The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The newsroom was the beating heart of a local newspaper. What’s lost when the owner shuts it down?

The staff of the Capital Gazette in their Annapolis newsroom in April 2019 as it heard the news of the special Pulitzer Prize citation it won for the coverage of a shooting massacre that killed five of their colleagues. (Ulysses Muñoz/Baltimore Sun/Associated Press)

Through war, depression and every kind of turmoil the country endured over the past 100 years, the Morning Call’s newsroom was on the same downtown corner in Allentown, Pa. Until now.

Hit this year by a pandemic and an economic downturn, Tribune Publishing informed journalists at the Morning Call and four of its other newspapers last Wednesday that their newsrooms would permanently close.

“These decisions were not made lightly or hastily,” reads a memo sent to reporters for the Capital Gazette of Annapolis that promised to continue “our in-depth community coverage.” Other shuttered newsrooms include the New York Daily News, the Carroll County Times of Westminster, Md., and the Orlando Sentinel. An Aurora, Ill., bureau of the Chicago Tribune was also closed.

Like office workers across the United States, journalists have been pushed by the coronavirus to retreat from communal spaces and into remote work. Now some are confronting the very real possibility that they may never again work in a physical newsroom — a touchstone of journalism — and what that could mean for the future of their profession.

“People need to know that we’re a presence in Allentown and that we’re there to cover their communities, their school boards, their municipalities,” said Jennifer Sheehan, a features and entertainment reporter for the Morning Call. “When you don’t even have a physical location, it’s almost like you’re not there, even though you are.”

The pandemic era has forced news organizations to figure out new ways to produce high-caliber journalism, collaborating via video conferencing and messaging platforms. But in newsrooms — the original open-plan offices — reporters across disparate beats can shape one another’s ideas. Young journalists sharpen their skills by overhearing how veteran reporters conduct their interviews.

The coronavirus crisis is devastating the news industry. Many newspapers won’t survive it.

“We were just dumbstruck at the loss of the sense of camaraderie that you have in a newsroom, and the collaboration and the growth experience you can have,” said Danielle Ohl, a reporter at the Capital Gazette. “When we came in as little baby reporters, fresh out of college, we didn’t know anything, and it’s really difficult to learn if you’re not surrounded by people who can help you.”

The Capital Gazette staff settled just last year into the newsroom that is now closing, which replaced their previous office — the site of a 2018 mass shooting that left five of their colleagues dead.

The wave of physical newsroom closures coincides with a moment of reckoning in media, when journalists are grappling with issues of race. “Now more than ever, it’s important for people to be in a space where they can really have meaningful conversations about news and what they should be covering and shouldn’t be covering,” said David Boardman, a former top editor of the Seattle Times and currently Temple University’s media college dean. “That’s much more difficult to do when you’re not in a physical space together.”

Some reporters worry that losing a home base in their community could hinder their coverage of the region. A number of Capital Gazette reporters commute from Baltimore, where the cost of living is cheaper than in Annapolis. Tribune Publishing has offered to let them use a desk in the building occupied by another of its properties, the Baltimore Sun, but reporters fret that that will just cement their distance from the stories they’re covering. “It just kind of ends up feeling like honestly we’re parachuting into our own beats, which is weird,” Ohl said.

The work-from-home dynamic is somewhat different for national media organizations. Some of those journalists have relocated from New York or Washington to smaller communities that have a lower cost of living or are closer to their families. Many think it’s a positive development.

“There’s been this conversation for a long time about how do we get correspondents out into communities where they might not otherwise be,” said Ann Marie Lipinski, curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University and a former editor of the Chicago Tribune. “Why does a big newspaper have its national staff all kind of clustered on the coasts or in a handful of big cities, and what’s the hesitancy about people living elsewhere in the country?”

The pandemic has demonstrated that journalists can still produce quality work while working remotely. “There are areas of journalism that can actually be improved by letting people work where they live, as opposed to live where they work,” Lipinski continued, “and that we are going to meet people and come upon stories and deepen our understanding of things that we were otherwise blind to, living in these kind of big, urban centers.”

Heath Freeman is the hedge fund guy who says he wants to save local news. Somehow, no one’s buying it.

But the Tribune isn’t claiming that its local newsroom closures carry any journalistic benefits — only financial. It’s just the latest withering of an industry beset by shrinking ad revenue, circulation losses and a wave of hedge fund takeovers. Many financiers inclined to buy newspapers these days have ended up selling off their longtime real estate holdings, a frequent strategy of Alden Global Capital, which owns a stake in Tribune Publishing.

The Morning Call once owned its building. So did the Orlando Sentinel, which sold it after Tribune’s 2014 bankruptcy proceedings. Now they lease those same spaces from the investors who bought them. At the height of the pandemic, Tribune withheld April, May and June rent on a majority of its properties, and some landlords took the company to court, according to a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filing.

“The company is constantly evaluating its real estate needs,” Tribune spokesman Max Reinsdorf said in a statement. “As we progress through the pandemic and as needs change, we will reconsider our need for physical offices. We will keep employees informed of decisions as they are made.”

Earlier this summer, the McClatchy Company took steps to close seven of its newspaper offices across the country, including the Modesto Bee in California and the Charlotte Observer in North Carolina. The newspaper chain, set to be purchased by a hedge fund this fall, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in February, which allows it to exit real estate leases.

50 years ago, a local newspaper dominated the story of the Kent State tragedy. Could that still happen?

“This pathway has allowed us to focus our resources where it matters: on delivering essential local journalism to the communities that we serve and saving jobs,” McClatchy spokeswoman Jeanne Segal said via email.

The company expects to return to physical office spaces once it’s safe to do so, she said, but something “more flexible — where we can host visitors, gather and work together in a workspace that complements remote work,” she added.

The nostalgic power of newsrooms looms large for journalists and still forms the popular-culture image of how a newspaper is put together — in bustling places filled with harried reporters shouting on the telephone and clacking away at keyboards. In real life, the noise has been dampened in recent years by Slack, email and buyouts, but many journalists still savor the atmosphere.

“I spent many, many hours in that newsroom, and it’s kind of heartbreaking to think about it not being there anymore,” said Tim Franklin, a former top editor of the Orlando Sentinel, which is leaving downtown Orlando after 69 years. He recalls hundreds of meetings with visitors to those offices, likening it to “welcoming the community into your home. And those opportunities are not going to be the same.”

Many of the papers boasted prominent, highly visible downtown spaces, conveying the impression of “a muscular news organization that’s doing serious work in the community,” added Franklin, now senior associate dean at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. “And that’s something being lost in the move to this remote work.”