This article first appeared in Reaction.
This may come across as a cliché but it’s true: I became a journalist because I watched a film about a couple of journalists bringing down the most powerful man in the world without firing a gun.
I refer of course to All the President’s Men, the movie and the book had me hooked. It wasn’t, though, just the sight of Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford working in tandem or seeing how the real-life Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward pieced together the jigsaw that would topple President Richard Nixon. It was their interaction and the way they would discuss, plan, collaborate, with their colleagues, young and old.
Their working environment seemed to be imbued with a team spirit, a chemistry, a bonding that was magnetic. Years later, I was not disappointed: the newsrooms of the Sunday Times, Daily Express, Sunday Express, Independent, Independent on Sunday, Observer, Evening Standard – all places where I hung my metaphorical trilby and grubby raincoat, leaned back in the chair, put worn soles up on the table and lobbed paper balls into a wastebasket – were the same as theirs. And they were brilliant.
So to read that Reach, owners of the Mirror, Express, Star and more than 100 regional titles, is planning on closing most of its newsrooms so that staff will in future work remotely from home or over a laptop in a coffee bar, and venture into the office only for occasional meetings, is genuinely upsetting news.
I’m all for technological progress, but this really is a case where something profound is being lost. It says that those at the top of the organisation – even the very name Reach conveys a message, no longer implying the transmission of news but just as easily applying to the selling of advertising – don’t get it. They don’t understand. They don’t know what it’s like to be on the floor when a major story breaks, when everyone literally stops what they’re doing and gathers round the TV screens and within seconds orders are being barked, stories spiked, running orders changed, reporters and photographers dispatched, and sheer adrenaline takes hold.
They will say that I betray my age, that not so much appears in print these days so you can forget a front page having to be redrawn. That’s as may be, but news websites still have priorities and headlines – everything needs to be urgently rejigged.
The newsroom is much more than covering the occurrence of a terrorist outrage or disaster or some political storm. It’s about a buzz, an intangible chemistry, an intoxicating smell, of people, young and old, sparking off each other, sharing ideas and leads, bits of information and yes, having a gossip and a laugh. It’s the media equivalent of the City trading floor and the football changing room. It’s where “it” happens.
Reach says management has surveyed the workforce and they’ve said they’re perfectly happy being at home. To which my response is that they would of course say that.
Let’s face it, in the last year, hands up who has missed the daily commute? This isn’t about the daily grind, as bad as that is. Neither does it concern digital platforms that have never had a collective hub, which is how we’re meant to refer to large, open offices. They’re set up differently and to their credit the more enlightened are doing their best to try and inculcate tomorrow’s journalists with student and trainee programmes.
No, I am talking about newspapers. This announcement from Reach marks another dip in the downward path of the newspaper.
Call me old-fashioned, and Reach and others certainly will, but I refuse to budge. I can think of countless occasions when a news editor came over to my desk and murmured something or scribbled a message or asked me to look at something on the screen; when we’ve met quickly in a huddle and agreed a route forward; when someone has overheard a colleague and suggested they look at this or that. Many is the time I’ve pulled up a chair with a fellow reporter and joined forces, pooling notes, writing a piece, together. Don’t tell me any of that can be replicated via WhatsApp or Zoom.
At the centre of this wonderful, vital space is the news editor and their assistants – controlling, driving, monitoring. Everything revolves around “the desk”. It’s in everybody’s sight, constantly. By looking across you can sense the mood, know if there’s a big story breaking, pick up the vibe, feed off the energy. There is, too, the black humour, the sharp wit, the jibe that leavens even the bleakest moments.
It’s possible to be critical and say there’s no place for such behaviour, not in this age of woke. To which I would rejoinder and say it’s all too easy when you’re alone, in your spare room, to get lost in your thoughts, to let the misery pile up. Journalists deal with bad stuff, with graphic descriptions and horrible pictures. That’s not to say it’s not taken seriously, but sharing pain is better than having to cope on your own. We’re human beings, we belong together.
Having run newspapers and dealt with the other side – the non-editorial hierarchy – I know how they think. I’ve had to impart tough news to newsrooms, to relay details of cuts, of redundancies and lack of pay rises. It’s not easy, as addressing any shop floor with information it doesn’t want to hear is not easy.
But journalists are also not afraid to challenge, to ask awkward questions – that’s what they do for a living. Managements dread it, they hate having to stand there and deal with people who are articulate and quick thinkers and no respecters of status. It’s uncomfortable – which is why they make the editor do their dirty work. Reach’s leaders will be all too aware that pressing “send” to distant, invisible, scattered workers is a much more amenable experience.
Make no mistake. Something profound is being lost and we will be the poorer for it.
Chris Blackhurst is a writer, commentator and strategic communications adviser. He served as editor of the Independent from 2011 to 2013.
Picture: Telegraph/Eddie Mulholland
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