I’ve been thinking a lot about how newsroom layout lately. Boring, you say? It’s more important than you might think. I recently moved from an open-plan newsroom to a new station with a very different setup, and I’ve realized what a difference it makes.
My old newsroom in Florida was small – four people plus me as News Director. The four of them were all in one room, divided into cubicles. I had a separate office, but it was adjacent to the newsroom, and I almost never closed my door. Before I became News Director, I was a reporter in the same station, and I sat out in the bullpen and really enjoyed it. I was actually reluctant to move into the separate office.
About seven months ago, I moved into a medium-sized newsroom where thirteen journalists are scattered around in eight different offices – and there’s a very different feel to the place.
In my old shop, the chatter wasn’t constant, but it was frequent. It ran the gamut – from a joke about the local 24-hour cable news channel that we always had on in the background, to a shouted-out question asking for advice on a source for a story, to a casual conversation about a story in the daily news cycle. Some of the most interesting pieces we produced actually grew out of those casual conversations. I remember one day, not long after Caylee Anthony had disappeared in Central Florida, when scores of protesters from all over the country had descended on her grandparents’ house. The chatter in the newsroom turned to this story, and someone said, “I can’t understand why these people would leave their regular daily lives to get involved in the personal tragedy of a family they have no connection with whatsoever.” There, I realized, was the public radio angle on this fairly salacious but ubiquitous story. We ended up booking an expert on the sociology of protests for our talk show, and it turned out to be a very interesting interview. And it never would have happened had it not been for that casual chat in the newsroom.
That kind of interaction doesn’t happen so much when you have separate offices. It doesn’t allow for much organic bubbling up of story ideas like the one I just described. It can also affect the culture of the organization. Separate offices can mean interaction between journalists only happens at formal news meetings, which can be intimidating for some … and meetings certainly don’t provide an opportunity for building the camaraderie and trust and comfort level that comes from the casual chats and quips that are common in open plan newsrooms. On the other hand, there are advantages — privacy, the absence of distractions, no fear that your phone conversation with a source will disturb a colleague working in the next cubicle.
We’re considering a re-design at my new shop, so these questions have been on my mind quite a lot. I’d love to get the perspective of people who’ve worked in different kinds of newsrooms, so please leave your comments here, post on Facebook or get in touch!