Birmingham News, Jan 17 2008

At 1:40 this afternoon, a soft hum permeated the 110,000 square feet of The Birmingham News. Editor Tom Scarritt exclaimed, “It makes it feel alive, and I like that.” His second floor newsroom is part of a grand new headquarters for the city’s morning paper, which circulates 150,000 papers daily on weekdays and 175,000 on Sundays.

The innovative design, strategically planned by management in cooperation with local firm Williams Blackstock Architects, brings light, openness, and a much greater functionality to his team. In the planning stages, they examined the work flow in great detail to arrive at a space that offers highly-efficient production of news, sports, and feature stories.

For starters, the outside of the building fits right into downtown Birmingham and looks as if it has always been there. What had really always been there (since 1917) was their previous building across the street, but that historical structure has been razed and will provide surface parking for staffers now. Local historians should be appeased though since The News opted to stay in the heart of downtown Birmingham even though many businesses have found suburban locations to be more convenient and economical. They felt it was important to remain in the heart of Birmingham where they could feel the city’s pulse.

Upon entering the front of the building, there is a beautiful glass and steel atrium that extends upward to all four above-ground floors. Each floor houses a specific work group, such as news, advertising, or production. The second floor is dedicated to news.

The old newsroom was arranged in a de facto manner. “If we had ten people, we just looked to see where we could fit them,” Scarritt explained. The desk and function arrangement was choppy, but the new open floor plan allows flexibility to arrange and re-arrange. Now, news production moves from one end to the other and then back as it cycles among assigning editors, writers, and artists. Writers and editors can be seen huddling in groups over their low workspace partitions discussing the latest top story. According to Scarritt, they still tend to do that in lieu of sending an IM or e-mail.

The new design is still working well 1½ years after occupancy. It has a very clean, uncluttered feel. It does not seem too sterile, just as if everyone is there working hard and being extra productive since papers and junk aren’t stacked everywhere.

More formal conferences are held twice daily in the main meeting room, where the first topic on the white board during this morning’s meeting was Web Content. The News has a sister company, al.com, where it feeds most of its content and creates additional web-only content. Two other large Alabama papers under the same ownership (Advance Publications) are also featured on al.com. Readers have become more involved in the news process by checking the free site throughout the day and by sounding off in one of its many forums about breaking news or other issues. Although rumors sometimes run rampant on al.com’s public forums, Scarritt assured me that The News would continue to uphold its high ethical standards as the 119 year-old organization is proud of its reputation of journalistic integrity.

Unlike just a few years ago, reporters now carry with them a few more gadgets. Digital audio recorders have replaced tape recorders, and soon reporters will be equipped with video recorders so that they can capture the type of raw footage that is currently driving up the stock of youtube.com. Even now, one might send in a camera phone picture for posting on the web. The real photographers though shoot high quality digital pictures for newspaper publication and come into the office to edit their work.

Even after spending $21 million dollars, there are a couple of things that could be a little better. There is an unfortunate bank of elevators that divides the floor; possibly these could have been situated on an outside wall instead. Another issue has been the sound that travels into the conference rooms. On the 25,000 square foot news floor, there are 145 work stations and five meeting rooms. At least one of the meeting rooms is soundproof, but most of them have no ceiling, including the one used by the editorial group. During the late afternoon time of heavy work volume, the buzz can be a little too loud. Scarritt also expects that in just a few years much of their archived material will be digitized, opening up the back corner of the floor that currently houses a library full of old microfiche cabinets.

For The Chronicle and Duke University, Scarritt recommends that students there do as much as possible to learn how to report across all platforms. He sees that as very valuable experience. He also cautions us to first figure out what we want to do, i.e. be a newspaper in the traditional sense but with expanded capabilities, or be a multimedia news organization. He was surprised to find when visiting Duke a few years back on a recruiting trip that Duke did not offer many qualified candidates, presumably because of the lack of a journalism major. I suggested that we could hook him up with the right folks next time.

Heather McCalley

January 17, 2008

I would like to express my appreciation to Publisher Victor Hanson III for arranging the time with Tom Scarritt, who very graciously showed me around in the middle of his busy day and answered all of my questions with a disarming candor and trust—EVEN THOUGH he is a Tarheel.

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