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Will there be a newsroom in the future?

The nature of our project is to try to design the “newsroom of the future.” But the other day, Leonard Witt of Kennesaw State University, started a discussion around the first, most obvious question we confronted:

“Does the newsroom of the future really need to be a brick and mortar newsroom?”

You can view the various responses, and some relevant links that got posted there. I wanted to withhold my reply until folks had their say.

Naturally, it’s not the first time I’ve heard that question since our work began last summer. Sometimes it’s said in a snide way. Other times, it’s a more thoughtful, provocative tone. When I was recruiting a venture capitalist to serve on our advisory team last summer, he said he might not be a good candidate because he didn’t think there would be a newsroom in the future.

In any case, it’s a question well worth asking.

My answer: Yes.

One could easily say I have too much invested in this project to answer “No.” Would I really spend a year researching the “ideal” newsroom and conclude one shouldn’t be built? Just lash together a few servers, deal out some laptops, and create a virtual newspaper. I’d like to think I’d have the guts to say that, if that’s where the research pointed. But it doesn’t. So I won’t.

Giving a thoughtful explanation to my answer, though, also requires me to push past my emotional attachments to newsrooms. From my days as a student journalist at The Chronicle at Duke, to my current job at the San Jose Mercury News, I have always loved being in a newsroom. More than a place with stuff, a newsroom, to me, is fundamentally about the people and the relationships and the culture that is forged there.

As, Beth Lawton of the Newspaper Association of America posted in response to the question:

“The energy and excitement around breaking news and the spirit of teamwork around news projects is hard to replicate when there’s no physical central place to share it. There’s a limit to positive-energy conveyance via exclamation points — even when you use more than one exclamation point. (!!!)”

Megan Taylor, a senior at the University of Florida, replied by pointing to previous posts she’d done on her blog about her attempts to think through an entirely virtual newsroom:

“I had a long conversation with a friend yesterday about virtual vs. meatspace communication. He argues that assuming time spent communicating and familiarity with the technology, there is no difference. I argued that there is something to face-to-face communication that can’t be replicated online.”

I can’t agree more with her view. There is an intangible spark that comes from meeting someone in person that all the technology in the world simply can not replace. Not Second Life. Not IM. Yes, mobile and virtual technologies can enhance, expand and deepen the work of journalists. But that still doesn’t substitute the value of being in the same room.

But don’t take my word for it. Come visit me in Silicon Valley, the place that proves my point. The valley has done more than its share to create many of the technologies that make it easier than ever to work and connect remotely. And many of the ingredients that contribute to the valley’s start-up culture can be found elsewhere: Seattle, Boston, New York, Raleigh-Durham. Strong engineering programs at universities. Venture capital. You don’t have to be in the valley to start a tech company any more.

So why do so many people who want to start companies still come here? Why do venture capitalists often insist their companies re-locate here? Research I was doing for the Mercury News made it clear that being in Silicon Valley still mattered for these folks. A number of VCs told us that it was critical for them to be in the same room as often as possible with the people who ran their companies. And entrepreneurs told us that the ability to network — attending parties, random meetings in Fry’s Electronics, and non-stop networking events — were critical to their success.

In clarifying his original question, Witt later posted:

“I guess my greater question is how much of the newsroom will be virtual and how much physical space? Other than to socialize, why would I need a physical space?”

I think the answer is that it’s important to create physical spaces for specific kinds of work. But we’ve heard repeatedly that just as important are the social spaces, the places where casual conversations occur, where ideas are generated, and where an organization’s culture gets created.

For the newsroom of the future, then, to remain relevant, to continue to adapt, to become a place of innovation, there needs to be more human interaction. Not less. There needs to be different kinds of spaces. And there needs to be different kinds of people who will bring new perspectives and ignite new and better conversations.


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