In an excellent piece on increasingly empty newsrooms, the great Maureen Dowd of the New York Times bemoaned what’s no longer: the Bloody Mary’s at dawn at Tune In on Capitol Hill after working the graveyard shift at the Washington Star, the powerful scent of tobacco as writers tapped away on typewriters, the alcohol once again, but arguably most important of all, the learning. Dowd quotes former Times colleague Mark Leibovich as saying that “the best journalism school is overhearing journalists doing their jobs.”
Dowd puts it so well about the gritty glamour of old, and how it’s been replaced by the proverbial kitchen table. How will people learn to be journalists without office osmosis?
Up front, there’s no real disagreement with Dowd. There’s a reason so many successful businesses have headquarters: culture matters. Goldman Sachs spends a fortune on office space because it wants to mold “culture carriers” who will carry the spirit of the firm forward. The late Steve Jobs designed an all-new headquarters for Apple to foster random meet-ups of creative minds. Why not newsrooms?
At the same time, a case can be made that Dowd overstates hers, and by extension the value of the newsroom. While packed newsrooms as idea incubators are surely compelling, how do they compare to Twitter whereby journalists have access to the thoughts not just of live minds in a newsroom, but live minds everywhere?
Dowd cites “shifting economics and the digital revolution” as major factors in the decline of the newsroom, but those same factors arguably have journalists more informed and more up to date on what’s happening than ever before. In other words, newsrooms used to be essential precisely because access to essential information was so difficult to attain without them.
Dowd cites New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer’s lament that e-mail interviews have replaced hectoring phone interviews, and the former have robbed reporting of “spontaneous, unexpected, injudicious, and entertaining quotes.” Here Mayer perhaps doth protest too much. Indeed, how many comments made to her off the record over the years have found their way into her reports on the record? What about for other reporters? The spontaneity is arguably gone because those interviewed were tired of attribution when it wasn’t offered, and mis-quotes or mis-characterizations when it was.
Glamorous as it all sounds in retrospect, perhaps a major reason for the disappearance of newsrooms and phone interviews is that modern technology has greatly improved the quality of both. Just a thought, while at the same time agreeing with Dowd that the newspapers of old (my book collection has more than a few memoirs of the Ben Bradlee, Robert Novak, and Katherine Graham variety) sounded like a lot of fun.
Which brings on a plea. Toward the end of her column, Dowd asks why twenty-somethings would want to work from home. Dowd writes that in her twenties, she “would have had a hard time finding mentors or friends or boyfriends if I hadn’t been in the newsroom.” The boyfriends comment stands out. And maybe calls for action from Dowd’s side of the ideological divide. In the past more than a few met mates at work. The view here is that this was a good thing (including senior workers dating younger employees), and surely much better than the bar & Bumble culture of today. Think about it.
Bars favor the man who is good at “hitting on” females, while offices allow the quieter types to gradually reveal themselves (and their work skills) to those with whom they have much in common. Compare this to the present where in an attempt to protect women, many organizations have banned interoffice dating. This just forces women into bars, or onto the internet where they can be "swiped." Let’s refer to the latter as a technological pat on the bottom, and a highly demeaning one at that.
The thing is that since members of the right are correctly or incorrectly seen as misogynistic, it’s not their place to go to China on this. Members of the left can, however, and in particular New York Times columnists can. Dowd begins her column with an expressed desire to not make it about “how things used to be better.” The bet here is that journalism is better despite the vanishing newsroom, but that dating likely isn’t. How could that which reduces women to a swipe or sent drink be an improvement?