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May 19, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:17am

Future of the newsroom: Can we rekindle the fire of the editorial conference on Zoom?

By Chris Blackhurst

With many publishers looking to close their offices forever and move to permanent home or hybrid working – Chris Blackhurst looks at the future of the newsroom and the all-important editorial conference.

Every morning in every news organisation in the world, pretty much, a time-honoured ritual unfolds.

It’s the editorial conference. Exact times as to when it is held may differ but the format is more or less the same. The editorial department heads or their representatives troop into the editor’s office or a meeting room. The editor arrives. There’s some chit chat, then one by one they go through their lists of stories.

Some editors prefer paper schedules, some like to see them posted electronically. They read down the list, and now and again, someone, usually the editor, will comment. It may be  something disdainful and dismissive or it can be a declaration of interest. Occasionally, it will lead to a wider discussion about doing it up as “a package”, involving several journalists, graphics, pictures, possibly entailing more than one day’s worth of coverage. It may evolve into something else, leftfield, zany and brilliant. It might be destined for that day’s lead.

Then they file out and a few, senior folk stay behind and plan further.

It all sounds automatic. Except it isn’t. Just as the newsroom is a place of chemistry so is the editorial conference. It’s where editors and their senior colleagues can see into whites of eyes, where it’s possible to work out who is in favour and who is not, who may be destined for elevation or equally, who may soon be heading off completely.

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It’s where some editors throw their weight around and deploy what they consider to be their best motivational technique: instilling fear by publicly humiliating and calling out. Often, as one poor sap gets the sarcasm treatment or worse (and everyone else gives silent thanks to God they’ve escaped, for today anyway) it does not go unnoticed that another is selected for bigging up.

It can be horrible, depending on the person in charge, but the editorial conference done well can be energising and collectively creative. It’s the coming together, the point where ideas harden, where subjects get projected – where the character of the edition is shaped.

They rely, though, on human interaction, of people being in one confined space. It’s not a process that can be translated as well to Zoom or Teams.

That, however, is how editorial conferences have had to be this past year, as editors and their teams WFH. Now, with the easing of lockdown more people are attending in person but there are still those on screens, not physically present. That is how it is going to be for some time yet, as editors grapple with the future of working.

Difficult to discern emotion

One editor I spoke to predicted that the “hybrid” version, part-physical, part-virtual, with some in the office in person and others at home, could become permanent.

Another said they were ordering everyone back to the office and it was vital the editorial conference was restored as soon as possible to how it used to be.

It may be more efficient using Zoom or Teams – no one can blame their lateness on a commute and without the travel time there are more hours to devote to the job. But it’s much more difficult to discern emotion. Face to face, you can observe body language, the twitch, sense the hesitation. In seconds you’re able to tell that they may be promoting this tale but they don’t have a clue what they’re talking about, it’s nowhere near ready, they’re flying a kite, they know it might not stand up.

[Read more:Swings and roundabouts’: What Covid-19 remote working has done to newsroom productivity]

Harder to do this on a screen, with a frequently poor signal (amazing, how the wi-fi can cut out at potentially the most awkward of moments).

In some respects, it’s better. There’s less talking across, fewer interruptions, the alpha males do not dominate the same. Neither, though, is there the spontaneity – often is the time I’ve been in an editorial conference when someone has been dispatched to find the reporter, to bring the journalist into the meeting.

What does not happen either is the person next to you writing a note on their pad for you to see. Of course, they can send a WhatsApp or text, but again it’s not the same.

What is missing as well is the comfort of familiarity. It always fascinated me, having been to countless editorial conferences, many of them as editor, how each day everyone sat in the identical seat. Their neighbours were the ones they had yesterday and the day before that. Usually too, those who preferred standing were stood in that spot yesterday and the day before. Nobody told them where to sit or stand, it occurred that way and it stuck.

That’s impossible to replicate on a screen. It means when it’s your time to perform, you really are on your own, with no regular supporters either side.

You are able to hide to an extent, though. It’s trickier facing a bank of faces to tell if that person top left is looking at their mobile or in the case of second along on the right, another screen. If they’re allowed to turn the camera off they’re lost completely, there is no means of telling what they’re doing.

There’s no murmur on Zoom or Teams, little off-the-cuff, more difficult to pick up excitement and energy. You’re not aware of people suddenly sitting forward, displaying a marked interest.

In a room, you can assess the mood straight away, your eyes can dart around in seconds, your peripheral vision can take in any movement – you just know if a topic is going down well, whether it’s got them hooked and will therefore grab readers and viewers.

There’s also that moment, which is lost remotely, which is when the door flings open and they all walk back to their desks or come out and break into huddles. The newsroom is aware the meeting has ended and the veterans are watching for signs of the overall tenor – these are the leaders after all, are they uplifted and cheery or are they dismal. Is today going to be an okay day or a bad day? Are they looking across at me and smiling? If they are, the editor must like my story. If they’re not and are actively avoiding my gaze, it’s rubbish.

Newspapers, news programmes, news websites – whatever the medium they’re all fuelled by the intangible, by fire and passion. The editorial conference is where the alchemy begins. It’s mysterious and magical. We’re adapting but we miss it desperately.

Read more incisive comment from Press Gazette contributors including Alan Rusbridger, Lionel Barber and Eleanor Mills.

Main image Fizkes/Shutterstock

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