merged is still in their same building. That led me to dig deeper and explore the weekly newspapers I worked for at another community chain.
Much to my surprise the entire 20 newspaper chain went from having newsrooms in each of the communities it served, to having one office and half the staff. They also sold the building that had the only printing press in the chain and joined the outsourcing trend.
That brought me back to the Herald, where my professional newspaper career began. Like so many of the other papers I had worked for, the Herald also left their long time building for a smaller facility that did not have a printing press attached to it.
The results of my research revealed that only one of the six newsrooms I worked in is still in operation at the same location it was in when I worked there.
The consolidation of the newspaper industry, and the media in general, will have long lasting effects on the ability to deliver impactful stories that make a difference in communities both small and large.
I know I am biased towards the need for a free and independent press to perform the duty of the Fourth Estate and hold leaders accountable, while also printing the scores of the local youth sports leagues.
COVID-19 has taught us that the need for clear and honest journalism is needed now more than ever. Unfortunately, with so many local newsrooms counting on funding from local businesses to operate, many more newsrooms are likely to go dark in the weeks, months and years to come as advertising revenue shrinks.
I can take solace in the fact that although Tribune Publishing closed five newsrooms, they did not fully shutter the newspapers altogether. Unfortunately, not all newspapers will be as lucky.
COVID-19 did not create all of the funding issues for local print journalism, but it definitely didn’t help slow the spread of the demise of independent voices.
Now if you’ll excuse me, in honor of that quote on the wall in the first newsroom I worked in, I am off to ponder whether what I am is what I am, and whether you are what you are or what.
Copyright 2020 R. Anderson