In the 1976 film All the President’s Men, the Washington Post reporters working to break news of the Watergate scandal huddle and fret in a newsroom abuzz with the pounding of typewriters, screaming of gruff editors and phoning of sources. It’s a tableau repeated throughout the history of journalism movies, from The Sweet Smell of Success to Spotlight.
These days, the Post’s newsroom is more subdued, with job cuts likely amid declining digital subscribers and revenues. There are various reasons for the slowdown, including diminished appetite for news in the post-Trump era and a widely criticized marketing strategy. But another morale sinker has been the push by Fred Ryan, the paper’s chief executive and publisher, to bring staffers back to the office, if not to revive the Woodward and Bernstein glory years than to weed out low performers.
The turmoil at the Post, and the share of it arising from the WFH debate, got me to thinking about the effect of remote work on the media sector.
What stands to be lost from the further diminution of newsrooms already battered by decades of industry contraction? How might journalism, which combines the intensely personal work of writing with the interactive process of many colleagues putting out a single product, struggle to strike a balance between individual autonomy and organizational collaboration? What threat does reduced collaboration pose to the quality of information that news outlets provide?
It’s an urgent question, since information industry workers, which range from journalists to software developers, are more likely than those in any other sector to still be working from home. Only 40% were back on-site as of June 2022, reports the Post, while nationwide just one-third of work was done at home.
Of course, remote work was never an option for some and remains more attainable for white-collar professionals. And I suspect journalists are less eager than, say, bankers, to return to the office thanks to crummy salaries and the instability still pervading the field.
That said, the broad move to remote media work troubles me for several reasons.
It undermines the ability to produce a cohesive product, be it a newspaper, broadcast news show or digital publication. Sure, pitch meetings and editor-journalist conversations can be had over Zoom, but as in other industries, speaking through a screen handicaps spontaneous debate and those lightning bulb moments. And a sloppy journalistic product will lose the trust of audiences it’s meant to inform.
Along those lines, I worry that the loss of intellectual rigor more easily found in face-to-face conversations could dilute the value of news being reported. Criticism is essential to good journalism. With less pushback, and defending oneself against it, quality will suffer. And audiences certainly don’t need more reason to think journalists live and work in an echo chamber.
Staff diversity might also suffer if media companies stay at home. There’s been a considerable, commendable recent effort by media companies to hire staffers from an array of racial, class and educational backgrounds. I fear that the young employees who’ve benefitted from these efforts could stall if they’re inadequately exposed to office culture, unpleasant as it may sometimes be, and the career development boost it offers.
Finally, a media company whose journalists work remotely while the executives congregate at HQ could erode the buffer between editorial and business wings. There’s been a growing fear of meddling by corporate owners in editorial affairs—following Jeff Bezos’ 2013 purchase of the Post, for instance. A dispersion of journalists working remotely could dent their bargaining power, which would be especially unfortunate given recent moves by many small newsrooms to unionize.
I recognize the benefits of remote work to establishing work-life balance and even to getting more work done in less time. But journalists, whose ability to work freely is already under threat by certain corporate owners and powerful outside critics, should carefully weigh the risks of further depleting newsrooms whose collective buzz helps propel the journalistic mission.