The future of newsrooms

Illustration by Georgia Scott

As newsrooms disperse, reporters scatter across the world, and virtual traffic soars during the coronavirus pandemic, two journalists watch the rest of the industry catch on to a way of working they’ve long practiced.

Shashank Bengali and David Pierson are both reporters for the Los Angeles Times based in Singapore. Together they form the remote two-person bureau covering Southeast Asian news.

Over the past year, they have made their homes their newsrooms and gotten used to the 15-hour timezone difference talking to editors 14,000 km away. Now, they see an increasing number of colleagues joining them, with traditional newsroom models completely upended.

“I can’t imagine going back to the office at this point. And I think for many people, a light has gone off too,” Pierson said. A father to two young children, he finds remote working gives him flexibility without sacrificing productivity. “When you’re in the office, there’s less work and more office politics. Now, your work speaks for itself.”

The biggest challenge had been limited contact with colleagues and editors due to time-zone differences and sparse usage of virtual channels like Slack, Bengali says. But since the pandemic and shift to online platforms, he’s found it much easier to communicate. “They used to work mostly in the office. Now they’re seeing this as a new way to collaborate,” he said. “Slack traffic is up 1000%.”

With the entire newsroom onboard, barriers to remote working have fallen. As the coronavirus hollows out journalism in Asia and worldwide, virtual newsrooms also offer media outlets another benefit – cutting office rent in a time of plummeting revenues that has already led to the closure of several news companies. One of Malaysia’s largest publishing houses, Blu Inc Media, shuttered in April after four decades’ of operation, laying off over 200 staff members across 20 print titles.

Connectivity issues

“Journalists have always been comfortable working out of office, whether it’s covering parliament or flying off somewhere,” Bengali said. The main challenge lies in ensuring employees have reliable access, especially in underdeveloped regions in Asia.

“Singapore is one of the most advanced countries, making working from home an easy and relatively streamlined experience. Move on to Indonesia and other parts of the region and it’ll be a struggle,” Bengali said. “There are connectivity issues, where some may not have updated headsets, and camera quality could be very poor.”

South China Morning Post CEO Gary Liu said in July that SCMP was having difficulty transferring enormous video files via the public internet. “Our video teams are still figuring out contactless ways to pass off hard drives to one another,” Liu told reporters at the WAN-IFRA Asian Media Leaders eSummit.

Internet issues aside, there are other perks to retaining a physical newsroom: it’s a common space for social cohesion, to collaboratively bounce ideas off and even diffuse conflict. When the Black Lives Matter protests rocked the U.S. in June, tensions rose in newsrooms including the LA Times’. Away in Asia, Pierson felt its reverberations, magnified as employees were distanced.

“Working remotely, you have no social cues, no eye contact. When you read something on Slack, you could project your implicit bias on whatever that person is saying,” Pierson said. “We could have benefitted from the actual physical space and being there.”

Newsrooms of tomorrow

Pandemic or not, newsrooms have always been changing to remain relevant as journalism evolves. In the past decade, masses of office cubicles have become collaborative workspaces and multimedia studios have sprung up.

The crisis has taught big outlets like Bloomberg News, used to collaborating across different regions and timezones, that they can have entire newsrooms work remotely if need be. Even so, Bloomberg is ready to move back to physical newsrooms when it is safe, Southeast Asia managing editor Stephanie Phang told listeners at a June webinar organized by Singapore Press Club and Telum Media.

The result could be a smaller space with more flexible work arrangements. “So many reporters live far away from office. Many of them can telecommute now,” Pierson said.

“I can see a scenario where half of the newsroom is basically gone.”