The pandemic changed newsrooms. But did it change them the right way?

New research from the Reuters Institute shows us that newsrooms have become more flexible post-pandemic, but not how that flexibility is being used.

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

The changing way journalists work is one of my central interests, so when an email dropped yesterday with a preview copy of a new Reuters Institute report on that, I was salivating. Has the pandemic unleashed the potential of technology to reshape how journalists do their jobs? Has the proven ability of journalists to do their job anywhere they have a laptop and phone been capitalised on?

I cracked open the report last night (as far as you can crack open a PDF, that is) and dived in. And…

…well, I found that this is very much not the report I was looking for, to misquote that old bender of the truth, Obi-Wan Kenobi. My fundamental question remains unanswered, although there are certainly some hints in there. For example:

Two-thirds (65%) of newsroom leaders who took part in our survey said that their organisations have implemented flexible and hybrid working models with new rules in place for staff. Newsrooms have largely settled on embracing some degree of workplace flexibility: 30% of respondents said staff are required to be in the office some fixed days per week and their company is enforcing the rule to make sure it’s respected, while 22% said that, despite staff being required to be in the office some fixed days per week, no one is checking if this really happens.

That suggests a profound shift in the way newsrooms operate, and one that is unlikely to be unwound any time soon. Three years is enough to establish a habit. I suspect that pressure might come to bear on the meagre 13% who are clinging to the “all in the office” to move this way as well, for staff retention and acquisition reasons.

Journalism’s poor management track record

The impact on culture hasn't been too dramatic:

38% said that the shift to hybrid and flexible working has weakened staff’s sense of belonging to the organisation.

That’s actually a pretty low number, but still suggests to me that too many journalism leaders have been relying on presence to deliver a sense of belonging and culture. Bad management is endemic in journalism: we promote people for their craft journalism skills, and rarely pay attention to their ability in the core management skills that they need to become desk heads or team leaders. Creating a culture is an active process, and it won’t just arise organically out of forcing everyone into the office on a set day. There's work to be done in making a team feel cohesive when they're not all physically present. But most of us have experienced newsrooms where there's work to be done in making the team feel cohesive when they're all in the same building, too…

This is the visualisation that troubles me, though:

Why? Well, the problem is that the categories offered to the respondents could apply to any business. This is general “office versus remote” work stuff. OK, sure, like any business, most publishers have people with true desk jobs. There are developers, and HR people, and accountants, and admin teams and so on.

Journalism is different. It isn’t an office job like accountancy, or a customer service call centres, or even a consultancy. The way our primary producers work is — or, at least, should be — very different. Working from the office or working remotely on the same tasks aren’t the only options. Most journalists can work from anywhere. And where they should be working isn't the office — it's where the stories they are reporting on happen.

We have too many journalists sat at their desks, finding stories digitally, and too few out there among the people they’re reporting on — and for.

Shoe leather journalism in a digital age

Admittedly, many journalism jobs are largely desk bound. Data journalists, audience specialists (to a degree), social media verification experts, and sub-editors, for example. But there’s more to journalism than that. And, in fact, what you might call our primary producers — the news and features journalists who are out there finding stories, talking to people and delivering unique pieces, rather than just rapid write-throughs of other people’s copy — are the heart of what we do.

Too damn many of them are sat in the office. A decade or so ago, James Ball took me to task on Twitter for advocating for shoe leather journalism, when he felt such advocacy wasn’t needed. Back then, it was still considered the ideal, and those who worked in more desk-bound aspects of the profession were looked down on. I’m not sure that many newsrooms would recognise that characterisation in the 2020s.

What’s frustratingly absent from the report — for me, at least — is any depth on how flexible newsrooms are at letting journalists get out and about in their reporting.

Stories aren’t happening at your desk

A journalist chained to their desk by technology

This has been a bugbear of mine for the past 16 or 17 years. When I first moved from being a working journalist to working on editorial skills development, I was genuinely shocked by what I found. I’d been working on a title for the commercial real estate industry, and a big part of my job had been travelling the country, interviewing the key people from the north of Scotland to the Channel Islands. And I found that, for example, many of the Farmers Weekly journalists barely strayed from their desks in suburban Sutton, with a couple of very notable exceptions. It varied wildly from title to title across the company, but I can say with certainty that you don’t find many farmers in that part of London…

As I moved into training and consulting, I was disappointed at the degree to which national newspapers worked the same way. In fact, it was big news in media circles when The Guardian launched Guardian Local — an attempt to have working journalists in the regions.

There’s a technology element to this, of course. Desktop PCs tied you to your desk, as did the hassle of dealing with paper proofs of pages. But those days are long behind us, and have been for more than a decade. With a laptop and a mobile phone, a reporter should be able to work anywhere, filing copy, correcting proofs, and even keeping in contact with the office through Slack.

Where is the post-pandemic journalism liberation?

The pandemic proved that we’re ready to unshackle ourselves from the desk again. But, three years on, we’re having the wrong conversations. Why aren’t we talking about freeing up office space and, rather than sending young reporter home to work from the edge of their beds, using the money to provide a decent travel and accommodation budget? Then reporters can go where the story is, speak to the people that it’s happening to, and be visible while they do it. Why aren’t we having better conversations about how to use tools like Slack, video conferencing and their ilk to keep reporting teams co-ordinated?

Journalism is not an industry that should be trying to manage by presence. If you’re not producing stories, if you’re not getting the editing and layout done, it should be obvious because stories don’t appear. Build the workflow tools correctly, and the slackers in the system become obvious.

Measuring journalist productivity is getting ever more complex

That is, perhaps, at least somewhat reflected in this part of the data:

That seems to suggest that checking that journalists are actually doing their job isn't a huge part of the flexible working discussion. There are some useful quotes in the report, showing that non-journalistic aspects of the business are causing some of the issues here:

In mid-2020, we implemented a new system of measuring the productivity of our development team using a system of ‘effort points’ for each task. Because our development teams work mostly from home, this has been very useful for measuring its productivity.

Development output is more complex to measure than journalistic output, sure. And this same Spanish title seems to have its head screwed on about analysing journalist productivity:

It’s not the same with the newsroom because journalists are working mostly at the office, so changes about measuring productivity with them has to be more about business challenges – like reader revenue shift, IA impact – than with flexible working.

And yes, you should be worrying far more about what sort of content helps your business model work, and who is best at producing it, than the number of stories you can see someone churning out oat their desk. You need to develop bespoke metrics tied to business goals, like The Telegraph did with their Stars metric.

We need to know more about mobile journalists are becoming

It’s not often I feel a little let down by Reuters Institute work, and I should stress that I’m only really addressing the first third of the report here. There are more revealing sections on AI (inevitably) and DEI in there, too. I might come back to those, depending on how my week pans out. But this first section, the one I was most excited to read, falls short. But that's because it's not really a study of journalism working practices at all. It's a study of journalistic businesses in the round. That's left me hungry for more detail.

The hybrid working dichotomy is not meaningful in the context of the actual journalism. You can work in the office. You can work at home. But where many of you should be working is out there, among the people you’re reporting on.

I, like many of my colleagues at City, only work for them part-time. Another part-timer, James Morris, is almost always jetting off to some part of the world to drive some electric car or other, as part of the rest of his working life. Now, this flexibility has always existed in parts of journalism. What I’d like to know is how far this has extended to other reporters. And I think this matters.

The trust factor in changing journalistic practices

A journalist liberated from their desk, heading out to find stories

The thing about my old regional real estate reporting job was that I met hundreds of people in the industry every year. You’d have to be working in a pretty damn small town to not see a journalist from that title at least once a year, and sometimes more often. And that bred trust. Now, I’m aware that changes in the financial reality of publishing mean that the exact job I used to do no longer exists. But the fundamental principle still applies.

If we stay as faceless figures, hidden away in office towers, rarely meeting anyone face-to-face, then the existing trust problem the industry faces will only get worse. There’s a link here. We have journalists vanishing from the streets, from people’s offices, and from public events. And then, most of the public only every get to see a working journalist via a byline on a web pages and waging internecine warfare among themselves on X (formelyknowasTwitter). We need to look this disconnect in the face, acknowledge it, and start dealing with it.

The pandemic handed us the proof that we could do things differently. What we still don’t know is: are we?

Want a very different take on this research? Isabelle Roughol asks “what does a job offer that self-employment does not?

Read the report

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.